March 29, 2010 1:52PM

Dimensions of Diversity

David Boaz posed some questions about diversity promotion in American newsrooms in a post yesterday:

But if reflecting the community is essential, why are race and gender the only categories to be considered? Alexander doesn’t mention sexual orientation. Does the Post have gay (and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and questioning…) journalists in the correct proportions?

And how about ideological diversity? In the 2008 exit polls, 23 percent of voters described themselves as white, Protestant, born‐​again or evangelical Christians. A survey of American religion said that 34 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born‐​again. How many editors and reporters at the Post would describe themselves that way? I’ll bet that born‐​again Christians are the most underrepresented group in elite newsrooms.

I think David mostly means to offer these as a reductio of preference policies generally, but I think they’re fair enough questions on face — possibly because I’m less confident than David that there’s a useful operational concept of “merit” in reporting that can be disentangled from identity given some intransigent social facts about 21st century America. Past some threshold level of competence, a gay reporter is just going to be able to do a better job of reporting on the gay community than I am, and a black reporter is going to have an easier time covering Anacostia. And yes, a white evangelical will probably have an easier time covering white evangelicals — though it’s no mystery why editors might be more skittish about an active preference for historically privileged groups. In a better world, identity might be less important, but in the one we’ve got it’s likely to bear on a reporter’s effectiveness in certain beats. The principle has its limits — Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe are going to be brilliant covering just about anyone — but among mortal reporters you’d expect some effect.

That said, I can think of a couple reasons why religion and (especially) ideology might be less desirable diversity targets than immutable characteristics like race, sex, or orientation. First, outside the realm of screwball comedies from the 80s, there’s not all that much reason to worry about aspiring reporters trying to “pass” as black or Hispanic or (Jack Tripper notwithstanding) gay in hopes of securing a professional advantage. Religion and politics, by contrast, are fundamentally choices we make, and a system of preferences would create an unseemly incentive to — either cynically or subconsciously — drift in the favored direction. There is, I think, something clearly distasteful about a professional environment in which (say) a mainline Protestant reporter is perpetually awkwardly aware that his chances at promotion might turn on whether he’s prepared to declare himself “born again.”

Second, because religion and political ideology are identities fundamentally grounded in belief, they necessarily go beyond the reportorial desiderata of being able to understand and get access to a community you cover. They entail a commitment to seeing one group as systematically in the right in an array of different types of conflicts or disagreements with other groups. Making that kind of intellectual commitment a prerequisite of covering certain beats might run contrary to the norms of objectivity good newsrooms try to cultivate.

So that might be a legitimate reason for papers to aim for some level of representativeness along racial, gender, or sexual orientation lines, but omit religion and ideology — from the newsroom, at any rate. Those arguments don’t apply as strongly to the editorial page — where, indeed, we do often see conscious (if not always competent) attempts to maintain some semblance of balance among perspectives.