What is newsroom diversity?

media bias alertEarlier this week, NPR’s David Folkenflik broke a story about New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse’s leftist political speech at Harvard Law School. In the comment thread from my original post, reader Charlie wrote:

I’m sorry, but I would MUCH rather have a reporter who wears their biases openly than one who hides them — or worse, one who has no opinions.

I agree that there is a great deal to be said for reporters being transparent in their views. But the issue isn’t simply Greenhouse and her political views. The goal of objectivity in journalism refers to the methodology of the newsroom, not the empty minds of the various reporters and editors involved in getting stories to print.

Newspapers run into problems because even if they strive for objectivity, they suffer a stunning lack of diversity in their newsrooms when covering divisive issues. It’s not news that reporters share similar views on a wide swath of social and economic issues. I have never been a Greenhouse fan, a sentiment which I’m certain causes her to cry over her many journalism awards. But any complaints I’ve had about her writing have been marginal or based in my fear that I can’t trust her because of her activism.

But what if Greenhouse were part of a team that comprised a variety of viewpoints and knowledge bases? How would the coverage differ if a reporter who was morally conservative worked with her?

Well, near as I can tell, there’s absolutely no danger of newsrooms seeking more diversity in which biases they bring into their newsroom. Very few could bring themselves to comment on the story. Even Daniel Okrent, the former ombudsman at the Times, clarified his earlier remark that he was amazed by her speech. In an interview with Newsweek, he said he was thrilled by her outspoken speech.

Do you think it’s a farce to pretend that media bias doesn’t exist?
Obviously it exists in individuals, and it exists in institutions, but it does not exist in all individuals, and it does not exist in all institutions. It’s like anything else in the world, there are those who do it right and those who do it wrong.

What does this mean for journalists who may not want to suppress their political views outside the office?
Well, that’s the thing about it that’s so interesting and amazing and exciting. Maybe this opens up the conversation that journalists can and should [participate].

In my view, this is not about whether reporters can march in rallies or display bumper stickers or donate to candidates. To me, this is about the fact that if they did, there would be very few reporters marching in pro-life rallies.

A decade ago, the Los Angeles Times analyzed media coverage of abortion and found that bias infiltrated reports of the divisive issue. A few years ago, Times editor John Carroll wrote a memo to the staff telling them to work harder to get their abortion biases out of the newspaper.

That happens despite reporters’ best intentions. Could the attempts to write fairly about abortion and other divisive issues be hampered by the stunning and shocking lack of intellectual diversity in America’s newsrooms?

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  • Michael

    So here’s the question: How do we acheive diversity?

    Is there evidence that conservative journalists can’t get jobs? Are your friends at the conservative Phillips Foundation fellows program unable to get jobs? Are graduates of Terry’s Christian journalists program unable to get jobs?

    Is the problem that conservative journalists aren’t getting hired, or is it that (a) they go to the ideological, conservative press, (b) they go work outside traditional journalism or (c) they go on conservative beats or (d) they aren’t going into journalism to begin with.

    The reality of large metro newsrooms is that they overwhelmingly white and significantly male. The number of racial minorities is going down in large metro newsrooms. So how do you hire for ideological diversity since journalism has failed, generally, to hire for the easiest levels of diversity.

    Since it’s not enogh to have ideological diversity on the opinion pages where people are hired to fill conservative and liberal “slots” like something of a quota systemm how exactly should this be acheived in the newsroom? Quotas? Asking people about their politics in interviews? Running want-ads in pro-life newsletters?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Michael,

    Great questions. As for the “conservative” Phillips Foundation program, many of the fellows are not conservative and you don’t need to be conservative to receive a fellowship. Having said that, the fellows are all doing great, I think. But not very many work at mainstream publications, particularly after a few years in the field.

    I’m not sure what the problem is but I do think that part of it is that it’s not hard at all for a reporter to get hired from Salon or The New Republic to the Washington Post, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a reporter getting hired there after working at the Weekly Standard or National Review.

    You can work for ideological press on one side of the aisle but not the other.

    So I think that every one of your theories has something to do with it.

    You’re also right that newsrooms have failed to become more racially diverse. But I think that the two problems are the same. In many newsrooms, you need a graduate degree in journalism to even think of getting hired. It basically means that newspapers hire from the same narrow economic and social fields.

    This is silly — I honestly believe a reporter without a high school diploma could be trained to write well. What we do is best learned on the job anyway.

    I don’t know what the answer is to busting open the newsroom. But if I were hiring, I think I would try to hire at least a few reporters who understood how the readers think at least as well as they understand how their professors think.

  • J

    One doesn’t have to agree with what readers think to understand them, their world views or their lives.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    At heart no one debates whether the media should be impartial or have a bias. It would seem to me that freedom of the press indicates a sense of bias–that it a media outlet disagrees with a government leader and/or policy the newspaper can express that opinion. That would indicate a presence of a bias.

    Many newspapers still contain “Democrat” or “Republican” in their mastheads. Yes, that could stand for the form of government we have (Democratic Republican form). But many of these newspapers started as partisan organs. In fact, there is one newspaper that still has “Whig” in its masthead!

    I suspect that the myth of the “impartial media” started when newspapers began to merge and thus fewer voices were found in the arena of public debate. My hometown Appleton Post-Crescent, when it formed from the merger of the Post (Republican) and Crescent (Democrat), announced at the merger a “non-partisan tone and a voice for the common good in the community.”

    What is interesting in this instance is that liberal viewpoints are tolerated and defended. But if a conservative viewpoint were supported, the reporter wouldn’t get the same support.

  • Martha

    I think on the whole it’s preferable to have reporters’ biases out there on the page where we can all see them.

    At least then it’s “Yeah, I support X. So what? X is only common sense! All right-thinking people support X! Whaddya think, I’m one of those mouth-breathing Neanderthals? Oh, so you want me to start beating my wife, huh?!” rather than “Bias? What bias? We strive for objectivity and fairness and I’m pretty goshdarn proud to say we achieve it! We always do our best to see those mouth-breathing Neanderthals get their say, even if they can only string together a few grunts.”

    Like the wonderful blurb for some book (“Letter to a Christian Nation”) by some bloke I’ve never heard of (Sam Harris? Who he?) which apparently is reaching out to those mouth-breathing Neanderthals pleading with them not to destroy the few poor cowering Cro Magnons in their midst:

    “I can’t sign my name to this blurb. As a New York Times best selling author of books about business, my career will evaporate if I endorse a book that challenges the deeply held superstitions and bigotry of the masses. That’s exactly why you should (no, you must) read this angry and honest book right away. As long as science and rational thought are under attack by the misguided yet pious majority, our nation is in jeopardy. I’m scared. You should be too. Please buy two, one for you and one for a friend you care about.”

    Apart from the fact that if you truly want to remain anonymous, you shouldn’t give thumping great clues to your identity such as “Look up ‘The New York Times’ bestseller list for business books and I’m on it”, it really doesn’t go half far enough in generating the sense of dread and fear required.

    Mark Shea’s spoof blurb is *much* better:

    http://www.markshea.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_markshea_archive.html

    “Hello? Is anybody out there? Please listen! I’m writing to you from the bowels of the New York Times building. A few of us have been able to make it to the basement. I don’t know how much time we have, so I’m begging you to please read Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation and avoid our fate! The Christian Reavers broke through the our first line of defense yesterday afternoon. They overcame the security guards, disemboweled them in one of their primitive folk rites and ate their living flesh. I will never forget the screams. We blocked the stairways and shut down the elevators, but they scaled the walls of the building like giant insects and crashed through the windows with their high, alien, and inhuman cries of “Hi diddly ho, neighbor!” as they slit the throats of secretaries, editors and interns in their barbaric rush to destroy. Occasionally they would pause to interrogate some terrified victim with questions like, “How diddly do, friend! Could you point me the way to the godless evolution editor and the soul corrupting arts and entertainment department? I got me some kill diddly dillin’ to do!”

    Only a few of escaped the horrors of ritual sacrifice and cannibalism that followed.

    And so it comes to this: I’m writing this book blurb from the last functioning computer with Internet access at the New York Times building. I can’t tell you my name or they will find my family. O my precious little girl. Trapped in a world with Christians! They have flooded the building with their Visigoth hordes, committing unspeakable outrages. Rumor has reached us through the transistor radio that Bill Keller’s head has been placed on a pikestaff for the sport of crows. Meanwhile, we wretched survivors…

    Wait! They are coming! We cannot get out! They are smashing the doors with something heavy, maybe fire extinguishers. No. It’s something bigger than that… It’s…. AEIIII!… a Cave Troll and behind it…. something horrible! Something made of shadow and flame! Oh, for the love of all that is civilized and enlightened, buy Sam Harris’ book!”

  • Joel

    The issue of media bias is important because the press demands special rights (wrapping themselves in a few Jefferson comments) on the idea that they are working for the benefit of society. If they are just another interest group, a lot of that moral (if not legal) standing goes away.

    Usually the pattern has been to deny or obfuscate personal bias, as with Dan Rather claiming to be a neutral, down-the-middle, just-the-facts-ma’am journalist.

    I interpret an open admission of non-neutral point of view as either a) a frustration at having to stay closeted and not being able to get more directly involved; or b) a sense of complacency, that “there is only one New York Times” and people aren’t going to, say, switch to the New York Post or Washington Times if they dislike the bias of the NYT.

    If we had multiple points of view in the major media, then a monotholic NYT might be balanced out by a conservative LAT, for example. But it’s been 40+ years since the LA Times was a conservative paper.

    Fox has been a successful experiment in giving people an alternative and letting them vote with their feet. It seems unlikely that we’re going to see a significant alternative in the print media, in part because it’s a declining business which still has to shed some excess capacity.

  • Michael

    Mollie:

    I agree that we need to be more open to where we hire journalists. There is nothing magical about having a degree from Harvard or a graduate degree, but I think newsrooms just think it’s easier. It is also the circularity that people hire people with similar background.

    I also agree that people are able to go from left-leaning Slate and New Republic to the WP while you don’t see a similar trek from the National Review. OTOH, people from the National Review and Weekly Stanard couldn’t afford the paycut they would need to take from being a conservative pundit to go to the mainstream press. The Right has been much more successful at creating an intellectual industry that absorbs conservative journalists, passing them from fellowship to magazine to think tank to op-ed writer. That path doesn’t exist to the same level for liberal since there aren’t the giant think tanks absorbing hundreds of idealogues into their ranks.

    But if a conservative viewpoint were supported, the reporter wouldn’t get the same support.

    I don’t think there is evidence to support that. Plenty of liberals have been chided for ethical lapses, as have conservatives.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MICHAEL:

    The Pew Forum says that newsrooms have become to elite, too culturally elite. That’s one lack of diversity.

    Keller at the NYTs says that they need to hire more people who understand religion, and especially conservative religion, and people from a military background. That’s another voice on this issue.

    I also think that conservative colleges and universities have done little or nothing to put talented, qualified people into these reporting and writing posts (writing in entertainment as well as news). That’s another cause for the lack of diversity.

    I have, on this side of the issue, heard quality journalists say that they feel more alone in their churches as journalists than they feel alone in their newsrooms, as Christians. That says tons, too.

    But the problem is real. Brother is it ever real.

    Again, folks, read the chapter on objectivity — what it is supposed to mean — in “The Elements of Journalism.”

  • Michael

    TMatt.

    So what’s your “how”? How do newspapers and TV stations increase the number of conservative journalists? How should the recruit them? Where should they find them? Given journalism’s inability to recruit a diverse workforce generally, what specific steps should be taken to improve recruitment and retention?

    And are conservatives interested in being journalists? Is it possible the lack of money and prestige make journalism less attractive to conservatives?

    I know that Christian journalists have tried to organize and network in the same way the minority and gay journalist groups have organized and networked. How effective has that been?

  • Larry Rasczak

    Tmatt,

    Your points about a lack of intelectual diversity in the newsrooms is a great one, and right on target.

    And the points people have made about how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to solve these problems are all well taken.

    However, your question about “how do we solve a lack of intelectual diversity in the newsroom” presupposes a fact not in evidence… namely that the “newsroom” itslef will survive.

    As you have noticed, I have about as much respect for the NYT as I do for what I scrape off the bottom of my shoe. I simply don’t TRUST or RESPECT them, because of the bias I have seen in them over the past DECADES. I don’t think I am alone in that fact. The same is true for the WP, and alphabet networks. I’m not a big fan of some of the the conservative media either. Fox may not be liberal but they are STUPID and sensationalistic.

    I get my news here, and at Little Green Footballs, and from The Anchoress, and at Pajamas Media. I check the local news for traffic and weather. For a newspaper I read the Wall Street Journal, and in the moring I watch Squwak Box on CNBC.

    So I hate to say it, but when you ask how newsrooms are going to fix themselves you sound a bit like a Triceratops asking his brother Tricertops how they are going to adapt to the new post-cometary impact world.

    The short answer is… you won’t.

  • Michael

    I get my news here, and at Little Green Footballs, and from The Anchoress, and at Pajamas Media. I check the local news for traffic and weather. For a newspaper I read the Wall Street Journal, and in the moring I watch Squwak Box on CNBC.

    Where do you think these places get their news, thin air? I agree that news as we know it is changing, but the blogosphere isn’t doing much independent reporting but instead using the traditional media as a jumping-off point. On a day to day basis, the reporting at the WSJ is no more “moderate” or “objective” than the NYT or the WP. They just write about business instead of politics, so they are less in the firing line.

  • Martha

    Are we making a fundamental mistake here?

    Why are we all equating “respectful of religion” with “conservative”? And how do we mean ‘conservative’ in this instance?

    For example, there are some – not a whole heap, but some – atheists who are pro-life/anti-choice/anti-abortion/pro-forcing rape victims to carry their attacker’s satan spawn (apply label according to viewpoint). Would you consider an atheist ‘conservative’ vis-a-vis religion?

    I don’t like this assumption that you have to have (or indeed that you can categorise someone as having) a monolithic set of attitudes based on neatly labelling them ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’. Fr’instance, what about someone who is socially conservative but fiscally liberal? Or vice versa?

    I ask out of interest, because I would have considered myself old-fashioned conservative Irish (going on our politics) but some at least of my convictions are commie pinko liberal by your side of the water.

    How about we get reporters who can cover a story by giving a fair shake to both sides and who won’t get a fit of the vapours in the presence of a prayer book (not alone to say a Bible) and not worry too much if they’re conservative or liberal?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “On a day to day basis, the reporting at the WSJ is no more “moderate” or “objective” than the NYT or the WP. They just write about business instead of politics, so they are less in the firing line.”

    As for where they get their news, lets just say DON’T just regurgitate the handouts from the press kit and then go straight to the hotel bar.

    And the WSJ does write about politics, quite a bit. The difference is they don’t write about the fluffy empty “generated for the cameras” controversy dijior, they write about what really matters.

    As for Bias in the media, bias isn’t “slanting” stories a certian way. Bias is in most cases, selectively ignoring facts and stories that don’t match the reporter/paper’s (normally Liberal) pre-determined view of what is going on. Biased reporters pick sides, and things that make “their” side look bad just don’t make it into the paper, or if they do it is in the back section behind the cat litter ads.

    Look at the Faux-tography scandal. If the U.S. Army had been faking battlefield photos, manufacturing “bombed” ambulances, and carrying around dead children so reporters could get photos, you would have weeks of page one headlines on it, 4 Congressional investigations, special prosecutors, and it would make Abu Ghraib (sic) look mild. however since there wasn’t anyway to blame the Bush administration for this it all kind of got swept into the back pages. This has been going on for decades, and your audience/readers are sick of it.

    So wake up and smell the snowfall my dinosarian friend. The cretaceous area of American Journalisim is over.

  • Hans Fiene

    I wonder if the seemingly disproportionate number of liberal journalists has something to do with the nature of journalism. In my limited experience, liberals seem to be attracted to fields where they feel that they can impart their wisdom to the masses and truly educate on how to make the world a better place. I see it in education, too, where young teachers come in thinking that they are going to warrant an after-school-special biopic within just a few weeks. (I think these are the ones that burn out after two years and just have you watch movies all the time.) Perhaps this is also why social-gospel type churches seem to be populated by rather left-leaning (though I hate to use the terms left and right with regard to Christianity) clergy. Idealism and liberalism seem to intertwine a bit to me.

    Also, Mollie, kudos on the Donald Sutherland “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” pic on this article. Coincidentally, I think that’s probably the face he makes every time he watches Fox News.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As one commenter mentioned FOX is presenting an alternative to the rest of the liberal oriented mainstream media. However, it is clear that the MSM is out to destroy FOX if at all possible. With slander, and constant ridicule the badly outnumbered FOX is taking a pummeling in both the rest of the news media and the even more liberal entertainment media. And remember, if the Democrats take over Congress they apparently intend to crush that other alternative source of news: talk-radio. In fact they apparently have already succeeded in shutting up some talk outlets in the state of Washington by finding a judge who agreed with the Dems that to speak out for an issue is to endorse the candidate for that issue and opens up the equal time pandora’s box. I hesitate to use a word now being used by Rush Limbaugh, but it DOES smack of (at least attempted) liberal Stalinism through government control of free speech and press.
    As far as FOX so-called bias–As a recently retired Gov’t-History teacher I have had chance to spend a lot of time to carefully use my remote control to bounce back and forth between the cable news stations and FOX certainly appears fairer (is that conservative bias?) than CNN or MSNBC. One recent glaring example: the intelligence report that said BOTH that the war in Iraq was encouraging the growth in terrorist numbers BUT that we could win there and it would likely break the back of terrorism if we win there. Repeatedly on CNN and MSNBC all that was talked about -in the news- was the first part of the report–rare (virtually no) mention of the conclusion. Only FOX-in its news- gave equal play to BOTH even though you would think a final conclusion should hold most of the weight. (Maybe that is why one independent survey found FOX news surprisingly “liberal”–because even the side liberals promote gets reported).
    Repeatedly–even when it seemed FOX was spinning things conservatively–all the data and facts seemed to be getting reported while on the other two cable news networks it almost seemed like some sort of liberal censorship was at work to make sure not all the important relevant facts or data were reported.
    On another occasion recently an al-quaeda tape was coming in and on FOX a translator was giving the statement word-for-word on the air. On the other two news channels they were bragging how they were translating it and would let you know what was important (their spin?) after they had translated and analyzed it. Of course they virtually never mentioned the al-quaeda leader complaining about how many of his men (4,000) had been killed by the Americans. It seemed to me that MSNBC and CNN were blatantly-in your face- determined to keep control of news spin in their power and telling you that was what they were doing.
    No wonder they hate FOX so much. They fear comparison shopping.