Leonor Ayala is the Senior Director of the News Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC. Leonor has worked as a producer and reporter for 20 years, including stints on the NBC News assignment desk, the primetime news magazine ‘Dateline,’ and most recently as Northeast & Midwest Bureau Chief for Telemundo network news.
There has been a lot of recent coverage around the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)— from the 2020 summer call-to-action to diversify corporate boards, to the argument that organizations serve their customers better if they reflect their market base’s diversity. This focus has not only led DEI efforts to become top of mind for several companies, but has also left many wondering what DEI means, who’s included, and why it matters. Since we launched NBCU Academy, we’ve received a lot of questions about the program, our partners and our goals — what does DEI mean to us at NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC?
THE NEWSROOM AND DEI
As a newsroom, we understand the nuance that varied perspectives can bring to our reporting and coverage of critical, complex issues— both nationally and across the globe. We value how even beyond race and ethnicity, differences in geography, age, gender, ability status, and the many other facets of people’s identities and lived experiences can better inform our storytelling.
We know diverse teams lead to a better work product. A wide range of perspectives can be a catalyst for stories and coverage that are analytical and deep and boldly tackle provocative topics and uncover potential solutions to societal issues, including systems of inequity.
This 360-degree journalism continues to be a challenge. A recent Pew Research survey provides a sobering look at how newsrooms across the country fare on diversity. Newsroom employees are less diverse than U.S. workers and the disparity in race and ethnicity exists across all age groups. According to Pew, non-Hispanic whites account for about three-fourths(74%) of newsroom employees ages 18 to 49, and they represent 85% among those 50 and older.
Newsrooms, including ours, can achieve a more holistic view to our coverage by bringing the best and brightest to the table to pitch, dissect and discuss stories of the day, as well as to plan for the enterprise stories that require us to dig deep. This proverbial table needs to have voices who will ask probing questions, challenge the status quo, and go beyond a headline.
Now, here’s the inclusion piece: every voice at the table needs to feel free to speak up and raise the tough questions that lead us to better storytelling and help fight groupthink. It is imperative to create a culture where everyone is heard and respected. Of course, this doesn’t mean every story will get the green light, and that is okay — it is part of the process. As journalists, we should all strive to be more transparent, when possible, about the reasons why a pitch doesn’t become a story; this presents a learning opportunity for those trying to develop and hone their craft. These are learning moments that can lead to organic mentorship, which in a competitive newsroom, can sometimes be hard to come by, but if done well can make a critical difference for many early career journalists.
So, what is the challenge in getting more diverse voices to the table? While we don’t purport to have all the answers, we know that equity is an important factor. Equity is about access and opportunity, who has access to decision-makers or networks that can help them get an interview and land an entry-level job that will set them up for success and on an upward career trajectory. But access and opportunity are not created equally, and we certainly understand our own limitations in that regard.
NBCU ACADEMY: THE BACKSTORY
This past Summer, our NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde announced the Fifty Percent Challenge Initiative, an aggressive action plan to ensure our employee base is comprised of 50% women and 50% people of color.
NBCU Academy was born out of this foundation and an understanding that we could be more intentional in our efforts to be more inclusive on and off screen. We have set out to help train the next generation of content creators and prepare them with hands-on, real-world experiences to provide clear expectations about the skill set required to succeed in a newsroom and beyond.
And we decided that the best way to tackle this challenge would be to start at the beginning of the pipeline – college campuses. As we sought to partner with universities and colleges across the country, our efforts revolved around a central question: who are we not including? With that in mind, we fanned out across the country researching new partnership opportunities. While we were familiar with some schools, we were introduced to others for the first time. We selected schools on a wide range of criteria, from geographic location to demographic makeup; from the potential to grow and explore innovative ways to teach journalism and content creation to the overall financial need of the student body population.
Our campus partnerships are about putting our words into action and helping drive the change we want to see. We know there are several barriers to entry for many young people. These include admission and proximity to internship sites, financial compensation and access to resources that help complete reporting projects, which in turn can help them be competitive for that first job. Our partner campuses will help us reach these students directly and help nurture and grow their curiosity while providing pathways to a career in journalism. In essence, we are helping build a strong foundation for success that will help students, young professionals and working journalists gain access to newsrooms and work toward a fulfilling and meaningful job.
Consider these additional figures: More than three-quarters (77%) of newsroom employees – those who work as reporters, editors, photographers and videographers in the newspaper, broadcasting and internet publishing industries – are non-Hispanic whites, according to the analysis of 2012-2016 American Community Survey data.
These numbers are not reflective of diverse communities’ lack of interest in storytelling and content creation. What they do demonstrate is the urgent need to ensure the diversity of voices at the editorial table.
The bottom line is that our industry carries an amazing responsibility as the fourth estate. It affects how people understand themselves in the context of the broader world around them. The stories we tell and how we tell them have an impact on how younger generations think about their own futures and what they’re capable of.
A diverse newsroom is a healthy newsroom. NBCU Academy is about helping to prepare the next generation of journalists and content creators by equipping them with the best tools to carry on the legacy of the groundbreaking storytellers that came before them.
For more lessons in journalism and helpful tips for pursuing a career in media, visit NBCU Academy’s YouTube channel.