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People of color at 'New York Times' get lower ratings in job reviews, union says

The New York Times building in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
The New York Times building in New York City.

An analysis of comprehensive data for roughly 1,000 The New York Times employees conducted by members of the union that represents its newsroom found that Black and Latino staffers are far less likely than their white peers to receive strong job ratings.

There are financial consequences to job ratings because they influence the size of employee bonuses, the NewsGuild union says. But staffers tell NPR the differential is even more important because it indicates an underlying systemic problem that the paper is failing to address. It is demoralizing, they say, and contributes to the premature departure of some colleagues.

The guild's study, released today, comes amidst uneasy negotiations over the newspaper's contract with the NewsGuild. The paper is still operating under the terms of the last one, which expired in 2021.

"Being Hispanic reduced the odds of receiving a high score by about 60%, and being Black cut the chances of high scores by nearly 50%," says the report from the NewsGuild chapter representing employees of The New York Times. The study, shared before its release with NPR News, reflects data stretching back to 2018, when a new rating system was put in place.

While there were some fluctuation — on average, the performance of Black employees rose over the intervening years, while it declined for Latinos at the organization — white workers were consistently assessed as outperforming their peers.

A senior spokeswoman for The New York Times said the paper has taken the guild's concerns seriously — evaluating similar objections a year ago and finding they did not reflect bias. The spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said the paper is evaluating the Guild's newest analysis.

"Having an equitable performance evaluation system is one of the most important levers we have to ensure we are developing and supporting the growth of our employees in a fair manner," Rhoades Ha said in a statement to NPR. "We're committed to a performance evaluation system that is fair and equitable, and we have been working to continuously improve it."

"There's still a long way to go"

"We started this analysis nearly two years ago from a place of honest inquiry," says Ben Casselman, an economics reporter at the paper who participated in the analysis and is an active member of the guild. "We wanted to know whether there were racial disparities. We hoped the answer would be no. Obviously that wasn't the case."

He says he loves reporting and working for the Times and that colleagues raised the matter with the paper's parent company in an effort to resolve how the evaluations were structured. The paper has instead sought to minimize the importance of the findings, according to the guild, suggesting it had used faulty logic. The guild interviewed scholars who design such methodology and they mocked the newspaper's reported stance.

"The Times is far from unique here. The Times is trying to build a more diverse staff. I believe they really mean that," Casselman says. "But building a diverse staff means more than hiring a diverse staff.... This whole process has been evidence there's still a long way to go on all the rest of it."

The Times spokeswoman contradicted the assertion that the paper has been dismissive of the process. Rhoades Ha says the paper is deep into what it calls a "multi-year action plan," started in February 2021, to "make the paper a great place to work for everyone." She says the plan included hiring new heads of talent management and compensation and benefits. It also includes establishing new departments to foster inclusion company-wide and to address newsroom culture.

"The NewsGuild raised a similar issue last year about our ratings," she adds. "We undertook our own expert analysis which gave us confidence that our ratings were not applied in a discriminatory way." The Times is already promising more improvements and is reviewing the latest guild findings, she says.

Testimonials shared with NPR from Times journalists offered some texture for their objections. Many journalists told the union of the bewilderment they felt at what they said were sharp gaps between glowing evaluations from editors and their numerical scores at the end of each year. Several noted that The Times had done investigations of workplace conditions at other major corporations, such as Amazon and Starbucks, and said they wanted the paper to more effectively address concerns closer to home.

"A Puerto Rican girl from Queens"

One former New York Times reporter who is Asian-American told NPR she wept after getting mediocre job ratings even though she had received positive verbal assessments. She said she saw no future and took a job with a competitor. (She said she did not have permission from her new employer to speak on the record.)

Frances Robles, a Florida-based investigative reporter for the Times national desk, says she went through whiplash after receiving a warm assessment from her editor and tepid numerical ratings in 2018, 2019, and 2020. "I don't understand their logic. I don't understand what they think they're doing," says Robles. Robles says she no longer has such concerns personally: her rating went up in 2021, after she complained about the dissonance, she says. But Robles says the dynamic remains dismaying for colleagues, especially younger staffers. (She serves on the guild's bargaining committee and also on a steering committee sponsored by the paper's human resources division for Latinos there.)

Like most Times journalists who spoke to NPR, Robles expresses admiration for the paper and appreciation of the work she gets to do. She points, however, to reporting she did that helped to uncover the misconduct of a former Brooklyn homicide detective in a slew of cases. Robles and three colleagues won a Polk award.

According to the Associated Press, 20 verdicts in cases the detective built were overturned. Robles says on a separate story, she had come across a convicted felon who claimed the detective had set him up, and that there were others. The prisoner told her he had unsuccessfully shared the same information with other reporters. Her willingness to listen, Robles says, was aided by the fact that she's "a Puerto Rican girl from Queens."

Diversity effort includes top appointees

Many organizations, inside and outside media, have recognized the need to build up and sustain a diverse staff and taken greater strides to seek to achieve those goals.

At The Times, a concerted effort on equity has included the assignment of a top-ranking editor, Rebecca Blumenstein, to focus on diversity and inclusion in the newsroom. The paper's chief human resources officer, Jacqueline Welch, has many years of experience in this area, including, most recently, a stint as chief diversity officer at Freddie Mac.

According to the most recent figures, posted publicly by the paper last year, people of color made up 33 percent of the company and 23 percent of its leadership positions in 2020. Both were up about 2 percent from the previous year. The paper set the goal to double the share of African-American and Hispanic colleagues by 2025.

The report added, however, that although the company workforce experienced a drop in attrition in 2020, "Black/African and Latino/Hispanic colleagues [left] at elevated rates." Rhoades Ha said the paper would be posting more current statistics soon.

Some Times staffers are questioning the effectiveness and the sincerity of the paper's efforts. They point to the experts interviewed by the guild, by name, who said the paper's methodology seemed as though it was designed to avoid registering the disparities found by the union's analysis.

"Everyone should care that there exists a universe of consultants and economists that companies hire to bury their bad diversity statistics," Robles says, "especially if that company is one of the greatest newspapers in the world, which seeks to speak truth to power, without fear or favor."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional information.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.