May 28, 2024

Andrew Leitch

In 2021, Greater Public conducted its inaugural survey on Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) practices within public media. A key finding at the time was that a station’s level of DEI activity was directly linked to its employees’ perception of progress. Amid a backdrop of newly identified needs, the push was for organizations to intensify their DEI efforts—launch more initiatives, broaden engagement, and deepen community ties.

A Shift From Initiatives to Lived Experiences

A follow-up survey conducted in fall, 2023 of more than 550 public media employees reveals a deeper understanding of what influences perceptions of DEI progress and how employees experience DEI efforts within their organizations. While organization-wide and externally-facing initiatives were previously seen as main indicators of DEI progress, the newest survey reveals that employees’ perception of progress is now more closely tied to whether they’ve personally experienced discrimination in their role at work. What’s more, fewer employees reported experiencing discrimination in organizations where they felt “safe and supported discussing difficult topics.” This connection underscores a critical challenge: Public media’s ability to attract and retain diverse audiences hinges on building genuinely inclusive workplaces where open communication is encouraged. External initiatives are no longer enough. Cultivating a culture of internal inclusion and belonging is equally important.

The Disconnect Between Programs and Progress

It’s perhaps obvious but crucial to highlight that personal experiences of discrimination sharply reduce one’s view of their organization’s commitment to DEI. An unsettling 30% of survey respondents reported having experienced discrimination in their role during the past year. Less than 50% of respondents who experienced discrimination said their organization has shown a strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, while 85% of those who did not report experiencing discrimination said their organization has a strong commitment. This fact held true regardless of age, seniority, race, gender, or organization size. 

“[Organizations hold up] programming and initiatives to tell staff ‘We are doing DEI work,’” explains Sway Seward, Greater Public’s Equity and Inclusion Advisor and CEO of AfroArcher Enterprises. “But oftentimes BIPOC working in those organizations had to have intense conversations to get [DEI] programs off the ground, and then they experience discrimination. So there’s a disconnect. [They conclude] that this organization is not doing what it said it would do.”

There aren’t many employees who report feeling “safe and supported discussing difficult topics,” at work; this was one of the lowest-rated aspects of the survey. But one data point stands out: The staff who do operate in a safe climate report much lower rates of discrimination. This suggests that a skilled approach to addressing conflict can serve as a protective element against workplace discrimination.

Building Trust and Dismantling Bias

Minal Bopaiah, an equity strategist who wrote Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives, sheds light on the connection between bias and communication. “If an injustice occurs in the workplace, addressing the injustice requires difficult conversations,” she explains. In a high-trust environment, these conversations can be open and frank, allowing for accountability and moving forward. Conversely, a lack of trust makes addressing issues difficult. In low-trust organizations, “When you make a mistake, even if it’s unintentional, it’s more likely to be perceived as discrimination.”

“Discrimination,” Bopaiah adds, “Is when somebody’s impression of you is based on stereotypes of how they think people of certain identities should behave.”

This may be presented as feedback, but, Bopaiah points out, “Often feedback is just people telling you what their biases are.” An example might be telling a woman she’s “overly confident.” 

“Really good feedback should be behavior-specific,” Bopaiah explains. Observable behaviors might include advising someone to “ask more questions, or cite your research,” she says. “[That’s not an] opinion, [but rather], objective things that you can actually ask for in an individual.”

In organizations that welcome difficult conversations, staff may be more likely to challenge the bias they receive and examine the biases they hold. “[They] may be more likely to ask, ‘Where is that [opinion] coming from?’ and ‘What does it mean to say that to a woman?’” Bopaiah says. When bias is identified in a workplace with skilled and open communication, there is more opportunity to work through it.

"Public Media Nice" and the Importance of Uncomfortable Conversations

Michelle Faust Raghavan, Founder and Executive Director of Claridad Media, examines best practices to create a culture of belonging for BIPOC journalists in the news industry. Raghavan identifies “Public Media Nice”—the reluctance to confront uncomfortable truths—as a significant barrier to building higher-trust workplaces. “It’s not comfortable to tell somebody ‘You’re messing up and this is how,’” Raghavan points out. “You can’t give feedback without trust, but you can’t build trust without giving feedback that’s actionable so a person can be getting better.” 

“[And] ‘I don’t like your tone’ is not actionable feedback,” Raghavan adds.

In fact, the lack of actionable feedback is one of the biggest barriers to professional advancement for BIPOC in the workplace across industries, especially for women of color. “[Feedback] is more likely to be harsher, less frequent, more punitive for Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and people in oppressed groups,” Raghavan explains. “The worst parts of our [workplace] cultures affect everyone, but [historically marginalized employees] are often the canaries in the coal mine.”

Emotional labor – defined as the work of managing one’s emotional regulation and emotional expression – is often undervalued and delegated to lower-paid and/or less powerful employees. Raghavan notes that when managers avoid discomfort, they not only reduce the opportunities for their reports to learn and grow, but they also perpetuate the expectation that discomfort should be managed by those with less power. Instead, Raghavan stresses, “Emotional labor should be paid labor.”

This means that managers must be expected to develop their skills as professional coaches, Raghavan says. “Once you’ve made the investment of hiring somebody, it is a better use of your time, and their time. They’re going to trust you more, and they’re more likely to have that loyalty of staying with you.”

The Path Toward Progress in Public Media’s DEI Efforts

Greater Public’s most recent survey paints a concerning picture, but also shows us a path toward improvement. Employee perception of DEI progress hinges on lived experiences, not just external initiatives. Staff will view DEI programs as performative if they continue to actively face bias in the workplace. While the DEI work many stations have done is admirable, our organizations must go beyond symbolic gestures and external initiatives to foster safety, belonging, and opportunity within the workplace itself. 

When employees – especially managers – develop the skills to have uncomfortable conversations and give actionable feedback, it can lead to a virtuous cycle where all employees feel heard and valued, helping to alleviate the disillusionment felt by people across identities and experiences. By prioritizing internal inclusion and open communication, public media can bridge the gap between aspiration and reality, building the diverse and successful future we envision.

If you would like Greater Public to present the 2023 survey data to your organization, or receive a copy of the survey data, get in touch with us.

Andrew Leitch