NPR’s diversity targets don’t seem so "aggressive" once you consider a reasonable baseline

Claire Daviss, January 25, 2021

Yesterday an opinion columnist for the Washington Post argued that companies — and in particular news media outlets — that aim to “look like America” were setting themselves up for failure. Megan McArdle wrote:

[O]lder, Whiter generations disproportionately make up our workforce, and our customers. If we don’t account for those generational effects when designing diversity initiatives, we’re setting ourselves up for frustration, or worse.

In particular, she took a swing at NPR, which is pursuing what she calls “aggressive diversity targets” for their new hires. But while McArdle has a lot to say about what companies shouldn’t do — e.g., they shouldn’t try to match national racial diversity — she doesn’t give much in the way of what they should do. So what would be a reasonable diversity target for the new hires for news media companies?

The data

To estimate a reasonable baseline, I use data from the five most recent years (2017-2021) of the Current Population Survey’s ASEC supplement (CPS), downloaded from IPUMS. The CPS survey is a nationally representative sample that is administered monthly to 65,000 households in the U.S., asking questions about individuals’ gender, race, ethnicity, labor force participation, education, and geography. It’s a great source for wanting to know: who is out there in the workforce?

McArdle assumes that news media companies generally hire people with college degrees. That’s believable. And it holds up in the CPS data: 89 percent of journalists had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 32 percent of the full U.S. population aged 18-65.

McArdle also assumes that news media companies generally hire older people. But my experience as a scrappy 20-something living in D.C. taught me that there are hordes of journalist interns and fellows out there, many of them straight out of college. I did a quick t-test comparing the mean age of journalists versus non-journalists with a college degree in the U.S. who were working last year. Journalists were an average of 37 years old. Non-journalists were about 5 years older on average, a statistically significant difference (p<.001).

So in estimating the racial diversity of the potential news media workforce, I restrict my CPS sample to individuals who have at least a bachelor’s degree. And I look across ages, not just on older generations. The labor market, by definition, includes people who are working, so I restrict my sample to people who were working full-time in the year before their interview. (For those curious, my sample size is 133,785 people. In all analyses I use sample weights provided by the CPS.)

In these analyses, I’ll focus on the percentage of the population that is white (non-Hispanic or Latino) or racial or ethnic minorities: Black or African American, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic or Latino, and other non-white races or ethnicities. This analysis is a gross flattening of these categories, but simple enough to address McArdle’s point that there just aren’t enough young people of color out there.

A reasonable baseline

So, what does “bachelor’s degree America” look like? First, let’s take a look at Figure 1, which shows the racial composition of people in my sample by birth cohort.

Figure 1 shows that, indeed, older generations are whiter. In this sample, about one in five people who were born 1955-1959 (people aged 61-66 in 2021) identify as racial or ethnic minorities. But there are also many not-so-young (with apologies to my 40-something friends) individuals who are racial or ethnic minorities. For each of the cohorts born 1975 to 1999 (people aged 22-46 in 2021), about one in three people are racial or ethnic minorities.

One third of the U.S. workforce aged 22-46 with a bachelor’s degree? That’s a pretty good proportion for U.S. companies to draw from as they seek to diversify.

And the proportion of the workforce that is non-white gets even bigger when we look at metropolitan areas, where news media outlets are largely concentrated (see Figure 2). To make this point even finer, NPR likely draws a large portion of its workforce from the D.C. metropolitan area, given that is where it is headquartered. In the D.C. area, there are even more non-white workers to be recruited. (See Figure 3, a noisier figure since we’re now looking at a smaller sample size, of course).

There are many other reasons why NPR (and news media) might have access to a labor market that is less white than the national labor market. For example, progressive-leaning institutions might attract more people of color, NPR is quite close to Howard University, an HBCU with a prestigious communications program, and so on. But the key point is: NPR’s aggressive goals look less aggressive when compared to a reasonable baseline. There are non-white workers out there who are highly qualified to work throughout the ranks of news media outlets.

More importantly, it is a valuable goal to hire people of color. NPR does serve a national audience and should seek to reach customers who are diverse. Having diverse voices represented is, reasonably, part of that mission. Plus, many recent studies have found that diversity increases company’s performance.

There are many ways that companies can pursue diversity targets without violating ethical principles or discrimination laws. For example, companies can encourage people of color to apply. They can do targeted recruitment at HBCUs, among professional and pre-professional groups for underrepresented groups, and so on. Having a reputation of being a good place for people of color to work also helps. And finally, companies can think about how they’re structuring their hiring process to make sure they’re targeting the skills they need, not arbitrary or vague criteria.

If companies want to stay in the year 1955, by all means, they should use that year as their measuring stick. But if they’re interested in serving America today, hiring the best current talent and the future leaders of America, it’s not a bad idea to think about ways to attract and hire diverse individuals. Companies' success may depend on it.

Does your company want to diversify your workforce? Are you interested in understanding your hiring process? I am always looking for companies who are interested in research collaborations. Reach out if you’re interested! I’d love to chat.