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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

From the top down, and inside out: tackling media’s diversity problem

August 19, 2021 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

The business case for diversity has been made time and again. In fact, according to McKinsey, the relationship between ethnic, gender, and cultural diversity and financial outperformance has only grown in the years since the company first outlined its importance. And when it comes to newsrooms, the philosophical, moral, and business rational for improving diversity are also evident.

It is certainly heartening to see the impressive — even historic — rise of female and diverse newsroom leadership in the past year or two. For the first time ever, Black executives lead every major broadcast news network in the U.S. Women and people of color have also assumed leadership roles at dozens of major media brands. However, as HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton, who is Black, suggested to CNN, truly diverse representation in media won’t be achieved simply by hiring women and people of color to fill top roles.

In order to better serve the diverse population it reaches, the media industry must reflect that population from the boardroom to product development and from the newsroom to the sales team. It must also reflect these audiences in its sourcing and reporting. Hiring is one of the most visible ways media organizations are changing right now. However, there are also a number of taking tactical approaches that are meaningfully moving the needle.

50/50 and beyond

In 2017, the BBC launched the 50:50 Project, challenging its teams to achieve 50% female representation in BBC content. Today, the company says that 70% of its content features 50% women contributors. And this initiative is not limited to the BBC. The project partners with more than 100 organizations in 26 countries. The network includes public and private media, academia, conference businesses, law, public relations, and corporations. The 50:50 Project recently announced it will also strive for better inclusion of ethnic minorities and disabled people and those. The aim to achieve a 50:20:12 balance.

The BBC approach is fairly straightforward. Participants monitor the numbers of contributors in their content to set benchmarks for their chosen diversity measures. They then track their progress against those benchmarks as content is produced. Teams continually share and discuss the data which informs editorial decisions.

The BBC has found that the longer teams monitor and share data regularly, the more likely they are to create cultural change. 50:50 has enabled teams to identify topic areas where women or other diversities are under-represented, such as science or sports. It has also encouraged content makers to think differently about the stories they choose to tell. Reporters continually seek new voices and different perspectives to enrich their output.

Working on workflow

NPR recently announced a new initiative to track the demographics of its sources in real time. The tool, called “Dex”, is integrated with the company’s content management system. Dex allows NPR reporters to easily monitor the diversity of sources’ race and ethnicity, gender identity, geographic location, and age range. Over time it will also become a robust database to identify more diverse sources as well.

Deputy director of news operations Rolando Arrieta told Poynter that incorporating the tool into the company’s CMS makes diversity an integral part of the newsgathering and reporting process. Dex also allows for continuous monitoring, unlike the annual diversity reports many organizations produce. And, as Arrieta points out, simply counting sources is not enough. Creating a continuously updated resource for diverse sourcing and integrating diversity into content creators’ processes facilitates continuous awareness and improvement.

More work

Tactics and tools beyond hiring and sourcing are increasingly emerging. They are intended to assist in diversity objectives, but sometimes create a business opportunity in themselves.

Nielson introduced a tool earlier this year designed to better allow content creators, distributors, and advertisers to quantify their progress in diversifying representation on the small screen. Gracenote Inclusion Analytics measures how the screen time of various identity groups (such as people from a specific gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity) stack up against certain benchmarks.

Bloomberg’s Gender-Equality Index (GEI) tracks the performance of public companies committed to disclosing their efforts to support gender equality through policy development, representation, and transparency. The organization’s New Voices initiative works to increase the representation of women and minority executives as sources in both online and on-air content. Recently, the company expanded its objectives to be more inclusive of a range of gender identities as well. 

Certainly, it is heartening to witness the recent spate of DEI executive appointments. It is encouraging to see the newsroom leadership begin to lose its pallor. However, it is also significant to see media companies not only recognize the value of diverse leadership, but also the critical role of incorporating diversity into the culture and workflow of their organizations. If diversity is the goal, there is no one simple answer. But with a combination of leadership, trust, transparency, and tools the media business can begin to build solutions.

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