In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York’s Newsday began a daily, two-page feature titled “The Lost.” The section is devoted to profiles of the dead and missing victims. Early on, editors noticed the pages filled with white faces.
“I think it was because the firefighters and the people on the planes were mostly white males, and those were the names easiest to get,” said Charlotte Hall, Newsday’s managing editor.
After they came to that realization, Newsday staffers went out of their way to find a multicultural mixture of people who have suffered. They began to focus on the families of immigrants who worked in the penthouse restaurant, Windows on the World. The coverage went beyond profiles as reporters began to explore the unique challenges facing immigrant victims; those who entered the country illegally may not receive federal aid and may face deportation. Those who are of Middle Eastern heritage face prejudice, even though they have suffered, too.
The added depth in its victim coverage came largely as a result of the paper’s diverse staff, Hall said. In Newsday’s circulation area, 26 percent of the population are minorities. The paper’s newsroom has the same demographic breakdown.
Media organizations have spent years pushing for diverse hiring. Recently, some have begun to focus on a new question: If they achieve their staffing goals, what is the result? Some believe that diversity, when managed properly, makes for a newspaper that is more accurate, more fair and a truer representation of the community. But critics worry that too much diversity means too much liberalism and the silencing of conservative views.
A recently released study by the Poynter Institute titled “News & Race: Models of Excellence” analyzed six newspapers and six television stations. The news organizations were selected because they had positive reputations for being leaders in the diversity movement.
In part, the study concluded that “newsroom diversity and attitudes indicate the quantity and substance of coverage.” Researchers found an improvement in upbeat or neutral stories involving minorities; however, the majority of positive coverage was in sports or entertainment. Crime stories still made up a large part of total coverage of minorities.
The study also indicated that the willingness of newsroom staffers to buy into the diversity concept made a difference. For example, journalists at the San Jose Mercury News unanimously supported diversity efforts. Of the six newspapers studied, the Mercury-News ran the most minority-related stories and the largest proportion of longer minority stories.
David Yarnold, the paper’s executive editor, believes a diverse staff results in a “richer, more textured, more authentic and more accurate newspaper.”
Another study, conducted by Glen T. Cameron of the Missouri School of Journalism, Patricia A. Curtin of the University of North Carolina, and Richard Gross of the University of Idaho, analyzed the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press and the Los Angeles Times. The researchers did a content analysis and interviewed both staffers and readers. They concluded that a reporter’s racial identity was more important than his or her gender in determining content.
“Professionally trained women in a newsroom have been socialized. They have the same Rolodexes as men,” Cameron said. “It’s not as much of a crusade; you just take who you can get.”
In Los Angeles, after the hiring of 35 new reporters fluent in Spanish, the ratio of stories with Hispanic characters and sources went up – but the stories were not exclusively written by the new hires.
“(Management’s hiring of Hispanic reporters) sent a message that it’s OK to use Latino actors and sources,” Cameron said.
Reader responses to the papers varied. In general, the Asian community was less concerned about whether they were covered. Hispanic reader approval fell in the middle. Black males between ages 30 and 50 were most concerned, indicating there was too little coverage of them and that progress was being made too slowly.
A recent reader survey at Newsday yielded slightly different results, Hall said. Overall, black readers were nearly as positive about the paper as whites, but said coverage of their communities was lacking. Hispanics were not as positive.
“That’s one challenge we’re facing every day,” Hall said of covering Hispanics.
She hopes to help solve it by hiring more Hispanic reporters who are fluent in Spanish.
But not everyone in the industry agrees that diversity is a good thing. William McGowan, author of “Coloring the News,” said that instead of expanding the breadth of acceptable opinion and perspective reflected in news coverage, diversity has narrowed it. “Diversity has encouraged political correctness. As a result, coverage has wound up less candid, less complete and less ideologically diverse,” he said. McGowan cites several examples in his book, including coverage of affirmative action and gays in the military.
John Leo, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, agreed, saying major newspapers cannot be relied upon to do an accurate job of reporting on race.
And he questions media outlets that tout their successes in the diversity arena.
“Diversity in a newsroom is great,” he said. “Having blacks, gays and feminists in a newsroom is great. But what about Russian Jews? Turkish immigrants? Fundamentalist Christians? At best, (what news organizations are doing now) is a very tentative step in the right direction. At worst, it’s a sham.”
When news organizations hire people of color to cover their own communities or issues, objectivity suffers, McGowan said.
“That winds up with a lot of conflicts of interest. Reporters lose their professional neutrality and cheerleading takes the wheel.”
Caesar Andrews, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors and editor of Gannett News Service, says exactly the opposite is true.
“When you work to include all these different groups in coverage, it gives you license to do the hard reporting: negative issues, bad trends, pathologies. If that’s the only time you report on me, it’s out of context. You’re not doing your job if you don’t go after those hard stories.”
Gina Barton is a reporter for the Indianapolis Star.