Why Every News Organization Needs a Source Audit
And a plan for what to do once you have the data
Journalism, at its core, is about reporting facts and information to help people become better-informed members of society. The information and ideas in our journalism influences how we see the world, and a big part of that world view depends on whose voices are included. Since its inception, the staff of KQED have worked hard to be reflective of the Bay Area through the stories we cover. We strive to be fair, accurate and truthful.
KQED is a highly trusted provider of news for the Bay Area and California, but we have questions about how accurately we represent the people in our nine-county region. We live in one of the most diverse parts of the nation, but disparities exist, including in our own newsroom, and we wanted to know what they were. So we set out to develop a retroactive source audit of our content to know where we stand when it comes to reflecting our communities because despite our best intentions, we won’t know who is in our stories until we count them. A source audit involves identifying certain characteristics — such as gender, race, age and location — of people who appear in our stories as sources and comparing that information to local demographic data.
We have been thinking about what it truly means to be a diverse and inclusive organization. Who gets to speak on behalf of a community? Whose perspective is elevated? Who gets to be on air and be heard by hundreds of thousands of listeners per week? We needed a baseline measurement so that we could know our starting point. We decided to look more closely at three types of data on diversity: staff, audiences and sources.
Over the last few years, news organizations have been commissioning diversity reports to get a better understanding of their staff makeup. Those data points usually include gender and race/ethnicity. A more complete diversity report differentiates between news staff and the non-news staff in order to see who is directly involved in shaping the news. Good reports also separate staff from managers, i.e. those in positions of leadership. And the best reports are published online in order to establish transparency and accountability, so audiences can see the organization, warts and all. News staff diversity surveys have shown big gaps when compared to local communities; at most news organizations in most communities, white people are overrepresented in staff and leadership positions in cities small and large.
But knowing about your staff diversity isn’t enough.
Every news organization has audience data by way of ComScore or Nielsen reports. They have a good idea about who they can sell ads to or convert into members. Having data about sources is fairly new territory, but it’s a crucial thing to measure because sources are a vital connection between staff and audiences.
We already know staff and source diversity at news outlets is pretty bleak. Meanwhile, the sources those journalists rely on and have on air or online as experts can perpetuate bias. For example, one news organization found that 75 percent of their sources were male and that most sources were white, contrary to local demographics. Another news organization’s source audit revealed that 67 percent of sources were male and 83 percent were white. It takes a lot of courage to make unflattering findings public, but it also reveals a commitment to the principles of transparency journalists seek in other institutions and a call to be better.
The KQED source audit (which you can find here) was new to KQED, but we learned a lot that we didn’t want to keep to ourselves. This isn’t typically the work of journalists, so we’d like to share some lessons about how to rely on existing resources while looking for ways to fund the work that’s outside the normal course of people’s regular jobs.
9 LESSONS ABOUT GETTING A SOURCE AUDIT DONE
Demonstrate how a source audit fits into the big picture
Many news organizations have a mission that’s supported by a strategic plan. In this day and age, those strategic plans should include developing more diverse audiences. If it doesn’t, find a way to change the strategic plan with the support of senior leaders and staff. As we stated above, a source audit is one of three data points (staff, sources, audiences) that will help you understand how you’re serving your community. And as we’ve seen with other news organizations and our own, source audits always reveal areas of improvement.
Research the costs
It will help the case you make to folks higher up the food chain if you can say how much a source audit costs. A paid source audit might seem beyond your budget, but remember: like all things in the business world, fees and services are negotiable. Aim high, but if a source audit seems too expensive, ask for a smaller audit sample.
If you’re looking for auditors, there are several ways to identify one. If you see a source audit online, look to see how it was funded and see if it might be a fit for your organization. KQED contracted with Impact Architects and the team has worked with several news organizations. Some news orgs depend on existing staff by reallocating a few weeks of a reporter’s time to do the audit; some reporters track their own sources regardless of any formal process. There have also been recently published reports by academics at Temple University about the Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage.
Get buy-in from the top
We’re not saying this just because she’s our boss (ok, maybe), but Chief Content Officer Holly Kernan has been helpful and supportive in guiding this process. Having buy-in from the top can help to navigate the intricacies of a big organization.
Talk to others who have done it
We learned a lot by talking with news orgs that have already done the work and shared their data publicly. We also learned from studying other orgs like NPR, KUT, KUOW, Reveal, the New York Times and Gastropod. We also hope to be a resource for news organizations looking to start this type of work. We hope you reach out to us if you’d like to talk more!
Talk to other departments
The three departments that helped us a great deal were human resources, audience intelligence and fundraising. Human resources and audience intelligence deal regularly with data and demographics; talking with someone who already parses data about race and ethnicity, age and geography is incredibly helpful. Our audience intelligence team already analyzes content by platform and knowing how they do it made selecting content areas for a source audit much more navigable. Our fundraising department knows which philanthropies are interested in helping non-profit news organizations like KQED get the funding needed to do this work.
It takes time and LOTS of meetings
Our conversation about a KQED source audit started in October 2019 at a News Integrity Initiative (NII) summit at the Newmark Journalism School in New York City (Disclaimer: Ki does contract work for school). The meeting elevated the need for policies and processes that actually move the needle.
The NII meeting could have been just another conference filled with exciting ideas that get lost in the daily grind back home. To keep these ideas alive we had to conduct the sometimes boring work of implementing change and evolving culture.
We had so many meetings. And part of those meetings involved unpacking some of the racism and trauma caused by others. DEI work is messy and uncomfortable in part because of Americans’ deep discomfort with talking about race. But, again, racism doesn’t go away just because you don’t like talking about it.
Much of the meeting work involved preparing presentations to get buy-in from different parts of the company for both the source audit and the overall DEI work happening at KQED. We estimated that for every deck we presented, we met eight times to prepare. Then we presented the same deck five more times to different groups of stakeholders. A sample list of stakeholders include: our head of content, senior leadership team, senior content managers, news staff, and all staff.
Use the Triangle Offense
Ok, so, some of us really got into “The Last Dance” Chicago Bulls documentary (not Jonathan, because he’s a Detroiter and a die-hard Pistons fan). Looking back, the source audit could not have succeeded as a one-person project — it’s just too much work. But the three of us working together created a triangle offense that helped us deal with different parts of the problem or answer questions when someone was dealing with fires. We always had someone to pass to. Nothing slipped through the cracks and we were able to keep ourselves accountable and keep going.
There will be disruptions
This source audit happened during several major events. The pandemic forced us to immediately figure out how to work safely and stay on air because KQED is an essential service: reporting news about a crisis during a crisis was our top priority. We were also unspared of the financial blows caused by the pandemic — revenue dropped and KQED had to make cuts to its operating budget. But we persisted, and by the end of June, we got the green light to pursue the source audit.
Plan your next steps for after you get the data
It might come as a surprise that after all this work, a retroactive source audit is only the beginning. Here are Impact Architects’ recommendations based on our source audit:
- Increase representation of women on shows with 55% or more men
- Interview more women as expert sources
- Do more stories in parts of the region/state we don’t cover as often
- Pursue greater representation of white and Asian/Asian American women
- Pursue greater representation of Black and Hispanic/Latinx men
We won’t be able to commission another source audit in the near future so we’re in the process of doing it ourselves. We’re borrowing heavily from NPR’s playbook and using a source questionnaire used at the end of each interview so reporters can collect the information as they’re reporting. And it’s not just the tools we’re borrowing but the lessons. It’s no secret that Americans have a hard time talking about race. But we learned that sources often appreciated the questionnaires once they heard what the audit is trying to accomplish. Some welcome the conversation. This was the case at Minnesota Public Radio where Jonathan helped deploy a questionnaire with Eric Garcia McKinley.
Some may feel that asking people about their race, gender, age or other personal details is an invasion of privacy. In some ways, it is. And it’s intimidating to ask these questions when we may have avoided them in the past. But this is 2021. We are living in different times. If asked in a respectful way, with context, sources have largely been willing to give this information. Sources know we want to do better and they know this data is important.
We’re now using the source audit and staff data to help guide what we do next. There is nothing perfect about the work we’re doing, and none of it captures every question and concern about DEI in our newsroom. But it’s where we are right now, and anyone who’s in the work knows it’s forever work.