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A key to newsroom diversity: Talk

By Andy Alexander

Late last week, as word got out that I was writing Sunday’s ombudsman column about the challenges of expanding newsroom diversity, a number of minority staff members contacted me to offer their views. Many dealt with hiring patterns and the ratio of minorities to non-minorities in the newsroom. But Post staff writer Theola Labbe-DeBose sent me an e-mail making the point that the issue goes beyond numbers and percentages.

“Diversity is about numbers,” she acknowledged, “but on the social level of how we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, it’s really about feelings” and perceptions. To narrow what she terms a “diversity gap,” Labbe-DeBose said it’s first necessary to acknowledge that differences exist over what is an acceptable level of diversity in the newsroom. Journalists of color account for 24 percent of The Post’s newsroom, which many minority staffers view as woefully inadequate. At the same time, many among the 76 percent white majority view it as acceptable, especially given the fact that Post diversity is comfortably higher than industry norms. “When you can close that perception gap,” Labbe-DeBose wrote, “that’s when you have created an environment that’s more widely considered to be diverse.”

But how?

Many years as a newsroom manager taught me to never underestimate the divide of perceptions between whites and non-whites. I recall a decades-old industry study of attitudes about newsroom employment. Among journalists of color who were surveyed, an extraordinarily high percentage felt whites were consistently given preference in hiring and promotion. The feelings among whites were almost exactly the opposite, with an equally high percentage convinced that minorities were given preference simply because they were of color.

With a “diversity gap” this large, it’s difficult to know where to begin. But newsroom managers can start with something simple and free: Talk. They can hold one-on-one conversations, preferably outside the newsroom in an informal setting, where race and ethnicity are more likely to be discussed in a way that is open, direct and genuine. Or, managers might consider a series of brown-bag staff lunches where non-journalist representatives of different racial and ethnic groups in the community -- African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Christians -- talk about how they are portrayed in The Post. Do they believe they have been stereotyped? In what ways is The Post’s coverage of them inaccurate or unfair? What types of stories could The Post provide that would appeal to readers of their particular audience?

These types of casual discussions inevitably are informative and expand awareness. They help reduce misconceptions and can foster an environment in which racial and cultural differences can be discussed openly. The result is more honest dialogue in the newsroom, which leads to coverage that is more sophisticated and, ultimately, more accurate.

My Sunday column quoted from an April 2008 memo to The Post’s top editors from Milton Coleman, then a deputy managing editor. Coleman, who is African American, warned that The Post’s newsroom needed more diversity if it was to remain attuned to the exploding minority populations in The Post’s circulation area. But he also said editors needed to do more to make minorities want to remain with The Post.

He wrote: “There has been for years a staggering turnover rate among minority journalists in our newsroom, especially blacks and Hispanics, and this churn has been a major factor holding back our progress.”

Some minority staffers have told me they have considered leaving The Post because they feel that white assignment editors too often won’t embrace their story ideas. They believe the reason often is that the white editors simply don’t buy into the coverage idea because it’s on a topic that isn’t familiar to them or is uncomfortably outside their cultural environment.

Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who now is a diversity consultant to the American Society of News Editors (disclosure: I sit on its board), said it’s a problem in newsrooms. Frustration often builds among minority staffers “because they don’t think anyone listens to them” when they propose story ideas or new areas of coverage. In rejecting these ideas, she said, assigning editors often are saying to themselves: “This hasn’t happened to me, so it isn’t ‘news.’” The remedy, she said, is for editors to think outside their cultural comfort zone and be more willing to “accept other people’s definition of news.”

That becomes easier as newsroom diversity grows and minorities move into supervisory positions where they can shape news coverage. But in the current financial climate, when the Post is still struggling to return to annual profitability, expanding diversity is an extra challenge because staffing levels are being further trimmed.

All the more reason to expand newsroom conversation around the issue. Talk is cheap, but critically important.

By Andy Alexander  | March 29, 2010; 3:53 PM ET
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While you touched on the core problem in your column, you hit it here in this post.

The real key is assigning stories. First, that requires a commitment to cover the underclass, which requires a judgement as to what is news, instead of the Post's focus on the ruling elites' arguements.

Such a decision would open The Post to charges that it has a liberal agenda.

I disagree with Ms. Bowman that you have to look like the people you're covering. It certainly would break the ice a bit, but any good reporter willing to invest the time can report.

In either case, are Post editors willing to make that investment?

Posted by: bob16 | March 29, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

You guys still dont get it. Your subscribers (I was one for 40+ years) are leaving in droves (like I did) due to your lack of diversity in thought, not in race and/or gender. 40% of this country identify themselves as conservative, while 21% consider themselves to be liberal. Yet probably 75% of your news stories and maybe 90% of your opinions have an obvious liberal bias in how they are worded and reported. You mentioned wanting to add more editors of color, but how many of your editors are self identified republicans or conservatives? And where is the call to hire more of them? I want to make up my own mind on issues, which means getting both sides of the story and drawing my own conclusions. Why bother reading the Post when I can get that same slant from virtually every other mainstream media outlet. Ask yourselves why Fox has become the #1 new outlet in just 10 years? After your arrogant chuckling at the mere mention of their name, give it some serious reflection. Maybe it's because they provide what the majority of people want, which is another side to the stories. When (if?) the Post ever decides to become truly diverse, then I'll consider re-subscribing. Until then, many thousands of people like myself will look to other news outlets to provide the balance we seek in our news.

Posted by: xfire1 | March 29, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

@ xfire -

You're right. The WaPo's increasingly frequent shots at Fox News in general and Glenn Beck in particular will only get worse from now until November. The MSM can't stand that there is a source for news other than the full Lewinsky the MSM gives Obama and the dems.

Its Palin Derangement Syndrome will also escalate during the next seven months.

So, let the WaPo putz around with "diversity." Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | March 29, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

The diversity needed is not racial or ethnic, but world view on issues.

From my world view, I would point out the one-sidedness on guns. In both the news stories and the editorial page, there is a sameness of prespective that appears to be a total disconnect with world outside the Beltway.

For example, Christian Davenport did a great article on the system that Fenty/Mendelson/Nickles developed to harass law-abiding gun owners, but it was never followed up by articles covering similar legal situations in Virgina, Maryland, and other nearby states, or in cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, or Houston. There has been no follow beyond his story about Tom Palmer.

And the Editorial Board continues to write pieces that reflect the same kind of disconnect from reality on the issue.

The current staff can easily come up with similar situations for issues they think are not being handled fairly.

I was excited about the contest last year to find the next great pundit, but was disgusted by how the selection was handled.

The minority staffers have a point, but it is not racial or ethnic, but world view. I have the same attitude about things, and I am not a minority in that sense.

Posted by: GHF_LRLTD | March 30, 2010 5:24 AM | Report abuse

You may as well turn the WaPo keys over to rainbow homosexuals, liberal black people, illegal immigrants, with maybe 10% devoted to affirmative action for liberal, white people. Just think how "progressive" the WaPo would be then. Besides WaPo is trending that way anyhow.

Just do it and get it over with.

Posted by: battleground51 | March 30, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

What I still don't get is why black/white is a legitimate diversity goal to target; while increasing the number of (religiously) conservative Christians while decreasing the over-representation of Jews is not. The cultural perceptions of those two groups can be just as significant as the black/white divide.

Posted by: WmarkW | March 30, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate the concerns raised by minority staffers who think white editors have unfairly dismissed their story ideas. Cultural biases may very well come into play in that situation and those need to be addressed. But, again, this over-focus on numbers does nothing to help real diversity. Such thinking trains hiring editors (white ones, especially) to see two kinds of applicants: 1. talented journalists who belong in their newsrooms because of proven skills (race a neutral issue in that decision) and 2. journalists whose talent level takes a slight back seat to the real reason why they're being hired -- to up diversity counts. Of course, Category 1 will have more sway in the newsroom, making some minority journalists (the ones hired BECAUSE they're minorities) feel marginalized. The best way to fix this problem is if newspapers eliminated Category 2 and hired everyone -- of every race -- based on skill alone.

Posted by: christiesmythe | March 30, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Diversity is much more than about color. It's about diversity of thinking. That's something the newspaper business has never understood and it's in large part reason so many people have canceled their subscriptions. Instead of just including blacks, Latinos, gays, etc., in your definition of diverse voices, why not include born-again Christians, Mormons, anti-abortionists, and others whose voices are never seen in the pages of the Post?

Posted by: MadrugadaMistral | March 30, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

What ever happened to talent as a measure of the capabilities of an employee?

Posted by: Crmudgeon | March 30, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Crmudgeon asks an interesting question-- what about talent. Apparently the Post has replaced talent with demographics.

Posted by: confused1 | March 30, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Writers must be of certain demographics and so, apparently, must their supervisors!!
Things are getting out of hand.

Posted by: confused1 | March 30, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I have been a reader for many years and I enjoy both the liberal and conservative perspectives in the Post. As an alternative view of the matter please consider that the Post is valuable as a source because it has yet to succumbed to an argument that it should eschew excellence in order to pander to idealistic concepts which were right in thier time but by thier success become outgrown.

Posted by: almorganiv | March 30, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for not trying to hide your contempt for conservative readers, AA.

Many comments on the previous article reasonably made the case that diversity of thought (i.e., increasing the conservative-leaning reporters vs liberals for true balance of view) trumps diversity of skin color.

You don't even MENTION those arguments, opting to ignore the conservatives as usual.

Unfortunately for you, when you ignore conservatives, they DO go away, taking their subscriptions too.

Good luck focusing on liberals instead of presenting all sides of an issue. It hasn't worked for Time or Newsweek, but maybe it will for WaPo.

Posted by: DUCKofD3ATH | March 30, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Sheesh. Ordinarily, I like to make fun of the Ombuddy, but all this resentful whinging from the poor widdle pee pottiers makes me feel bad for him.

Posted by: hellslittlestangel1 | March 31, 2010 1:47 AM | Report abuse

Why do I have the distinct feeling that Alexander still just does not get it? He still does not seem to understand the difference between measuring "diversity" by the relative number of minorities in certain group and measuring it by how the minorities in that group are treated. The numbers standard leaves most of us cold and seems nothing but flagrant reverse discrimination.

I mean, did I really read "Journalists of color account for 24 percent of The Post’s newsroom, which many minority staffers view as woefully inadequate." The Post has a proportion of minorities more than 10 percent higher than the proportion of blacks in America--and that's inadequate? Where did minorities acquire this gigantic sense of entitlement?

The real problem here--which Mr. Alexander obscures by his fascination with numbers--is that minorities feel their opinions are slighted by their bosses. That core problem will not be corrected by simply hiring more minority members.

Turning to the big picture, is Alexander and former deputy managing editor Coleman truly blind to the import of Coleman's warning that "The Post’s newsroom needed more diversity if it was to remain attuned to the exploding minority populations in The Post’s circulation area." So, only blacks can understand blacks. Meaning, of course, that only whites can understand whites. Meaning, segregation was the right way to go. Meaning, for example, that only black psychiatrists can treat blacks, and only white psychiatrists can treat whites. And so on, for all aspects of life.

When, exactly, did the Post managers and editors decide that equality was a myth?

Posted by: tbarksdl | March 31, 2010 6:03 AM | Report abuse

The fact is that non-whites in the news room will not be satisfied with any ratio that has whites occupying 50% or more. "Diversity" is a code word for hatred of whites, plain and simple.

Posted by: azumaguy | March 31, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

The Post could also increase diversity by replacing the right-wing hack opinion writers with folks who: (a) are actually talented and (b) are not just apologists for the torture and endless war that Bush and the Republicans brought us.

For example, how the heck do the following people have jobs at what used to be a good newspaper?

Marc Thiessen

Michael Gerson

Robert Kagan

Charles Krauthammer

William Kristol

Kathleen Parker

George Will

Posted by: ShannoF | April 2, 2010 6:00 AM | Report abuse

Ah, so according to ShannoF, the "diversity" of the Post would be "increased" by dumping 7 conservative syndicated columnists (as opposed to scores of liberal/left staff editors and writers) and thereby make the paper a COMPLETE liberal hack rag. Brilliant!! Then the Post would lose the last of its' conservative readers and be read by only the coffee house elites and fomenting lefty groups like Code Pink and ANSWR for a few weeks before it goes out of business completely. With the few exceptions of these 7 columnists, the Post has become a homogenous uni-thought newspaper for, by and about liberals - with a slight peppering of adult (conservative) columns to give the thin veneer of quasi-respectabilty. And you people wring your dainty hands about diversity of skin color in the newsroom instead of diversity of thought?? Your rainbow of politically correct diversity will make all of you libs feel better about yourselves, but you are merely replacing the black and white deck chairs on your Titanic with colorfully upholstered ones as the ship founders. How rich. How sad. How frightening. Man the lifeboats.

Posted by: Natstoyou | April 2, 2010 6:55 AM | Report abuse

Natstoyou - The Washington Post is a "liberal" newspaper??? You seem to have forgotten that April Fool's Day was yesterday, not today.

The Post regularly cheerleads for war and torture, continues to employ an opinion writer (George Will) who regularly lies about climate change issues, favorably covers the teabaggers and Sarah Palin as if they are legitimate political entities rather than uninformed hypocrites, provides constant coverage of John Edwards' sex scandal while virtually ignoring the scandals of sitting Republican Senators like John Ensign and David Vitter, and led the phony charge against ACORN while essentially ignoring the corruption of Bush's Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

If the Post is a "liberal" newspaper, I'd hate to see what you would consider a sufficiently conservative one.

Leaving that aside, my point was not that the Post should fire their stable of conservative columnists and replace them with liberals. Instead, they should fire the rightwing hacks I identified and replace them with folks of any political stripe who provide thoughtful, reasoned, reality-based commentary, rather than the mindless drivel presented by people like Marc Thiessen.

Posted by: ShannoF | April 2, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

Xfire, if you think 90 percent of the Post's opinion pieces are liberal, you have a serious reading comprehension problem.

Posted by: usemark1 | April 3, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

"Journalists of color account for 24 percent of The Post’s newsroom, which many minority staffers view as woefully inadequate. At the same time, many among the 76 percent white majority view it as acceptable..."

How can 24 percent possibly be inadequate? That sounds incredibly high to me. Are there stats available as to the minority percentage of college journalism majors?

While you don't necessarily need a journalism degree to be a good reporter, the percentage of minorities with this degree would be a good indicator of interest. Every journalism class I've ever seen has been overwhelmingly white. If minorities aren't well represented in the training pool, it's tough to do much better in the newsroom.

Posted by: cpnich | April 3, 2010 1:20 PM | Report abuse

Diversity? You should have a diversity of OPINION when it counts the most, around election time.

The WP has been a shameful part of this bias.

This is what long time ethical writer, jounalist and contributor to ABC, Michael Malone, said about his own profession during the election...
"The traditional media are playing a very, very dangerous game -- with their readers, with the Constitution and with their own fates.
The media have covered this presidential campaign with a bias and that ultimately could lead to its downfall.
The sheer bias in the print and television coverage of this election campaign is not just bewildering, but appalling. And over the last few months I've found myself slowly moving from shaking my head at the obvious one-sided reporting, to actually shouting at the screen of my television and my laptop computer.
But worst of all, for the last couple weeks, I've begun -- for the first time in my adult life -- to be embarrassed to admit what I do for a living. A few days ago, when asked by a new acquaintance what I did for a living, I replied that I was "a writer," because I couldn't bring myself to admit to a stranger that I'm a journalist.
You need to understand how painful this is for me. I am one of those people who truly bleeds ink when I'm cut. I am a fourth-generation newspaperman. As family history tells it, my great-grandfather was a newspaper editor in Abilene, Kan., during the last of the cowboy days, then moved to Oregon to help start the Oregon Journal (now the Oregonian)"

Posted by: mikeglossy | April 5, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

No respect for the past can hold us back and race can't hold us back. When the trimming and cuts come it's all about green. An organization can grow larger and more profitable with far less people. It's not personal, it's just business. Show me a woman and I'll show her a pink slip. She's seeing green. Fire is orange and we have money to burn now.

Posted by: tossnokia | April 5, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

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