American newsrooms still lack racial diversity

The Long Island Advocate
21 min readAug 18, 2020


By Khristal Depina

Editor’s note: The following is a multimedia graduate capstone project. All Hofstra Herbert School of Communication graduate students must complete such a project.

Nearly 52 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to study the causes of “race riots” in cities across America. The 1968 report warned that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Notably, the report criticized the media for failing to cover race and politics adequately.

“The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring and promoting Negroes,” the commission found. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”

In 1979, the American Society of News Editors pledged that by the year 2000, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in newsrooms would match that of the population, but many newsrooms have missed that mark.

A 2018 Columbia Journalism Review Report by Gabriel Arana found that minorities comprise nearly 40 percent of the U.S population, yet they make up less than 17 percent of newsroom staff at print and online outlets.

The numbers come from ASNE’s 2019 Diversity Survey, BuzzFeed’s 2019 Update on Diversity Report, The New York Times Diversity and Inclusion Report and NPR’s public editor.

Arana also found that minorities account for just 13 percent of newsroom leadership.

Despite being based in majority-minority cities, both CNN in Atlanta and The New York Times in Manhattan were criticized by racial advocacy organizations in March and November of 2019, respectively, for lack of diversity. Since then, both have made critical changes.

CNN was singled out first by the National Association of Black Journalists, an organization that advocates on behalf of Black journalists worldwide, for its lack of diversity at the leadership level. Months later, the Native American Journalists Association, an organization that serves Native American journalists, criticized The New York Times for what it deemed harmful and stereotypical coverage of indigenous communities.

BuzzFeed’s leadership, meanwhile, did not wait for protesters to take the outlet to task, but instead fostered diversity from the start. In 2015, it was awarded a Best Practices Award by NABJ for its diverse hiring practices and a newsroom with 40 percent people of color. Of those journalists, 27 percent hold leadership positions. This report will examine the three organizations and their progress toward diversity.

After the Kerner Commission report, some outlets began hiring people of color, but there was no focus on retaining them.

The loss of classified advertising and the rise of the internet have also made any progress toward diversity difficult, and survival has become the top priority for most news organizations, said Richard Prince, a columnist on diversity issues in the news industry and founder of since 2002, in a recent phone interview with this reporter.

Journalism remains among the least diverse occupations in the United States, with three-quarters of newsroom employees being non-Hispanic white, according to a Pew Research 2020 Fact Tank Report.


Ultimately, the lack of diversity in leadership is a contributing factor to the problem. CNN’s executive leadership was not especially diverse, which is why NABJ targeted its organizational structure.

This is not the first time that NABJ criticized CNN for its lack of diversity. In June 2011, former NABJ president Kathy Times wrote an open letter discussing the lack of diversity in network news, including CNN.

At the time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also criticized CNN for its lack of Black talent on the network after it failed to fill a void when former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer departed as host of two prime-time shows.

NABJ released a statement criticizing CNN for often passing over qualified African-American journalists for prime-time positions.

In 2012, NABJ awarded CNN the 2011 Thumbs Down Award for failing to assign African-Americans to prime-time on-air roles.

In October 2014, CNN withdrew its support from NABJ’s 2015 Convention and Career Fair. This news came a week after NABJ voiced its concerns about the atmosphere for African-Americans at CNN.

According to NABJ, in the past few years, several African-Americans have resigned, been laid off or been terminated from CNN.

NABJ also expressed its concern over a number of African-American anchors leaving their desks or CNN altogether, including Soledad O’Brien and TJ Holmes.

The issue between NABJ and CNN continued in March of 2016 after an incident took place at a town hall where Roland Martin, NABJ vice president-digital, partnered with CNN.

At the time, Martin was a co-host with CNN’s Jake Tapper for the 2016 Democratic Town Hall featuring Democratic candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. According to a Politico report, on the day of the town hall, Martin sent an email to CNN producers with three proposed questions, one of which dealt with the death penalty. Typically, proposed town hall questions are kept confidential for fear of leaks.

An email obtained by Politico showed Martin using language that was identical to a question that former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile sent in an email to the Clinton campaign a day earlier.

According to Politico, Brazile wrote: “From time to time I get the questions in advance,” in the subject line of the email.

CNN then accused Martin of deliberately leaking information to Brazile. According to Politico, Martin denied that he consulted with Brazile ahead of the town hall. Brazile also denied that she received questions in advance or shared them with the campaign.

In a 2017 Time Essay, Brazile admitted that she accidentally disclosed the topic to the Clinton campaign in an email. She also blamed a Russian hack on the Democratic National Committee for making it appear that she favored Clinton.

In 2019, NABJ once again criticized CNN for lack of diversity.

According to a National News Publishers Association’s newswire by correspondent Stacy Brown, NABJ, CNN and then CNN president Jeff Zucker were scheduled to meet on Jan. 22 to discuss diversity and Black representation within the ranks of CNN’s executive news managers. However, after five months of preparation, CNN canceled hours before the scheduled meeting.

Two weeks before the meeting, former NABJ president Sarah Glover and NABJ Executive Director Drew Berry were on a conference call with a CNN official who informed them that Martin would not be welcomed at the meeting, reported Brown.

For three months, NABJ’s four-person delegation continued to face pushback in its attempts to meet with Zucker to discuss hiring practices at CNN.

“Unfortunately, the significant and reckless damage that Roland Martin did to CNN while partnering with us during a 2016 Democratic Town Hall has made any meeting that includes him untenable,” said a CNN spokesperson in a 2019 statement.

In a statement released on March 5, 2019, NABJ disclosed that its preliminary research found that CNN had no Black employees in leadership positions, such as news executive producers, news senior vice presidents and news vice presidents. It also found that Zucker had no Black direct reports.

After Zucker continued to refuse to meet with NABJ’s four-person delegation, NABJ placed CNN on a special monitoring list in March 2019.

NABJ also called for a civil rights audit by CNN’s parent company AT&T to examine CNN’s hiring, promotion, compensation practices, especially when it came to Black employees.

“I think you have to do that sometimes,” said Richard McCollough, president of the Rochester Association of Black Journalists in Rochester, N.Y., in a recent phone interview with this reporter. “It’s something that has to be instituted.”

According to NABJ, CNN denied the findings, but when asked to provide NABJ with the names of individuals involved on the editorial side of news, CNN did not follow through.

Instantly, this push to diversify CNN’s leadership gained widespread attention from national organizations, such as the Congressional Black Caucus, NAACP, Color of Change, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and Delta Sigma Theta, which all joined NABJ’s call for more diversity at CNN.

Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, was one of several organizations to first rally behind NABJ. “When there’s more of us in the room fighting for our stories to be told, and raising awareness about the issues impacting our communities, we have an even better chance of creating change and ending the practices that unfairly hold us back,” the organization tweeted.

That same month, Color of Change released a petition to push for a civil rights audit at CNN.

Also sharing their voice on Twitter in support of NABJ’s push to diversify CNN was civil rights and political figure the Rev. Jessie Jackson Jr., the National Newspaper Publishers Association and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat of Massachusetts.

Pressley took to Twitter immediately after NABJ released its preliminary findings on CNN. “The people of this country depend on our news organizations to deliver unbiased and fair reporting. That is impossible without equal representation. I stand behind @NABJ’s investigation into the lack of diversity within CNN’s leadership,” she tweeted.

“It’s a responsibility to our communities to be in the room, to have a voice, to make sure that things are being done in the correct manner,” said Christina Carrega, vice president of broadcast at the New York Association of Black Journalists, in a recent phone interview with this reporter.

“To be accurate, you need to have people from that community contributing to the news coverage and the decision making,” said Prince, the columnist, who often writes about diversity issues in the news industry.

The lack of diversity in leadership positions can affect how stories are told.

“In higher decision-making roles, [it] leads to a news report that excludes whole swaths of communities and has a tenure and tone that generally deflects to white,” said Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of external affairs and funding at the Maynard Institute, in a recent phone interview with this reporter. “So, if you’re not explicit about being inclusive, it defaults to the white perspective, the white gaze.”

In June 2019, more than 100 days after NABJ challenged CNN’s lack of diverse leadership, its parent company, WarnerMedia, promoted Johnita Due, a Black woman, to senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer of its sports and news division.

Zucker announced that Due would report to him as a member of his executive team, bringing its numbers to 93 percent white and 7 percent people of color.

After Due’s promotion, NABJ released a statement congratulating her and saying that this was a step in the right direction for CNN. However, the organization also pointed out that despite her promotion, there were still no Black employees who held leadership positions that would oversee the daily coverage of news.

NABJ also reissued its request to meet with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, but did not receive a response.

CNN continued to announce promotions amid months of pressure from NABJ.

In June, CNN promoted Marcus Mabry to vice president of global programming for CNN Digital Worldwide. His new role included overseeing all digital programming efforts across CNN platforms and products.

After Mabry’s promotion, NABJ released a statement applauding his and Due’s promotions, but stated that it would continue its fight for CNN to hire and promote people of color in roles that directly impact news coverage.

“To not have Black decision-makers in these key news positions showcases a lack of commitment to diversity,” the statement reads.

By July 2019, NABJ released a statement disclosing that CNN and its parent company AT&T had yet to respond to its request for a meeting or share with it a plan to enhance diversity and inclusion efforts at CNN.

In July, CNN also promoted Cathy Straight to executive editor of national news for CNN Digital. Her new role included overseeing digital coverage of national stories.

Despite the back-to-back promotions of Black employees, NABJ continued to call for a civil rights audit of CNN’s hiring and promotion practices.

In October, CNN promoted Emily Atkinson, who identifies as Black, to executive producer of CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer,” increasing its leadership to 9 percent people of color.

NABJ continues to be involved with CNN on multiple levels, such as recruitment, said Kanya Stewart, director of communications at NABJ, in an email response to this reporter’s request for an interview.

She also said CNN has made “extraordinary recruitment efforts.”

“We are interested in CNN and other companies moving the needle, and they have, in a very short amount of time with at least three key hires in senior-level positions,” Stewart said.

Barbara Levin, vice president of U.S. communications at CNN, and Alison Rudnick, vice president of HLN communications and diversity and inclusion at CNN, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

The New York Times

The 2019 Census reports that New York City has a population of more than 8 million people.

The New York Times has shown steady progress toward racial diversity in its management level and newsroom. But there are mixed results. Minorities make up more than 57 percent of the population of New York City, but only account for 20 percent of editorial leadership at The New York Times.

According to a 2018 CJR Report by Gabriel Arana, diversity in leadership at The New York Times jumped from 10 percent people of color in 2001 to 19 percent in 2017.

It is widely understood that having diverse leadership can result in a comfortable environment, in which employees feel they can be their true selves.

In 2018, The New York Times released a Inclusion and Diversity Report, revealing that its news and opinion department was 73 percent white and 25 percent people of color, and 2 percent of its staff did not disclose their race.

The overall staff of the company is 68 percent white and 30 percent people of color, while 2 percent did not disclose their race. This is an improvement compared to 2001 to 2017, when the newsroom was more than 80 percent white.

In the summer of 2019, The New York Times debuted a one-year fellowship program that featured a pool of aspiring journalists, who were 50 percent people of color. This initiative is one of the ways it is attempting to diversify talent into the pipeline of the industry.

According to Arana, “The main entry points into the profession — unpaid internships and journalism schools — tend to favor people who come from wealthy backgrounds.”

However, some experts believe otherwise.

“The pipeline is what you make it. You also make those connections with colleges and universities,” said Sheila Solomon, a diversity expert and senior consultant at the Democracy Fund, a foundation in Washington, D.C fighting to ensure American Democracy, in a recent phone interview with this reporter. “It is easy to maintain that relationship; it’s phone and email. You can also do interviews via Zoom, FaceTime or Skype. There is no good excuse.”

There are several pipelines that news outlets can plug into, including the Maynard Institute, the Emma Bowen Foundation Fellowship Program and the Reveal Investigative Fellowship, said Reynolds, of the Maynard Institute.

“The other thing that I think is vital is news organizations have to think of themselves as developing their own pipeline over time,” Reynolds said. “So, when you do a strategic plan, you sort of shape these five or seven initiatives that are key to growing and being sustainable.”

A 2019 Voices Report found that 65 percent of summer interns from The New York Times, however, came from a small circle of colleges that only made up 13 percent of four-year colleges in the U.S.

“Job applicants with top credentials — Ivy League degrees, internships at prestigious publications, recommendations from prominent editors — will most often be white, but hiring managers would be wise to consider the life experiences of people of color, who have insight and access that others don’t,” Arana reported in a 2018 CJR Report.

The New York Times Inclusion and Diversity Report also states that it created new tools and resources to promote fairness and inclusivity in its hiring process, such as bias-free job descriptions and guidelines for conducting interviews.

“Change has to come from the top, and the top has to view it as essential,” said Reynolds. “From there, you can begin to weave in specific strategies, such as a diverse hiring committee.”

Problems such as affinity bias, which means unconsciously getting along with others who are similar to you and unstructured interviews where an interviewer may click with a random aspect of an interviewee’s life, persist at The New York Times.

These problems can then continue into the mentoring stage. “People tend to mentor other people who are similar to them,” said Kelly Weeks, a professor at Rhodes College who teaches courses on diversity and inclusion, in a phone interview with this reporter. “So, it continues the cycle of homogeneity.”

“If you only have diversity, that really doesn’t mean anything,” Reynolds said. “It’s just people in the room and essentially having to default to whatever cultural norms, journalistic gaze the outlet is requiring, which generally is white. If you have equity and inclusion, then people around the table are diverse.”

To tackle this issue, The New York Times introduced a company-wide mentorship program in 2018 to better retain and advance women and minorities in its digital sector.

“If you want to bring these young journalists of color along, you need to provide them with good guidance and special attention,” Prince said.

The New York Times has yet to release its 2019 diversity numbers.

Meanwhile, it has faced an onslaught of criticism from Native Americans in response to an October 2019 article called “Drawn From Poverty: Art Was Supposed to Save Canada’s Inuit. It Hasn’t,” by Toronto Bureau Chief Catherine Porter.

The article discusses how a tiny island below the Arctic Circle called Cape Dorset has many artists, including an Inuit artist named Ooloosie Saila, who flees from her home at night with her two sons since she is afraid of her “drunk” and “raging” relative who has assaulted her repeatedly. Porter also describes Cape Dorset as a place “plagued by poverty, alcoholism and domestic abuse,” where “the possibility of brutality is never far away.”

A few days after the publication of the article, many critics took to Twitter to criticize Porter, who identifies as Caucasian, and point out how problematic her report was. The backlash she received was owing to her lack of understanding of historical context that took place in Cape Dorset and how it shaped the situations there, experts said.

A woman who welcomed Porter into her home and shared her story with her went on to Twitter to say that she felt “gutted” by the article.

By Nov. 1, the Native American Journalists Association called for an audit.

“Stories like that don’t just happen; they have a lot of historical context and a lot of cultural context,” said Graham Lee Brewer, a NAJA board member, in a recent phone interview with this reporter. “This story was a good example of an outsider trying to write about an indigenous community and not fully understanding it enough to write about it in a [respectful] and competent way.”

In a statement posted on NAJA’s website, it describes the story as being harmful to Inuit people and full of clichés regarding alcohol, poverty, drugs, sexual assault, unemployment, addiction, violence, suicide, poor education, domestic abuse, teenage pregnancy and welfare.

“The reporting wasn’t nuanced or deep enough to get at why the situation existed,” Brewer said. “Instead, it put the illness on fixing some very endemic problems on the people who needed that change to happen, that were affected by those problems.”

The statement from NAJA continues that it encourages “The New York Times to review its in-house policies, make necessary changes to include language on ethical indigenous reporting and temporarily suspend reporting in indigenous communities until such changes are made.”

The statement also notes that before the publication of the story, The New York Times staffers took NAJA’s free indigenous coverage training in May, but ignored its teaching of how not to cover an indigenous community.

“We’re putting The New York Times on the stand, in a sense, because that training was done,” said Francine Compton, who serves on the NAJA board of directors, in an interview on Nov. 9 with National Observer.

The National Observer also reported that The New York Times would not confirm if Porter attended the training or if there were any indigenous reporters or editors at the organization at the time.

Brewer had trained the national desk of The New York Times before the publication of the story, but said that he did not train nor did he consult with Porter.

He added that the problem with the training sessions is that they only train a select number of reporters, leaving others out. As a result, a reporter who is not on the national desk could run into similar reporting issues because they may not be aware of the training that took place.

The statement by NAJA also states that it demanded an apology from The New York Times and was willing to meet with the editorial team responsible for the story.

On Nov. 11, NAJA met with The New York Times to discuss concerns about Porter’s story. According to a statement released by NAJA, during the meeting, the staff at The New York Times assured NAJA leaders that despite the use of stereotypes in the story, Saila, the Inuit artist the story focused on, did approve of publishing the piece before it went to print.

“Just because an indigenous person says something is OK doesn’t mean that it is,” Brewer said.

He added that he does not expect for sources or people interviewed to understand the intricacies or complexities of journalism ethics.

In late November, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network News reported that Saila was not made fully aware of the background information or images that would be used.

APTN also reported that after the publication of the story, Saila spoke to Porter, and that Porter told her the story had positives and her artwork would sell faster. Saila said this was not the case.

As far as the narrative in the story, APTN News reported that Saila was not poor, as Porter portrayed her to be.

“I didn’t want the drunk part [in] the newspapers, but it was [in] the newspapers, and about the poverty, saying that my family are poor or something. I’m not poor; I didn’t even say anything about poverty, but she put it [in] the newspapers,” said Saila, reported APTN News.

For a second time, NAJA called on The New York Times and Porter to apologize to Saila, the indigenous people in Cape Dorset and NAJA.

NAJA also called for The New York Times to audit its story and address its potential ethical breaches.

“It was an ethical failure of their own reporting guidelines to understand the community, to not harm,” Brewer said.

“The issues that we recount came up repeatedly in the lives of the people we interviewed and profiled,” said Ari Isaacman Bevacqua, director of communications at The New York Times, in an email statement to APTN News. “They were frequently raised by members of the Cape Dorset community as significant, persistent challenges they wanted solved.”

She also said that the story included positives about Cape Dorset.

“I have no doubt that the things in that story happened, and the people who gave her those quotes said those things,” Brewer said. “But the responsibility every journalist has to contextualize everything, that’s where we felt the failure happened in that story.”

In 2017, NAJA created a bingo card to help reporters avoid using stereotypes in their reporting on indigenous communities. Each of the 24 squares in the bingo card contains stereotypes commonly used in the media. The card features several cliché words, such as alcohol, unemployment, poor education and reference to the ancestors.

“It’s just a way for reporters to check themselves in terms of stereotyping because while a lot of those things on the border are important to cover, lumping them together in a single story because that’s how you identify Native people is not OK,” Brewer said.

He added that if reporters score bingo, they should realize they are relying too much on stereotypes and should re-evaluate.

According to Unreserved, a radio space for indigenous communities on CBC Radio, Francine Compton, a NAJA board member, played a round of bingo using Porter’s story. She found many stereotypes, including some that were not on the card. She had only read two paragraphs of the story when she scored bingo.

A quick search through Porter’s Twitter showed that she was yet to publicly apologize.

Last March, NAJA analyzed stories between 2018 to 2019 from six mainstream outlets, including The New York Times, and found that a majority of the coverage contained clichéd themes, such as poverty and alcohol.

Bevacqua was not available for an interview, but issued this statement:

“We have welcomed the Native American Journalists Association’s offer to meet with The New York Times on the article or any other issue and, in fact, have already spoken with them on these issues since the publication of the story. The Times has and will continue to offer training for our journalists on a variety of topics. Our ongoing conversations with NAJA and other journalism groups have been instructive in these efforts.”

Since publication of the story, the editors on it have reached out to NAJA for its thoughts and opinions on other stories that The New York Times has covered in Native American regions.

“I think that’s a positive sign,” Brewer said. “That means that they think that our opinions are important and that they recognize that there are areas where they can improve. But I think at the end of the day,” he added, “the one thing that they can do to really change the situation is to hire more indigenous journalists.”

It was unclear at press time if The New York Times had since hired indigenous journalists.

“We can’t cover our communities properly if we are trying to cover them with people who aren’t familiar to the community,” said Sheila Solomon, a diversity expert and senior consultant at Democracy Fund. “It’s extremely important that be the case.”

Eileen Murphy, a senior communications executive at The New York Times, was not available for comment.


According to a 2019 Diversity Survey by the New Leaders Association, a joint task force between ASNE and the Associated Press Media Editors, people of color make up almost a third of the full-time workforce among online-only news organizations.

The data reveal that 30.8 percent of people who work at online-only publications are people of color. It is a gain of 5 percentage points compared to 2018, when people of color only made up 25.6 percent of journalists who worked in newsrooms that did not have a print publication.

“One of the good things about the internet and digital is there’s plenty more opportunities, more outlets for people of color,” said Prince, the Journal-isms columnist.

BuzzFeed is a highly diverse news company. According to Gabriel Arana’s 2018 CJR Report, BuzzFeed is a “rare media outlet where diversity on staff matches that of the population.”

Last March, Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s CEO, released a 2019 Diversity Report on the company. Its newsroom is 59 percent white, with 36 percent people of color. Of its newsroom staff, 5 percent did not disclose their race.

The overall staff of the company is 62 percent white and 34 percent people of color, and 4 percent did not disclose their race. According to a 2015 Diversity Report by BuzzFeed, six years ago, the company was 74 percent white.

“In early 2019, BuzzFeed laid off around 225 employees,” said Sydney Baldwin, a BuzzFeed News spokesperson in an email response to this reporter’s request for an interview.

According to the 2019 Diversity Report by Peretti, the layoffs had little impact on BuzzFeed’s diversity overall. “Our layoffs in January impacted ethnic diversity by less than 1 percent,” the report reads.

The report also revealed that minorities make up 27 percent of BuzzFeed’s leadership and 40 percent of its news and content creators.

Similar to The New York Times, BuzzFeed targets diversity and inclusion through several initiatives, including hiring. The company purchased Greenhouse Inclusion, a product that erases names and schools from resumes to remove potential bias about job applications.

In hiring, its initiatives include diverse hiring panels, sharing all open job positions with national news organizations like NABJ, and consistent communication between human resources and hiring managers about the demographics of its candidate pool.

Neither CNN nor The New York Times responded to requests about whether it also employed these strategies.

BuzzFeed addresses the pipeline problem by offering paid internship programs and attending national news organization conferences, such as NABJ, NAHJ and AAJA.

“Of course, we have much more work to do,” Baldwin said. “We remain committed to hiring candidates of all backgrounds, creating opportunities for emerging talent, and offering training and development resources to employees of all levels, all while seeking opportunities for growth.”

In 2019, BuzzFeed received accolades from Forbes as one of the best places to work for diversity and best places for women to work.

Also, BuzzFeed measures its efforts at inclusion and belonging in the organization by surveying its employees. The report stated that 93 percent of employees agreed that they feel they can be their true selves at BuzzFeed.

The lack of diversity in a newsroom can cause employees to hide their true selves and act as the dominant culture would instead. “I feel bad for people who do that, and I see that activity from people all the time, and it bothers me,” said Christina Carrega, vice president of broadcast at NYABJ. “You can’t even just show your silly accent, loc your straight hair. You know you got them curls underneath there. It irks my nerves that some people feel that they have to be a different person just to get on in their career.”

BuzzFeed was unable to provide its 2020 diversity numbers.

Census figures project the U.S. will be a majority-minority nation by 2044.

“The demographics of the nation are becoming younger and browner,” said Reynolds, of the Maynard Institute. “If news organizations want to be relevant to the audiences that are growing expediently, then diversity better be at the center of everything they do.”