Diversity and the press
San Francisco Examiner
In the wake of the election debacle in Florida, in particular the widespread disenfranchisement of African-American and Haitian voters, there are some hard questions the media needs to ask itself.
Why did the mainstream media first miss, and then bury, this story? Why was the focus on the infamous “butterfly” ballot in Miami, and not on the exclusion of thousands of legally registered Black voters, or the systematic harassment of voters in Black precincts? Imagine, if you will, that South Florida was Serbia, and Black voters were anti-Milosovic. Wouldn’t the press have portrayed “lost” registration forms, shuttered polling places, and heavy police presence as little more than a ham-fisted attempt to steal an election? How does the press see something in Serbia that it cannot see in South Florida?
For at least part of that answer, all the press has to do is gaze in the mirror. The image reflected back will be white, male, 32 years of age, college educated, Protestant, and middle-class. That is the portrait of the average journalist in the U.S., and very few of them (or the people who fit that profile) were blocked from casting votes this past November.
The press in this country has an ugly little secret: it isn’t even vaguely like the country it purports to cover. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly called the Kerner Report, took the media to task for its own racism. In Chapter 15, the Commission faulted the news media for “basking in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with a white man’s eyes and a white perspective.” At the time, national minorities made up less than 1 percent of the media.
Chapter 15 was so searing an indictment, that the National Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) pledged to make newsrooms representative of the nation by the year 2000. It is now 33 years later, and with minorities making up about 27.5 percent of the country, it’s time to look at the report card.
Out of 54,000 newsroom employees nationwide, minorities make up 11.1 percent. The breakdown is: 5.1 percent African-Americans; 3 percent Latinos; 2 percent Asian; 1 percent Native Americans. Some 45 percent of the nation’s dailies have never had a minority reporter or editor.
And the situation is getting worse, not better. The National Assn. of Black Journalists recently charged that newsroom employment, “shows a decline in the percentage of African Americans employed by the nation’s mainstream newspapers.” It is much the same for Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. And how did the ASNE respond to all this? It moved the goal posts to 2025, and whined about a “lack of credentials” among minority journalists.
Whenever you hear the words “credentials,” “experience,” or “training,” reach for your Kerner Report. True, 87 percent of the entry level jobs in journalism are filled by people with B.A.s in journalism. But how then to explain the fact that minorities with B.A.s in journalism are three times more likely to be jobless than their white counterparts, and three times more likely to be part time? Wrong B.A. or wrong color?
Not that there isn’t a problem on the educational side. There are fewer than 500 minority journalism professors in the country, and most of them are not on a tenure track. This means there are very few teachers to mentor minority students, who start off in the hole to begin with. Experience with high school and college newspapers plays an important role in acceptance rates to journalism schools, not to mention entrance level jobs in the industry. But many minorities come from an economic class where working while going to school is a given. Holding a job and going to school doesn’t leave much time for extra-curricular activities like working for the school newspaper. The result in a sort of class triage, and as a result, high school and college newspapers across the country remain overwhelmingly white.
Besides being unfair and un-American, it makes for very bad journalism and the marginalization of stories concerning national minorities. How many readers know that both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are investigating charges by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations that there were massive violations of the Voters Rights Act on Election Day? That isn’t front-page news? The subject of thundering editorials?
Would increasing the number of minority reporters and editors solve all this? It would certainly help, but this is an institutional problem, not just an employment issue. Reporters don’t determine what stories get into a newspaper. As the press critic A.J. Liebling once commented, “reporters have all the independence of a piano key.” No matter how many reporters of color there are, if the owners and the higher-ups are all white, that will be the prism though which the news is filtered.
But all great changes begin with little things. Having your newsroom look like the nation is a good place to start.