How Trump Is Exposing Media's Diversity Problem

The Republican frontrunner’s divisive rhetoric reveals demographic disparities that have inadvertently contributed to his surge.

Jeffrey Phelps / AP

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has tapped into voters’ resentment of the Republican establishment. But his aggressive rhetoric has also revealed the pervasiveness of a class-based divide between the media and many Americans.

Trump supporters often decry the elite media and Washington-centric “culture class” that’s overly preoccupied with political correctness and straying from “middle-class cultural values.” It helps explain why the Republican frontrunner has garnered such a strong backing.

“What Trump has managed to do is tap into that cynicism or skepticism to construct a message,” Alex Williams, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies trends in journalism, told me. “You can’t trust politicians or experts to make America great again, but you can trust me because I speak the blunt truth.” Trump’s bombast reveals tensions in the United States that, at their root, have much to do with the lack of diversity in the media.

Williams notes that “the media is rarely as diverse as the people they claim to represent, which is a serious problem.” Some parts of that problem are thoroughly documented, and frequently discussed. Though the gender gap has narrowed, racial minorities are almost entirely absent from many journalism jobs. According to the 2015 American Society of News Editors census, blacks and Hispanics make up only 4.74 and 4.19 percent, respectively, of newsroom employees.

Minorities tend to have less time and fewer resources to work on campus newspapers, complete unpaid internships, and move through hiring networks. But that’s equally true of other Americans whose families lack financial resources, or professional connections.

Williams says that journalists are “disproportionately white, male, middle-to-upper class, and college educated.” A study conducted in 2013 by Indiana University professors Lars Willnat and David Weaver reported that 91 percent of journalists are white, 62 percent are men, 92 percent are college graduates (primarily majoring in journalism or communication), and 7 percent are Republicans, with most journalists identifying as Independents.

Williams believes that most members of the public aren’t aware of these demographic disparities when they’re critical of the media. Instead, according to Williams, they view the media as having an “elitism problem in that journalists nearly always rely on the official stances of politicians and experts—which amplify the voices of the powerful.”

The critique of the media is not reserved to Trump or his supporters. Ted Cruz has denounced the media for avoiding “substantive issues.” Bernie Sanders’s campaign has also accused the media of being biased—his team alleged a “blackout” in the corporate media.

What’s striking about the Trump campaign, however, is how it has capitalized on the rift between the media and its audience. Williams points out that, save for a few Tea Party politicians, policy experts generally refrain from making polarizing comments about immigration or race relations. “As a result, citizens that held controversial opinions on these issues likely felt unheard,” he says. “With a leading presidential candidate,” Williams adds, “journalists are being forced to talk about the viewpoints that Trump is bringing up—even though they have typically been avoided in the past because they are offensive and politically infeasible.”

Some Trump supporters still aren’t comfortable, and even feel embarrassed, defending Trump’s positions in public. “I have dreams where I go on the record and say that I’m Hispanic and I love Trump,” a 22-year-old Hispanic male who backs Trump told me. He declined to have his name published, however, because he’s interviewing for internships and did not want his name showing up next to Trump’s online. “My support is not just a fling or based on superficial facts. I have a political-science degree from one of the best schools in the country. I did my research, formulated an opinion, and I support him and it upsets me that I don’t have the freedom to talk about it,” he said.

Other supporters feel that Trump has given them a platform from which to express their views. Natalie E. Crawford, a 24-year-old Trump supporter from Chicago, said that the media’s diversity problem is concerning mainly because of gaps in coverage. Citing individual liberty and national security as pressing issues that the media fails to cover, she said that “today’s media doesn’t speak for anyone” due to its corporate and for-profit structure. “Trump is challenging the status quo of every major news source in the country,” she says. “He ... has taken much of the control of the conversation away from all media singlehandedly.”

Trump has left reporters facing a difficult balancing act. Cover him too much, and the targets of his rhetoric will feel twice attacked. Cover him too little, and his supporters will feel dismissed, bolstering his appeal.

Trump’s rise has exposed a gap between the views many Americans hold, and those that are commonly aired in the media. Williams says, “[Trump] is forcing America to realize that there is a large group of Americans who are skeptical of the media, of policy experts, who believe that blunt criticism and simple policies (oftentimes targeted towards marginalizing less powerful groups) would be better for America. And for the moment, those people love Trump for legitimizing their views.”

That won’t just disappear with the progression of the election cycle.