A current buzzword in trade publications targeted to publishers, editors and others working in journalism is “diversity.”
A side of me thinks that’s good.
In South Carolina, for example, where I teach and help prepare (hopefully) students for careers in print journalism, about one-third of the population is African-American.
And last month, The Herald, the local newspaper in the community, reported in an excellent series that Latinos (we used to call them Mexicans or Hispanics) are coming to South Carolina by the droves. Census figures cited by Herald reporter Jason Cato put the official number of Latinos in South Carolina, a relatively small southern state of just a few million people, at about 100,000 – “up more than 200 percent since 1990.”
Some folks, skeptical at the census count, think that as many as 300,000 Latinos could be living in South Carolina.
Still, with that diverse mix, if you were an alien who had suddenly landed in South Carolina and you happened to find yourself at a meeting of the S.C. Press Association, you’d think the state was all white. Go to press meetings and journalism workshops in South Carolina and you pretty much notice, over and over again, the same white guys in ties.
That lack of diversity shows up, too, to a great extent in the content of South Carolina’s community newspapers.
A few months ago, for example, I spent about half a day critiquing a community newspaper with the paper’s staff and ownership.
The owner had sent me several issues of his newspaper weeks ahead of time. My charge: Read the paper carefully, mark it up and let staffers know what they were doing right and what they maybe could do better.
And then I met with the owner and his staff, all of whom, as I recall, are white.
One thing that struck me about his newspaper was that it had – you guessed it – a superabundance of photos of white men in ties.
Many photos showed white guys in ties cutting a ribbon. Many other photos, of the familiar grip-and-grin variety, showed white guys in ties passing or receiving plaques or trophies or certificates.
Other shots portrayed white guys (I’ll just call them the white, male chiefs of that South Carolina community) sitting or yawning at meetings or listening to speakers.
I did notice, as I recall, pictures of a few blacks on his newspaper’s sports pages.
When I suggested that the newspaper get more people of color throughout its pages, no one argued.
“And if you can’t find people other than white guys with ties to take pictures of, get some pictures of dogs or cats or ANYTHING ELSE,” I implored that owner and his staff.
I noticed a few nods and maybe a few grins.
Then I think someone said something to the effect that the same boring white people tend to be the newsmakers in that community in South Carolina.
Dig deeper, I responded, urging them to peel back the onion or do whatever it took to get more color in their community newspaper.
Remember, I reminded them, we’re living in a state that’s one-third black. I noted, too, all the potential readers and advertisers (many of color) that their newspaper could be unintentionally writing off.
None of this may seem so remarkable. Everyone in the profession of journalism, whether they teach it or do it, has heard and re-heard the push for diversity in the work force and diversity of news and photo coverage.
In Y2K3, we all know – or should know by now – why diversity is so essential to what we try to accomplish. How can a newspaper truly document, chronicle or boost a community if it’s fixated on white guys in ties? How can a newspaper staff, if it’s all white, see the world through a black person’s eyes or experience the world from a black person’s perspective?
How can reporters or editors know, really know, about what makes a community tick if they continually and almost exclusively focus on the same old, white, male chiefs?
And while skin color is important, diversity is about more than race. Among other things, it’s about education, sexual orientation, where folks live and what folks do or how they spend their time.
A friend of mine, Benjy Hamm, tries his best to make sure his staff gets out of their skins and comfort zones. Hamm is managing editor of The (Spartanburg, S.C.) Herald-Journal, the fourth largest newspaper in South Carolina. He has a checklist for journalists – “to help us remember that our audience is not exclusively made up of college graduates with ever-present career goals who work in white-collar jobs and live in comfortable subdivisions.”
Hamm recently shared his checklist with students in my class in Community and Civic Journalism. He says he asks his staff members at the Herald-Journal to consider whether they:
• Know people who had a job, but not a career path
• Had taken a ride on the city bus
• Had ever talked to a prisoner or former prisoner
• Knew someone with less than a 10th-grade education
• Had spent a night or more in a mobile home, also known now as manufactured homes or previously as trailers
• Understood the appeal of NASCAR races and WWE events, or had watched either one
• Had paid taxes on anything other than a vehicle (so that we better understand what residents talk about when they’re worried about increased taxes)
• Had visited a church/temple outside of their religious denomination
“My belief is that journalists lose touch with their audience if they surround themselves with people of similar backgrounds and experiences,” Hamm noted. “The other danger, which is very common, is that we tend to stereotype people of different backgrounds, interests and beliefs. When we do that, we are not accurate in our coverage, and we do not understand what our audience needs or wants from the media.”
Well put, Benjy Hamm.
Now, if we could just get the community newspaper spotlight off those male, white chiefs.
Larry Timbs is an associate professor of mass communication at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. He also is faculty adviser and founder of the Winthrop chapter of SPJ.
Tagged under: diversity