Wednesday, July 28, 2010

JournoList's -- and Journalism's -- Diversity Problem


(Chip Bok)

The accusations over the now-defunct off-the-record email list of left-leaning journalists known as JournoList, started by my former colleague Ezra Klein, have become increasingly bizarre. First, an anonymous sender leaked emails from my pal Dave Weigel that eventually caused the Washington Post to ask for his resignation. (Weigel yesterday landed a gig at the Washington Post Company-owned Slate.) Then the Daily Caller ran a weird series of vaguely accusatory stories that seemed to be reaching for some kind of vast left-wing media conspiracy (and not quite getting there). Now, other more radically right “news” outlets have decided to make a point dripping in anti-Semitism: “What’s also disturbing for me about the Journolist is the fact that so many of its members have Jewish names.” [Disclosure: I was a member of JournoList since its inception in 2007.]

I’m not going to bother dismantling this “argument” because Jesse Taylor over at Pandagon has already done that. The idea that Jews are running some kind of left-wing liberal conspiracy is such a crackpot accusation from the right that most left-leaning journalists I know make jokes about the Jews controlling the media. But even if the accusation is crackpot, there is a lesson to be gleaned from this group of influential left leaning journalists that partook in an off-the-record email list: The list of members who have publicly admitted their participation that has been cobbled together by Mark Levin on Facebook is overwhelmingly white and heavily male. If I had access to income of families, I’d also guess it’d tip toward the higher end of the spectrum (even though most journalists make poverty’s wages).

The fact that journalism is homogeneous — even leftist journalism that tends to actually care about this — isn’t an original observation. It is one worth making again.

After all, even though women make up the majority of journalism majors (and have since 1977), they make up only 34 percent of newsroom supervisors and 24 percent of television stations. Granted, the nature of media is changing to be less newsroom-focused, but the new brand of news is nowhere near reaching gender parity. Sara Libby pointed out that after the Washington Post named “America’s Next Great Pundit,” yet another “white guy,” and wondered why punditry never seems to include women, let alone women of color. (If anyone has access to a good study on LGBT journalists, I’d love to see it.)

Additionally, the number of reporters of color is staying stagnant or declining. A 2008 survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors showed that while the number of Asian American reporters had increased, the number of black reporters had actually declined. Latinos and Native American reporters made modest increases. Furthermore, the survey found that diversity among interns, who tend to be the pipeline for future jobs, had also decreased.

The Daily Beast’s Dana Goldstein (another friend of mine and former Campus Progress associate editor), once looked at a study from the UK [PDF], that found the journalists grew up in families with incomes some 42 percent above the average family income in the UK. This, Goldtein said, is journalism’s “elitism problem.”

To its credit, JournoList had many threads worrying over this very lack of diversity. There were long threads that debated the diversity of the list itself in addition to the diversity of government, media, and the blogosphere more generally. Still, on Levin’s published list of 65 self-admitted JournoList members, only ten are women. Far fewer are people of color.

Ultimately, achieving diversity is difficult. When hiring, folks tend to look to people that are like them, that come from their own networks and backgrounds. Finding and recruiting talented writers, reporters, and editors from different races and economic backgrounds takes more work. Assigning pieces to achieve gender parity in bylines takes recruiting and careful assigning, especially because men and women tend to pitch differently.

Of course, there is hope: Young people are a more diverse generation than ever. During my work at Campus Progress, we’ve gone to great lengths to recruit a diverse group of young people both in the publications that we support and the cadre of staff writers we work with to publish on our site. We could be doing better — cultivating a diverse group of writers, editors, and reporters isn’t a one-time thing but rather a constant work in progress. There have also been recent success stories of opinion makers becoming more diverse: Ta-Nehisi Coates is now one of the prestigious Atlantic bloggers and one of the most popular hosts on MSNBC is Rachel Maddow.

The point about “Jewish names” isn’t worth addressing, but it is worth noting that this group of well-connected and prominent media professionals is homogeneous in a lot of ways (even if the diversity of opinion often created rousing debate). We’re often told journalism is in a state of crisis, but the real crisis is one of creating a diverse group of reporters and pundits who can more accurately reflect the America in which they live.

Cross posted.


Emily said...

Kay, THANK YOU for saying this. It is by far the most productive and most accurate criticism anyone could make on the basis of the JournoList leaks, and I'm so glad that someone has said it, and that you're willing to draw broader lessons from this fiasco beyond "right-wing conspiracies are ridiculous."

LGBT journalists: my experience has been that, like women journalists who tend to cover women's issues or write for women's/feminist publications, LGBT journalists tend to be sequestered in the LGBT media. When I was a CP intern and went to the Hill to cover Barney Frank's press conference re-introducing ENDA in the House: with the exception of myself and I think maybe one WaPo reporter, everyone there was from the queer press. And I was certainly the only woman in the room wearing a men's dress shirt who wasn't representing an LGBT publication. Maddow is, I think, an astonishingly rare exception to the rule that gay journalists write for the gay press. I can think of a few others, like Jonathan Capehart, but it's not exactly common.

Kay Steiger said...

Emily, thanks right back for your praise! I have often found that women do get stuck covering women's issues -- exactly your complaint about LGBT reporters. It's a tension that often catches female reporters between a rock and a hard place (as I'm sure it does with LGBT reporters): Do they stop covering the issues they see as important to "integrate" more with mainstream media? Or do they restrict themselves to women's issues, LGBT issues, or race issues. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to choose.

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