U.S. newsrooms are very white. So are the critics and the journalists that cover them
From Ben Smith to Brian Stelter, there is an obvious problem with who gets to cover media full-time.
Max Tani was, for a brief moment, adrift in tattersall, tartan and gingham.
Standing in a circle of five or six plaid button-downs a few years back, his group gathered for a conference at the Time Warner Center in New York to talk about media reporting. But Tani noticed a problem that was painfully obvious — to him, at least.
“It was just a bunch of white dudes wearing plaid shirts and glasses,” Tani said.
“It was just like… We could probably benefit from having a few different viewpoints in here.”
Tani, who identifies as half Japanese American, covers media at The Daily Beast. He is also one of the few people of color reporting on journalism and the media full time.
The job of a media reporter or critic is to tell us about journalism’s status quo, what’s wrong with it, and what journalism could be if things were tweaked. Often, reporters and critics get some broad strokes right.
But media reporting about race or gender or class is still a rarity. Instead, reporting on race or gender or class or disability or sexual orientation is often relegated to a passing mention or a one-off story, not a theme that’s punctuated throughout media stories. And while this failure of American journalism is true across most beats, it’s particularly on the nose when these reporters are supposed to be reporting on journalism’s failures.
With this in mind, it’s hard not to notice: most media reporters, critics, and editors are white.
“It's definitely something that's legitimate and obvious,” Tani said, “to people who pay attention to these kinds of things.”
There are exceptions, like Tani, but if you wanted to go down the list: The Washington Post’s media columnist is a white woman and their media critic is a white man; The New York Times’ primary media critic is a white man, as is most of their media reporting team. CNN’s chief media correspondent is a white man; the senior media reporter at NBC News and MSNBC is a white man; NPR’s public editor is a white woman and their chief media correspondent is a white man; Bloomberg News’ media reporter is a white man. Politico’s media correspondent is a white man. Axios’ media correspondent is a white woman. Vanity Fair’s media correspondent is a white man.
The same big trends are true for the editors of media watchdog outlets: Poynter’s managing editor is a white man, Nieman Lab is edited by a white woman, the Columbia Journalism Review’s editor-in-chief is a white man, and the editor-in-chief of Current is a white woman.
For many journalists from backgrounds historically marginalized by the field, it's rare to read stories where we can see ourselves.
“I don't think this is a good excuse, but I think that media reporters are oftentimes hired by people whose views that they reflect,” Tani said. “They're hired to cover and maybe connect with folks who are in positions of power in the media. And they kind of in some ways reflect their source base, which is white and male.”
Media reporting and critique is a very homogeneously white space that often fails to bring a depth of personal perspective, care, and experience to these issues. That’s not to say that, for example, white reporters can’t write about the industry’s failures. But it is to say that they rarely do, and when they do, it’s siloed into a single piece about people of color. Ben Smith’s piece on newsroom revolts, or Margaret Sullivan’s piece on “The Talk,” are both great examples of writing that explore why diversity in newsrooms is important. But they are also great examples of how coverage of these issues is often siloed.
The lack of diverse backgrounds in the field is what An Phung, CNN’s senior media editor, said “keeps me up at night.”
“When you have just straight white males covering a subject matter, newsrooms are leaving a lot of stories on the table that aren't told in a robust or nuanced way,” said Phung, who edits Brian Stelter, the host of “Reliable Sources,” as well as media reporters Oliver Darcy (who identifies as Persian) and Kerry Flynn.
Racial and gender homogeneity is endemic to journalism in the U.S, which also extends to those covering and critiquing journalism. In 2018, according to the American Society of News Editors Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey, women made up about a third of newsroom employees overall and people of color (a broad group) represented 22.6% of all newsroom employees. The consequence of an insular niche group of journalists deciding what the story of American journalism is that, by and large, media journalists and critics are consistently missing the biggest problems in American journalism: exclusion, marginalization, and the journalism reckoning that defined 2020.
Instead of thoughtful critique of the executives who have failed to shepherd newsrooms past the ideologically stagnant and mostly-white and male newsroom status quo, we get a 10 pieces about the president. Errin Haines, an editor-at-large at The 19th*, wrote last year that “race and gender aren’t a 2020 story — they’re the story”. In a similar way, racism and exclusion are not a story in media reporting, they’re the story.
In order to tell those stories, media critics and reporters need to come to the job with a diverse range of experiences. That means we need trans media critics and journalists. It means we need media critics and journalists with disabilities. And it means we need Black media critics and journalists. In fact, there are so many voices missing that it makes more sense to point out how inappropriate the ubiquitously white, male, and cisgender the field is.
“You look at some of the coverage about the media and because it's mostly dominated by white male reporters, the coverage is reflected in a similar way, right?” said Phung, an Asian American journalist. “Not all across the board, but you know, the stories that resonate so much with people these days are usually about white men on our airwaves, white men writing books, white men breaking big stories, white male executives running big media companies. Even white men behaving badly.”
Julian Wyllie sees much of the same. Wyllie became Current's public television reporter in 2019, where he’s spent the last two years. He is also one of the only Black full-time reporters covering media and journalism for a national newsroom.
Wyllie worries that part of the problem is larger outlets covering the media don’t always focus on smaller outlets around the country, especially public radio stations. “Covering public media for me, most of the people that are in public media are white,” he said. “I think whatever story you're doing, there's probably a gender or race component to it.”
At a national level, Wyllie worries he isn’t seeing the kinds of stories that would make him interested enough. He pointed to at least one: CNN reporter Kerry Flynn’s coverage of Refinery29’s reckoning, where employees at Vice-owned publication said there was an environment of racism and a toxic work culture.
“I do think that people that are on a smaller level are weighing in on the race topic more, but as far as the big, big, big places, I don't personally see that,” he said. “And if I'm just missing that, I would like to be enlightened to it.”
And if Wyllie is right about the state of things, he wants to know: Why is he right?
“How much of it is it an ignorance thing?” he said. “How much is it just the leadership is very white, so there's only so much you can cover or so much of those people that would be honest?”
“I'm not sure I have deep thoughts”
When I asked Ben Smith, who writes The New York Times’ Media Equation column, about the composition of media reporters and critics, he said he thinks the idea that the field is very white and male “isn’t wrong.”
Smith, a white man, said for this very reason, he’s tried to emphasize people like Wesley Lowery, a Black journalist at CBS News; and Zeynep Tufekci, a female sociologist who contributes to The New York Times, in his stories.
Smith took over the Media Equation from Jim Rutenberg, who took it from David Carr, the oft-venerated white journalist from Minnesota who pursued an attempt at snark and radical honesty that few other national reporters had the latitude to (or wanted to).
Smith, conscious of the gap in his field, pointed me to a few women and people of color covering the industry to ensure they were included.
“Beyond that,” Smith said, “I'm not sure I have deep thoughts.”
But Smith recently wrote about Andrew Sullivan, a pundit who, for the better part of two decades, died on the hill of racist pseudoscience: He believes that Black people just have lower intelligence than white people. He also constantly quotes people in bad faith (often, Black writers) and misrepresents their writing. I wanted to know Smith’s thoughts on whiteness, as it related to his own work.
So I asked Smith about his piece, “I’m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.” More specifically, I asked about his frame: Would he have written it differently in any way to convey his own background and how it colors his (current) perception of Sullivan?
“I think that was the point of my story? Where I was coming from, and ultimately my reaction to that element,” he said.
Smith’s profile is too nice (he writes: “charitable”) and never explicit enough. If you want Black colleagues who work in media, Sullivan’s view, at least on intelligence, is beyond the pale to legitimize in the way that Smith does. It makes sense that Smith, as a white man, could have more comfortably found solace in Sullivan’s earlier opinions — but his introspection about his own identities and the way his identities explicitly formed his opinions on Sullivan are not explicit in the piece. And nowhere in the piece does Smith call out Sullivan for what he is: a racist who refuses to concede; who does not explicitly mention his critiques of Black writers are about Black writers, but instead uses euphemisms.
Those are important things to tell people. Especially if you have wide latitude as a media critic.
Erik Wemple, who is also a white man, has critiqued cable news for The Washington Post since back when Carr still wrote Media Equation. He said he’s noticed the homogeneity in media reporting as well.
“It's something I've noticed and I think that it's problematic, especially in these times where race is an increasingly central part of news consumption in our country,” Wemple said.
“I do believe that, the more diversity in the ranks, the better the coverage. We all have our blind spots.”
Wemple said he believes there are at least two areas that have prompted some of more visible criticism: Twitter and unions.
“Twitter gets the hardest time,” Wemple said. “Everybody says Twitter is awful, awful, awful. But for me, I think it's very important because if you're not paying attention to all the particular dynamics and all the particular angles, race, gender, sexual orientation in your stories, you'll hear it from Twitter. So I think that's very helpful. Not always the most comforting, but a very helpful platform.”
Wemple is correct on both counts. Twitter has upended the industry. For all of the bad it brings, it’s allowed Black and brown reporters to criticize the industry, including when they leave it for good. Much of the recent reckoning in journalism didn’t stem from full-time media reporters and critics breaking news and holding institutions accountable, but from writers and reporters who risked their own careers, and others who spoke for them. For example, Tammie Teclemariam, a freelance food and wine writer, used Twitter to call out Peter Meehan, the Los Angeles Times food editor who was subsequently fired for his abusive behavior.
Unions too, have provided a renewed push for equity in newsrooms. Spurred by the 2018 pay study at the Los Angeles Times Guild, which showed that the company underpaid women and people of color, other newsrooms around the country have followed suit. Unions are also supporting internal groups’ push for change (for example, the LAT Guild pushing for solidarity with the LAT Guild Black Caucus).
I asked Wemple about how, by my own account, a lot of coverage of journalism around race or gender is siloed into its own story and left out of others.
“I think that's a fair criticism,” he said. “In other words, that the white[ness] and maleness of this particular niche means that you cover race and gender consciously when you cover race and gender, and when you cover something else, you put that aside, is what you're saying. If I'm not incorrect, I think that's a fair criticism.”
Media reporters and critics, especially white men, should understand that they are a part of their beat too, their identities inseparable from their lived experiences, their lived experiences inseparable from their criticism and tone.
But the solution to the lack of diversity in the field is simple to point out, if media executives are willing to hold themselves accountable: hire a more diverse full-time staff of media reporters and critics who care about power and privilege, and allow them to drive editorial priorities.
Without significant changes, my own concern for the future of media reporting is echoed in something Wyllie told me before we finished talking. Because of the last few months, we may have only seen a brief uptick in journalism stories about race, class, and gender. Come 2021, Wyllie said he’s concerned that may vanish.
“There will sort of be new problems for people to talk about,” he said. And this ‘media reckoning’ thing? I don't know if that topical interest for editors will maintain itself going into next year.”
This article was originally published in partnership with Poynter.
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