Headline-making missteps put focus on newsroom diversity

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This Nov. 23, 2019 photo shows Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson in Pittsburgh. When the Pittsburgh Post Gazette pulled her off coverage of protests triggered by George Floyd's death, nobody anticipated it would lead to a staff revolt and become a national story, part of an extraordinary week where the news media's sluggishness in promoting diversity became part of the national conversation.(Shantale Davis/@ShanShoots2 via AP)

NEW YORK – Alexis Johnson figures she wasn't the loser when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said she couldn't cover protests triggered by George Floyd's death. Her readers were — denied the perspective of a black woman with family roots in law enforcement working in her hometown.

Nobody anticipated it would lead to a staff revolt and become a national story, part of an extraordinary week where the news media's sluggishness in building diverse newsrooms became part of the national conversation.

Editors lost jobs at The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Bon Appetit magazine and the Refinery29 website. While each case had many factors, diversity is the common bond.

“Our communities are changing and our demographics are changing and we as a news industry have done a poor job of recognizing it,” said Katrice Hardy, Indianapolis Star executive editor and head of the diversity committee for the News Leaders Association.

That's not a new complaint. The Kerner Commission that looked into causes of 1967 riots in American cities described the absence of black journalists in newsrooms then as “shockingly backward.”

When a precursor to the News Leaders Association began measuring employment diversity at newspapers in the mid-1970s, it set goals to reach by 2000. That year passed without the goals being met, so the time frame was extended to 2025, said Richard Prince, who blogs about minority issues in the industry.

“They're not going to make that, either,” said the former newspaper editor.

The association even has trouble getting its annual diversity survey filled out. Only 293 newsrooms out of 1,700 queried last year responded. Four news organizations reported having a higher percentage of minority journalists than the community they cover.