Assistant Professor Chalise Macklin makes sure guests who speak to her broadcast classes at the University of Memphis include people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. And her lectures weave in examples that showcase a diverse range of people and communities.
It’s a reminder to her students that many types of people will consume the news they produce when they start their journalism careers and that diversity should be reflected in their reporting. She also wants to send the message that people just like them, regardless of race, gender identity, social class or other attributes, can land jobs as journalists.
It’s not just Macklin who focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion (often shortened to DEI). Faculty across the Department of Journalism and Strategic Media take similar approaches with their students at the racially diverse urban university. The department recently earned a national award for its commitment to DEI.
“Everything we do is steered around making sure that diversity, equity and inclusion is happening within our department,” Macklin said. “We make sure that we make things accessible for every student. Whether they have special needs or they have disabilities, we’re making sure those students are thriving just as well as the rest of our student population.”
For decades, journalism organizations, thought leaders and educators have been urging news operations to elevate their diversity commitment to a University of Memphis––type level. But now another powerful force is trying to push the industry in the opposite direction. Led by Texas and Florida, state legislatures are attacking DEI activity at public colleges and universities with legislation that has passed in seven states and is pending in three times as many more.
Journalism educators are worried that this will be a major setback among the many others they’ve experienced during decades of efforts to build a pipeline of journalism students more representative of the nation’s rich diversity. They also aren’t clear what changes, if any, they need to make to be in full compliance with some of the laws.
To what extent can they have classroom discussions about efforts, dating back to at least the 1960s, to boost the racial and ethnic diversity of the industry and the reasoning behind it? Will colleges still be allowed to hold journalism workshops for high schools with large Black or Latino populations?
This summer, Texas A&M University grossly mishandled the hiring of Kathleen McElroy to revive its journalism program, apparently amid intense pressure from conservative groups and university-connected individuals concerned about her extensive background in DEI work. McElroy, who returned to the University of Texas at Austin, told the Texas Tribune that her A&M appointment was caught up in “DEI hysteria” as university officials tried to determine what work would be allowed under the state’s new anti-DEI law.
Interpreting the rules
The Texas A&M University System Office of General Counsel has compiled a cheat sheet based on its interpretation of the law to help its universities understand what’s allowed and what’s prohibited.
In states where laws do not expressly ban specific diversity programs or activities, colleges continue to conduct them, “but truth be told, it almost seems like we are trying to do it on the sly, and that’s not a good feeling,” said Deb Aikat, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and 2022-23 president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Some of the laws are based on model legislation drafted by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative domestic policy think tank. The templates focus on four areas: abolishing DEI offices, ending diversity training programs for employees, eliminating requirements for diversity statements from job applicants and discontinuing any preferences given to students or employees based on race, ethnicity, gender or national origin.
The goal, according to the think tank, is to “reverse the illiberal takeover of higher education through Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) offices that, ironically, stifle intellectual diversity, prevent equal opportunity, and exclude anyone who dissents from a rigid orthodoxy.”
There is no mention of journalism or the press in the bill templates. Thus, no consideration is given to arguments that the diverse population of the country should be reflected in news coverage, and that reaching that goal requires special efforts to recruit from groups that historically were unwelcomed or not allowed to hold journalism positions in the mainstream press.
Journalism has given a platform to increasingly more people from historically marginalized populations, and stifling those voices is one of the goals of the legislation, said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
“I believe this backlash that we’re experiencing right now is in response to the progress that has been made in telling true stories — stories that more accurately reflect the communities that are often being misrepresented,” Granberry Russell said.
The laws have several “chilling effects,” she said, including suppressing skills development of both journalists of color and white journalists, who might gain “an appreciation for and understanding of how to more accurately reflect the experiences” of residents in communities of color.
Beyond those concerns, Granberry Russell sees two worrisome trends: the anti-DEI laws surfacing as the U.S. population is getting blacker and browner each year and the continued erosion of civil rights protections.
The Census Bureau’s population projections through 2060 show the Black, Latino and Asian populations continuing to grow, while the white population continues to shrink. As Granberry Russell sees it, that means the lagging share of journalists of color in mainstream newsrooms needs to accelerate. Anti-DEI laws will do the opposite, she said.
“How does this influence a school of journalism, for example, reaching out into K-12 and developing interest in the field, particularly within diverse communities?” she asked. “When we know that the demographics of this country are changing, who’s going to tell the story? Who’s going to tell an accurate story? That’s been the problem.”
As states were crafting legislation to restrict colleges’ participation in DEI activities, the U.S. Supreme Court dropped a ruling that effectively ends affirmative action in college admissions. Granberry Russell views the anti-DEI laws as similarly attacking a practice that attempted to level the playing field after generations of racial discrimination that kept some races of students out of certain schools. The DEI laws conflict with other civil rights protections, such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools, she said.
“We’re going back in time, we’re not going forward,” Granberry Russell added. “So, we can’t discriminate on the basis of race, but we can’t advocate for a more equitable environment. … What about the academic and social supports that should be tailored to the needs of a diverse student body?”
Reversal of history
The laws represent a reversal of principle outlined by the federal government during the civil rights era. An 11-member commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to study the causes of rioting in American cities in the 1960s assigned some blame to the press for reporting on racial disturbances from a white man’s perspective and creating inaccurate and unflattering portrayals of Black American life.
The group, known as the Kerner Commission, issued a report in 1968 that called the news media “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting” Black journalists. It scoffed at the notion that hiring managers were unable to find qualified Black journalists and urged news organizations to employ enough in “positions of significant responsibility to establish an effective link” to actions and ideas in Black communities.
One of the biggest advocates for curbing DEI work in Texas is state Sen. Brandon Creighton, who noted in April that Texas is one of the nation’s most racially diverse states and agrees that diversity should be reflected in its colleges and universities.
“However, the elevation of DEI offices, mandatory diversity statements, political litmus tests, and diversity training have the opposite effect and only further divides,” he said in a statement issued after passage of the law. “DEI programs have become a million-dollar industry at taxpayer-funded institutions — yet they have made no progress advancing or increasing diversity.”
While journalism educators and professionals might dispute the suggestion that no progress has been made, it’s harder to claim success. For more than a half-century, there has been talk about increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the nation’s newsrooms, along with a mix of short-lived and long-running initiatives. In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (since renamed the News Leaders Association) set an ambitious goal for American newspapers to achieve newsroom diversity that matched the racial demographics of the nation by 2000. That goal was not met, and the industry is on track to miss the same goal by the new target, 2025.
In 2022, journalists of color comprised 25.5% of TV newsrooms and 17.8% of the radio news workforce, according to an RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University survey. They made up 22% of print and online newsrooms, according to the News Leaders Association’s 2019 diversity census, its most recent. Those numbers fall considerably short of the 43.6% of Americans who identify their race as something other than white, according to 2022 Census Bureau population estimates.
Journalism educators understand the importance of representation in newsrooms, Aikat said, and he believes most will try to continue their DEI work to the extent that they can. The law in North Carolina has had little impact on diversity efforts at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill, he added. The law is more focused on “compelled speech,” and the university recently stopped requiring job candidates to write diversity statements, Aikat said.
“We are aggressively pursuing diversity in all ways — diversity, inclusion, belonging — all of these entities,” Aikat continued. “There is no law that is preventing you from having diversity initiatives. But there are certain things like compelled speech. They will say, ‘Well, you cannot compel anybody to talk about diversity.’”
The journalism school holds diversity programs throughout the year and a big one each spring — the Bloomberg Journalism Diversity Program. The 2023 program was an intensive, five-day business journalism workshop held in New York City and was free to the accepted applicants. Presenters included Bloomberg journalists and executives, and faculty from UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of California, and the University of California, Berkeley, another co-sponsor.
At the University of Memphis, journalism chair David Arant sees his department as a role model for programs that want to improve their diversity and inclusion efforts. The department was honored with the 2023 Equity & Diversity Award, given by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. The award recognizes journalism programs that “display progress and innovation in racial, gender, and ethnic equity and diversity over the previous three-year period,” according to contest rules.
Tennessee does have a DEI law that forbids public universities from requiring employees or students to endorse “divisive concepts,” which Arant interprets to mean professors can’t indoctrinate students with radical ideals.
“Since we never did any of those things they are afraid of, we just continued to do what we do, which is to try to promote an environment where we respect the diversity of our students and make sure that we teach everyone equitably,” Arant said.
He’s proud of the work Macklin has done since arriving at UM in 2022, with a fresh doctorate degree from the University of Alabama. In addition to her classroom duties, Macklin serves as advisor to the campus chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. She uses the role to give members the extra boost of confidence she believes they will need going into a mostly white industry. Macklin, a Black woman in her 30s who grew up in Memphis, wants them to know the kinds of challenges they might face as the only, or one of a few, Black journalists in their future newsrooms.
“When you look like me and you know what those students are going to face once they graduate, I want to try to prepare them before they ever leave,” said Macklin, who was inspired at age 13 to go into journalism because of an impressive Black, female local TV news anchor. “The reality is that certain students are going to have a different walk in the real world than others. So, for me it’s ingrained to try to meet each student with their particular need beyond what I’m teaching universally within the classroom.”
Rod Hicks is director of ethics and diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on X @rodhicks.