Ideological diversity in journalism: It’s the right thing to pursue

Almost 20 years ago, I was honored to be named an Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Institute. At that time I was a young editor. I looked like this:

I knew even less than I do now. But I had one idea that I believe was right then (even though it felt like it was a “minority of one” position) and now.

Newsrooms must embrace ideological diversity.

This issue has been thrust forward in recent days by the Tom Cotton New York Times op-ed controversy and most recently by the resignation of NYT opinion page writer and editor Bari Weiss, whose scathing letter criticized a culture within the Times that was hostile to conservatives.

My logic on this starts with clear and unequivocal advocacy for ethnic and racial diversity in newsrooms. I don’t support this diversity as some sort of box-checking exercise. I support it as articulated by the American Press Institute, in its statement on diversity and inclusion:

  1. Diversity is a business imperative. Concentrated efforts to highlight diversity are necessary for reaching new audiences and staying relevant to younger changing audiences. Readers pay attention to the content that speaks to or serves their identity.
  2. Diversity is a journalism imperative. Without accounting for the range of lived experiences, we fail to serve parts of our communities. Journalism, in its truest form, should be produced for the benefit of all, not only those who wield a particular power, class or authority.

I’ve had the honor of working with exceptional journalists of color. At the Tallahassee Democrat, that included people such as reporters TaMaryn Waters, Nada Hassanein and Byron Dobson and editor Andrew Skerritt, just to name a few.

These journalists, on countless occasions, provided key counsel, editing and input on stories, editorials, columns and other decisions. They also provided unsolicited insight on issues and potential stories important to minority communities. We leaned on them (perhaps unfairly) and the newspaper was the better for it.

And, it goes without saying, they were terrific journalists.

So, the reasons for doing everything possible to find journalists of color are detailed in that description — “staying relevant,” “content that … speaks to (readers’) reality,” content “for the benefit of all.”

Why shouldn’t that apply to conservative journalists?

Well, I think I can anticipate some answers to that question, but first, let’s establish that there is a problem.

Exhibit A: Trust in the media.

This look at the Gallup poll over the last 23 years is pretty amazing. In 2000, less than 5 points separated Democrats and Republicans when the question is about trust in media. Today, the gap is 54 points. Just 1.5 in 10 of Republicans have a great or fair amount of trust.

So, you might say, that’s a product of the Trump era. Fair point and more on that shortly, but even back in 2008 the gap had grown to 33 points.

The percentage of journalists identifying as conservative has also plummeted (although, it must be said, research on this subject is — tellingly? — very sparse). Perhaps that’s because there is no longer much doubt of the truth that journalists lean to the left, at least in relation to the rest of the public.

You can see the number of journalists identifying as Republican was down to 7.1 percent seven years ago, in research by two Indiana University professors.

Below is a 16-year-old chart from Pew research. Even back then, the ratio of conservatives in the general public to the press was almost 5 to 1 for national press and almost 3 to 1 for local press. It’s fair to assume that this gap has widened further.

If you are aware of other studies in this area, I’d love to see them.

Now, it’s impossible to have this discussion without referencing our current president.

This front-page editorial penned by the Tallahassee Democrat editorial board summed up my thoughts on then-candidate Trump, when he visited Tallahassee. A key excerpt:

“We worry that your harsh rhetoric … leads to a more hostile environment for journalists.”

There can be little doubt this came to fruition, along with a general decline in American discourse and polarization beyond anyone’s pre-Trumpian imagination. The president’s disdain for journalists and lack of concern for facts and accuracy have been a pock on the face of the republic.

But an unfortunate by-product of this insidiousness has been the apparent unshackling of far too many in the media when it comes to impartiality.

I understand there is an entire separate debate about objectivity in the media — I waged that fight against the late great Steve Buttry, who, despite our disagreement on this issue, was a true giant in our industry.

I’ll save that whole issue for another blog (or 12), but my point is that the combination of a media already leaning heavily to the left and a feeling that unseating President Trump is more important than, well, just about anything, has led to a partisanship in the media that is difficult for me to watch (and I say “watch” because it is most brazenly manifested on cable news).

I hasten to add that it doesn’t matter to me if I find myself agreeing with the opinions of erstwhile journalists-turned-partisan-provocateurs. It still breaks my heart that objective journalism is a casualty. And truthfully, leaders come and go, but journalism should be a permanent bedrock of the republic.

Anyway, on to the anticipated objections.

First objection: “Who cares about this imbalance? Journalists overcome their biases as a part of the job.”

Skip’s response: But try viewing that argument through the racial diversity lens. No one — correctly — accepts the idea that an all-white newsroom can overcome its biases and fairly cover and engage with minority communities. Why do we assume it can be done if the criteria is ideology?

Another objection: You are comparing racial diversity — which is borne of centuries of discrimination, including slavery, to a class of people who are generally powerful, white, patriarchs. Black distrust of the media should take precedence.

That’s a pretty strong point!

But data doesn’t really back it up.

Check out this Pew research graphic from 2018:

African Americans actually have higher trust of local media than whites or Hispanics. Now, this could partly be attributed to ideology rather than race, but it’s still compelling.

But this isn’t my main response to the comparison of ideological diversity to racial diversity.

My main response is — why can’t we have both? Why is it either/or?

That leads me to a brief journey into “both/and.”

My priest recently sent me this amazing piece by Debie Thomas, about the great paradoxes of Christianity.

Thomas ends with this:

” … remember that we are held and braced by a God who is too big for thin, one-dimensional truths — and this is a good thing.  It’s not that we hold paradox; it’s that paradox holds us.   We are held in a deep place.  An ample place. A generous, sufficient, and roomy place. Though we might fear paradox, God does not, and it is in God’s soil that we are firmly planted.  We’re safe, even in the contradictions.  Messy and weedy for sure, but safe.”

Amen.

Why can’t we face the truth that we have multi-dimensional problems up and down various spectra, when it comes to newsroom diversity. Minorities are underrepresented and so are conservatives. Can’t we work on solving both problems?

Now, back to the objections ….

Another one: How do you test for someone’s ideology?

Easy.

Questions!

For an environmental reporter, the question might be: “What role does the impact of environmental regulations on business play in your coverage?”

For a government reporter, it might be: “Tell me about a story you’ve written on how government red tape had an adverse impact on the economy.”

For an education reporter, it might be: “What have you done to cover home schooling? What stories have you written about successful charter schools?

Let’s face it — there are very few reporters who will be comfortable answering those questions.

Another issue is coverage of faith issues — newsrooms are notoriously a-religious — way out of kilter with the the general public. This 2002 Pew research isn’t exactly on point, but I think it is illustrative:

Again, I’m less interested in the specific finding from 18 years ago than I am the disconnect between the belief of the general public (a clear majority of 58 percent answering in the affirmative) vs. national and local journalists (6 and 18 percent, respectively).

Skip’s theory: American polarization is partly being fed by an increasingly polarized press. (And as a side note, this will be exacerbated by those who argue that “objectivity” is a relic that needs to be discarded). This is all quite unhealthy for the nation’s political environment. Rather than shuttling off conservatives to their own partisan sites, a much more desirable and healthy solution is for legacy and new news organizations to find ways to achieve better ideological balance, even as they are also working on issues of diversity as it pertains to race, ethnicity and other minority groups.

Is this the biggest problem facing journalism? No.

Am I arguing for a massive influx of conservatives to be added to newsrooms? Of course not.

But the few conservatives that exist ought to be treated with respect and our industry ought to find ways to add more.

The beauty of “both/and” is that a problem doesn’t have to be No. 1 on the list to be addressed. It’s a problem. And it won’t be fixed by ignoring it or moving further toward the “partisan-izing” of journalism. I still believe that objective, down-the-middle reporting is attainable and is what many Americans want. But we will never get there in newsrooms where an entire side of the ideological spectrum is under- or even unrepresented.

Even that goofy young editor in the first picture had that one figured out.

I will be anxious to hear your thoughts on this. A reminder: if your aim is to “destroy” my argument or whatever the latest lingo is in World of Angry Social Media, then you’ve come to the wrong place. I understand reasonable people can have a different view than I have on this — just try to present it reasonably. If you aren’t familiar with The Village Square, I’d love to model the discourse in this blog after that amazing organization.

3 thoughts on “Ideological diversity in journalism: It’s the right thing to pursue

  1. Excellent commentary, Skip, well-documented. I got started in the mid-1960s when the judgments were a lot easier — gosh, should people be able to buy a home or hold a job, free of discrimination? Should children be beaten in the streets of Birmingham, etc? Over 53 years in newsrooms, the issues became harder to define and the typical reporter became much more liberal. The old white guys who’d learned the trade in the 1940s and 50s passed on and society changed, for the better, but we lost a freedom of inquiry.

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  2. It seems you are linking diversity of race in the newsroom to diversity of thought. I think the link does not hold. Diversity of race is seeking people with different lived experiences. This is critical. I would suggest this is similar to having a balance of gender as well, and of sexual orientation. These types of diversity are bringing in a wider array of lived experience. Critical to minimizing bias. Seeking a wider array of political viewpoints, while also seeking to diversify, is different. It is seeking a variety of opinions. I think the comparison does not hold. In addition, this thinking thrusts us into binary thinking — liberal or conservative. (With allowance for independent). Rather than labels of thought, what I want in the newsroom are critical thinkers, not bound to an ideology, but bound to A quest for truth and ready to bring in a full array of evidence to support the coverage they are providing. Whereas being white has shaped my entire life, and has shaped my bias, being a democrat is a more a result of my life, and is the bias itself. Race and political leaning are two different very different types of diversity.

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    1. Thanks, David — this is just the type of well-reasoned discussion I’m hoping for on this site. I totally agree that diversity of race and ideology are different. The argument I’m making is that encouraging diversity of both, in newsrooms (as well as others you mention), encourage the “wider array of lived” experiences for which you so correctly advocate. I would also argue that ideological experiences are strong than just opinions. I know liberals and conservatives who were raised in those political traditions, for whom those beliefs are a part of their being. Even if that weren’t true, conservatives bring a way of looking at things that has value. I agree completely on critical thinkers, but view that as an “and” not an “or.”
      Anyway, I don’t think racial diversity and ideological diversity have to be the same or equal in importance for the latter to still be relevant and a laudable goal. Thanks again for your comments. I appreciate them very much.

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