Blog by John Miller

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RIP newsroom diversity

If you Google "diversity in Canadian newsrooms," you will find that seven out of the first 10 results still cite my research prominently -- something that both surprises and concerns me. You see, the last research I did on that subject is now more than 10 years old.

Isn't that proof enough that diversity at news organizations has fallen off the radar?

No news organization seems to be openly championing it. No one is even keeping track of it. There are no models to tell us whether diversity can make a media outlet more popular or profitable. We have no idea how the massive layoffs in mainstream media have affected diversity. No one has checked whether online news start-ups are more diverse in their staffing or merely repeating the hiring habits of the media they are usurping.

What little evidence there is suggests that 97 percent of people gathering our news are white. Nothing has changed in 15 years.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are in the midst of a revolution in how Canadians access their news, at a time when Canadians are becoming more diverse than ever, in their ethnicity, in their race, and in their religion.

It matters because most of the news on the internet is still gathered by professionals working for  mainstream newspapers, television and radio. They have the largest staffs and they are our windows on social change.

It matters because fair, accurate and inclusive coverage is essential to public awareness of issues related to social cohesion. Witness the current shouting match over whether the Orlando shooter was motivated more by homophobia or "radical Islam." How many reporters are qualified and have the contacts to do the hard work of delving into his background and sifting through the evidence to find out?

One of the first results to come up when you do that Google search is the 2004 study I did with Caron Court entitled Who's Telling the News: Racial representation among news gatherers in Canadia's daily newsrooms. It remains the last such attempt to count diversity in our country's newsrooms. Then, a survey of managing editors showed that racial minorities were more than five times under-represented in daily newspaper newsrooms. Moreover, the commitment of editors to change their hiring patterns had declined, not risen, since I did a similar survey in 1994.

It's impossible to know if things are any better today. Canadaland tried to find out earlier this year, sending a similar survey to 18 of the country’s largest daily newspapers. Only three of them replied. No editors would agree to be interviewed about diversity.

I'm not surprised. Editors are too busy today identifying victims for the next round of layoffs as their industry hemmorhages readers and advertisers. They have blindly ignored evidence that readers and viewers will respond positively to more diverse news coverage.

The latest data on that came in a recent U.S. study by the Media Insight Project, a partnership of the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute. African American and Hispanic Americans were more likely than white Americans to say it is very important that they see their communities and people like them in the reporting, the report said. Still, 56 percent of whites said “diverse points of view” were very important or extremely important in their news sources. The figure was 65 percent for African Americans and 61 percent for Hispanics.

Many once looked to online start-ups to change the pattern on diversity. BuzzFeed, one of the more popular on-line news sites, openly subscribes to the business case for diversity. According to editor-in-chief Ben Smith: “Diversity helps editorial organizations avoid the bland and often false conventional wisdom held in a room full of people who come from similar places. Having diverse writers on staff also brings a much wider array of stories that matter, and to more people.”

Unlike mainstream news outlets, BuzzFeed is quite open about its own hiring trends. Smith voluntarily released details of how diverse its newsroom is -- 28 percent of employees were non-white. While that is still less than the percentage of minorities in the U.S. population (37 percent), it is better than the makeup of so-called legacy media (which has stalled at between 12 and 14 percent over the past decade).

Yes, in the United States, they do keep track of diversity levels in media organizations. They've been doing it for more than 30 years.

That just doesn't happen in Canada. Newspapers Canada, and its predecessor the Canadian Daily Newspaper Publishers Association, flatly refused my recommendations to keep count of diversity hiring. Private television executives were pressured by their federal regulator, the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), to undertake a comprehensive study of diversity in programming in 2003. It produced a fine report that is gathering dust on the shelf because its sponsor, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, went defunct.

What's left is mostly words, not action. For example, 10 years ago the Radio and Television News Directors Association, representing private broadcasters, prepared a diversity news kit that instructs newsrooms how to make their broadcasting more representative. It is couched in vague language and cites unproven evidence: "In today’s global economy, diversifying your staff is not about preferential treatment, employment equity, equal opportunity or affirmative action. And it’s certainly not a numbers game. It’s simply good for the bottom line – making money. In broadcasting, diverse staff and diverse coverage equal growth in ratings and viewers."

No one has checked to see if it's used in any radio newsrooms today.

Despite the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, there is no evidence that online news start-ups are really hiring more diverse staffs and providing more diverse coverage. When the American Society of News Editors first surveyed online news operations in 2014, it received responses from 68 organizations. Forty-three reported zero minorities on staff.

If newsrooms cannot stay in touch with the issues, the concerns, hopes and dreams of an increasingly diverse audience, those news organisations will lose their relevance and be replaced. That's not all. By denying media access to ethnic minorities, the public gets a wrong perception of reality and the place ethnic minorities have in society. And that's a recipe for social conflict -- the kind of blind fear of "the other" that Donald Trump is stoking in the U.S. presidential election campaign.

Today one in five Canadians is a member of a visible minority. That's going to increase. If our news media remain overwhelmingly white, reading a newspaper or watching the news on TV will be like looking at one of those ancient maps ... you know, the ones that showed dragons and monsters lurking out there in uncharted waters.