When alternative rock music icon Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, it was more than a shock to the music industry – it was a crisis for The Oregonian. Searching the newsroom for someone who’d heard of the band Nirvana, the editors realized there was only one reporter under the age of 30.
“It was a real wake-up call,” said George Rede, director of recruiting and training. “How can we claim to be a diverse newspaper if we don’t have any stories of interest to young people?”
In the intervening years, the paper’s management has worked to diversify its staff, hiring reporters of different ages, genders, geographical regions, racial and ethnic backgrounds. But it didn’t stop with hiring. The new cadre of journalists has spent time getting in touch with the communities they cover.
“We knew about the Muslim community way before Sept. 11 because of that,” Rede said. “After Sept. 11, we weren’t starting from scratch, saying, ‘Where is Afghanistan?’ and ‘What is Ramadan?’”
Since 1968, when the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, concluded there was racial bias in media hiring and coverage, newsrooms across the country have worked to change their composition. Journalism organizations have poured millions into minority training and recruitment, yet most still fall short of the magic formula: a newsroom staff that reflects the community it covers. A weakening 21st century economy makes it harder to move beyond that goal to retention, advancement and production of a more inclusive – and therefore higher quality – editorial product.
In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors deemed 2000 as the year in which the percentage of minorities in newsroom jobs should match the percentage in the community. Just 3.95 percent of journalists were people of color in 1978; the minority population in the United States was just under 17 percent. By last year, newsrooms included 11.85 percent journalists of color, but the national minority figure had skyrocketed to more than 30 percent.
ASNE has pushed its deadline date for parity to 2025. But in 2001, the numbers fell for the first time in the 23 years ASNE has tracked them, with journalists of color making up just 11.64 percent of daily newspaper staffs.
Yet just when the drive for diversity seems to need more resources, there are fewer to be had. At newspapers such as The Oregonian, which used the economic boom of the late 1990s to literally change the face of its newsroom, hiring freezes abound. From 1993 to 2000, the paper averaged 24 full-time newsroom hires per year – 11 of them women and seven people of color. In 2001, just 11 full-timers were hired.
One way to fill the gap is through minority internships. Charlotte Hall, managing editor of Newsday in New York, credits the Tribune Company’s Minority Editorial Training Program with much of her paper’s hiring success. At Newsday, 26 percent of the journalists are people of color – the same ratio as in the community.
The minority training program works to produce both seasoned reporters and copy editors – about 10 of each annually. The prospective reporters are trained at the Los Angeles Times. The aspiring copy editors do their stints at Newsday. Hall always keeps one of the copy editors at her paper once the training is over. Newsday always gets one reporter through the program, as well.
Glen T. Cameron, Ph.D., a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, applauds minority internships as a recruiting tool.
“Affirmative internships lead to people getting a break and getting into newsrooms. It’s a way to get some credibility, get a job, and not be viewed as a token,” he said.
Yet at The Oregonian and elsewhere, minority internship programs have fallen victim to shrinking budgets. Rede of The Oregonian said the paper hopes to reinstate the program soon. The 2001 ASNE survey reported that the number of minority interns increased, but the percentage of minority interns dropped from 31.4 in 2000 to 29.0 in 2001.
The shortfall of funds for journalistic training begins earlier than internship programs; even high school programs are suffering, said Wanda Lloyd, executive director of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University. Public schools in urban areas feel the pain particularly acutely. A lot of families – especially those with ethnic backgrounds – don’t subscribe to newspapers, which deters young people from considering journalism as a career.
“And school newspapers are the first things to be cut in urban schools when the money runs out,” Lloyd said.
Not so with Lloyd’s employer, the Freedom Forum. The Arlington, Va.-based organization recently made major reductions in programs and staffing due to huge investment and real estate losses. Its endowment, which was $1.1 billion at the end of 1999, is now just $700 million. The Freedom Forum has laid off 100 of its 280 staffers and closed five offices. Yet three priorities remain: the First Amendment, a museum dedicated to the history of journalism known as the Newseum, and promoting newsroom diversity.
One way the Freedom Forum works toward its diversity goal is through Lloyd’s program, which lures people of color out of other careers and into newsrooms. Local newspapers sponsor community members for a 12-week course in reporting, writing, editing and news values. Because students at the Diversity Institute have strong ties to the community, they are more likely to remain there once they become journalists. In this way, the program addresses not only recruitment, but also one of the industry’s greatest challenges when it comes to diversity: retention.
In its most recent survey, ASNE cited poor retention rates as the reason for the overall decline of multiculturalism in newsrooms. In 2001, newsrooms reached a 10-year high in the hiring of full-time minority journalists. But even more left the industry. As a result, the total number of minority reporters in newsrooms declined to 6,563 – down from 6,665 the previous year. The minority retention rate plummeted from 96 percent to 90 percent; while the rate for non-minorities fell from 96 percent to just 95 percent.
A project by the Poynter Institute titled “News & Race: Models of Excellence,” the initial findings of which were presented in October, concluded that “although news organizations work hard to identify and to recruit journalists of color, these journalists are generally more unhappy with the job than white journalists once they’re there. African-Americans are more likely to leave the newspaper business than are white or other minority journalists. African-American men are the most dissatisfied with the news business and various aspects of their jobs than any other group.”
Pamela Newkirk, a professor of journalism at New York University and author of “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media,” wrote in the Sept. 24, 2000 issue of the Washington Post that she left the news business because “I often felt constricted by the narrow scope of the media when reporting on African Americans. I found that our sensibilities, attitudes and experiences were often viewed with skepticism or alarm, and were left out of the coverage.”
“Many of the black journalists I spoke to reported that they felt obligated to validate a white-dominated view of black society as dysfunctional, even pathological,” she wrote. “They felt their credibility was assaulted or harshly scrutinized when they attempted to present more balanced portraits.”
Such attitudes undermine diverse hiring, Newkirk and others believe.
Caesar Andrews, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors and editor of Gannett News Service, said APME has struggled with what can be done to help achieve “meaningful diversity,” which entails encouraging subtle voices in the newsroom to speak up.
“Numbers are important, but that’s just the first step,” he said. “If you increase the numbers, you increase the odds of there being different thought processes. But you must take advantage of diverse talent once it’s in the newsroom. There have been huge failures on that count.”
When editors encourage or bully reporters of different backgrounds to think alike or write alike, multicultural hiring becomes meaningless. Andrews acknowledges that many top managers fear doing things differently.
“There’s tradition in it, comfort in it. But if the mission is to serve the community, clearly the model from the past is insufficient.”
The tradition of nothing but white males in leadership positions also needs to change, Andrews and Lloyd agreed.
“A lot of people aren’t seeing a future because they don’t see people like themselves in management,” Lloyd said, mirroring the Poynter study’s finding that more blacks than whites sense a “glass ceiling” in the industry.
It’s not their imagination. The Communicator, the magazine of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, reported that although the 2001 percentage of minorities in TV news was 24.6 percent, an all-time high, just 14 percent of news directors are minorities. But even that was higher than the numbers for print media. According to the report, only about 9 percent of newspaper newsroom managers are minorities – most of them in mid-level positions.
But Cameron, the Missouri journalism professor, cautions against promoting minorities too quickly.
“If they’re not ready for it, they’re being set up for a fall,” he said. “They end up really being miserable or failing. It’s a false start if they’re moved too far, too fast, and in the end they quit or are taken out of positions.”
Even if they’re not promoted, talented minority journalists need to be nurtured and given opportunities for professional growth, Lloyd said.
“You have to put them in positions that will make them want to stay,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘You bring me in here, and I’m doing night cops, and I don’t get to do the juicy special projects.’”
Lloyd recalled a discussion on the National Association of Black Journalists’ email discussion listserv shortly after the World Trade Center attacks. Members discussed the fact that they weren’t allowed to get on a plane and go to Ground Zero. Lloyd chalks it up to managers, who are mostly white, choosing reporters with whom they were comfortable to cover the big story.
The coverage of the attacks would have been better if more minority journalists had been on the scene, Lloyd said.
“There would have been more diversity in stories, more photos of people of color. There was a lot of discussion among black journalists about who was on TV as experts. It was just white person, after white person, after white person. … Who were the doctors who were black who were quoted about anthrax? Where were the black stockbrokers?”
Lloyd sees the same problem in sports coverage. Because most athletes are people of color, reporters of color may have better rapport with them and better access to them, which would lead to more comprehensive stories. But that rarely happens.
“Who covers the pro and college teams? Who gets to travel? You see a lot of people of color on the team bus, but not on the press bus,” she said. “It’s a dumbfounding dilemma to me.”
To use multicultural human resources most effectively, “news organizations must realize the value of perspectives that clash with the white cultural mainstream. This would make for more dynamic and reflective newsrooms,” Newkirk wrote. “… But as long as newsrooms pressure journalists of color to mirror the perspective of whites, or to write stories that conform to society’s fixed views of race and ethnicity, the flight of journalists of color and the paralysis of America’s racial discourse will continue.”
A CULTURE OF DIVERSITY
One way to help open journalists’ eyes to divergent opinions is through “Time Out for Diversity and Accuracy,” a joint project of APME and ASNE. Time Out, which was conceived in 1998, has been an annual event in dozens of newsrooms since 1999.
“Time Out frames diversity as a journalism issue, not as a business issue or a moral issue – even though it is,” said David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News.
Andrews said that without such context, many journalists won’t buy into the concept.
“(Diversity) can’t be seen as an add-on, as extraneous, as a pain in the ass that we have to tolerate for politically correct reasons, then it goes away,” he said. “It has to be seen as just the same as good grammar, spelling correctly, fairness, balance, context.”
Newspapers that participate in Time Out agree with that premise, and they choose different ways to help their staffs view diversity the same way. Staffers at the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Ill., took field trips to multicultural places, such as a suburban Chicago church known for its ethnically diverse congregation. In Kansas City, Mo., a popular radio show broadcast a panel discussion with the theme “Minorities in the Media,” which was covered by The Kansas City Star. At The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., newsroom employees formed a diversity committee and began offering a monthly diversity award for the story or photo that best reflects the paper’s changing coverage area. At The Oregonian’s first Time Out, each team of reporters was required to sponsor a field trip or event around the diversity theme. The following year, the entire newsroom focused on the Latino community.
Many papers that value diversity go beyond a week’s worth of events. They convene regular meetings – breakfasts, brown bag lunches, town hall meetings – with community members of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In Andrews’ view, newspapers that achieve meaningful diversity reap many benefits. They add clarity to their purpose and mission. They increase readership and circulation. They help readers understand their community.
Yarnold said diversity means truer, more accurate coverage – a newspaper can’t be accurate if it doesn’t reflect the entire community.
The Mercury News is often lauded as a leader in the newsroom diversity movement. The paper’s circulation area is 52 percent minority; its newsroom, 32 percent. But Yarnold isn’t one to rest on his laurels.
“It’s time now to take the next really big step, to encourage everyone on every beat to report from the inside out, to completely acknowledge the presence of people of color and women,” he said.
American journalism as a whole needs to take the same step, according to Keith Woods, director of Diversity Programs at Poynter. The News & Race study reaffirms that simply hiring a racial and ethnic mix of reporters and editors isn’t enough. If managers don’t share their vision effectively, and if employees don’t buy into it, news coverage never will be truly reflective of community.
Woods sums it up this way: “One of the most challenging parts of this is the idea is that just when you thought you’d reached the goal, the finish line moved again.”
Gina Barton is a reporter for the Indianapolis Star.
Tagged under: diversity