What's the problem when everyone sees things the same way? It's a positive if a group looks and thinks the same, sharing the same values, education, ideals, experiences...right? Right???
No. It doesn't.
Divergent social, economic and ethnic backgrounds bring those views to newsroom discussions and onto the page, (hopefully) injecting life and vital viewpoints to stories. Making sure everyone has a voice, and that it sings true. Personal experience and history gives credibility to publications, and it prevents screw ups.
Case in point, the recent Grantland oopsie, which pundit Jay Rosen wrote about this week as a prime example of the problem of when newsrooms are full of journo clones. More than half a dozen carbon copies didn't see anything wrong with a piece that began with a focus on a sports entrepreneur before quickly descending into Jerry Springer-ish territory when the author realized the she protagonist was in fact a he. The piece ended up exposing a subject whose sexuality had nothing to do with the story. And she explicitly asked the writer not to include any personal information about her in the piece. He did anyway. Excessively. The Internet cried "shame" and Grantland's top dog Bill Simmmons ended up penning an apology. All well and good, huh? Maybe. Until it happens again.
The root problem here is representation. Or lack thereof. America isn't one color—it isn't dominated by one gender, one religion or one sexual preference. So why should newsrooms, where about 90% of high level staff are white, and only about 12% are minorities?
The percentage of minorities in news altogether has dropped almost 6% according to last year's 2012 ASNE study, while the minority population here in the U.S. has reached an all time high. If you ask media execs why that's not reflected with hiring, you'll hear excuses about the economic panic and changing business models. But that's all crap. This doesn't excuse the problem: A newsroom lack of fair representation of the population leads to poorer journalism. Period.
"It’s about better coverage. It’s not just a conversation about [what the newsroom] lacks,” Dori Maynard said in a recent Columbia Journalism Review interview with Jennifer Vanasco. Maynard heads the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a think tank working to improve and heighten diversity awareness. Right now she's working on putting together a report on organizations that are succeeding through diversity, a document that would help push this discussion forward.
Years ago, the Jayson Blair scandal caused some to say diversity can cause problems when people are hired based on ethnicity, and to fill quotas, not based on whether or not they're the best person for the job. In a way that's true. The goal shouldn't be to award someone a job based on what they look like or what societal element they represent. It's not about having token hires, which must then assume the impossible role of representing that group's entire view and explaining it to an otherwise homogenous newsrooms.
The goal should be to hire based on performance, but to want that hiring to reflect the population and audience you're covering. It can be a tight rope walk for hiring managers, but it must be improved. Readers aren't one flavor. Step outside and down the street. We need our newsrooms to reflect the mix you see. We're a society obsessed with race, ethnicity, politics and sexuality. Budgets are limiting, and we can make excuses all day, but shouldn't we want to make sure the people we work with and hire look, feel and act like the real America? I do.
Join me this Tuesday, January 28 at 8 EST to talk this out. See you then.