Reporter’s Notebook: Media expects transparency, but doesn’t offer same

When the American Society of News Editors set out to conduct its employment survey this year, it queried 1,700 newsrooms on the gender and diversity of their staff.

Only 293 newsrooms responded.

That’s a dismal rate and a black eye for an industry that demands transparency from the rest of the world. So poor were the responses, it led the ASNE to express frustration from its peers in the industry. It also tried to glean some encouragement from what little it managed to scrape together from the results.

“While we are discouraged by this year’s low participation rate, the demographic data from participating organizations, particularly online-only organizations, is encouraging,” said Meredith Clark, a lead researcher and assistant professor at the University of Virginia.

“In these newsrooms, journalists from underrepresented groups are closing the gap, and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds make up a big part of those gains.”

A few months ago, an online commenter suggested that our staff at the Missoula Current was comprised entirely of men. Like a growing number of comments cast on social media, this particular individual had no idea what she was talking about, and she didn’t bother checking before she spouted off in an anonymous online forum.

As of today, our growing staff at the Missoula Current includes four reporters, and three of them are women. We employ five people overall if you count our director of development. Add it up and 80 percent our team members are women.

In an industry that demands transparency from public figures and those it covers, the media rarely returns the favor by disclosing its own shortcomings. Sure, it likes to boast about its illustrious awards for this and that, but when it comes to the industry’s flaws, the light is out.

That was captured in part in this year’s ASNE survey, leading the Washington Examiner to write, “The group was so upset with the lack of newsroom candor about diversity, that it issued a scolding to the wide majority of media operations that refused to answer its survey.”

Why a newsroom would refuse to answer basic questions on diversity is difficult to say. The Poynter Institute put it this way, saying “… many editors seem not to have the time to provide results or don’t care.”

According to the survey, women make up more than a third of newsroom employees overall at nearly 42 percent. In newspapers, they represent 41 percent of the staff. At online-only organizations, they represent 48 percent.

When it comes to racial diversity, we at the Missoula Current don’t score as well as we do when it comes to gender, and it’s something we’d like to address moving forward. As it stands, our team is entirely Caucasian, meaning our next employee should be from another race, so long as we’re aiming to reflect the state’s racial composition.

According to the survey, people of color represent 22.6 percent of the newsrooms that responded to the query. But those who conducted the survey question that figure.

“While encouraging, this figure cannot be generalized to interpret the landscape of the U.S. journalism industry as a whole because the responses are not drawn from a random sample,” the ASNE wrote.

Issues of media transparency, and gender and racial diversity, will likely be waged by the industry’s big players. As the ASNE suggested, responding to a simple survey may be a good place to start.

The organization asked all newsrooms in the nation to be transparent, “like The New York Times, ProPublica and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, in releasing their diversity numbers this year and demonstrate their commitment to equality and representation in journalism.”

The Missoula Current won’t move the dial on such large industry questions. We’re too small to carry that kind of clout. But as we stare down our third anniversary, we maintain our commitment to be transparent, just as we ask those we cover to do the same.