NEW YORK - The world of journalism is much whiter than the world it represents, according to two media industry studies.
While minorities make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute only 12.9 percent of newsroom staffs. The percentage of journalists of color working in TV and radio news has dropped by four percent over the last two years.
The studies, conducted in 2004 by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and in 2003 by the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), will be one of many issues addressed by the UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc convention being held in Washington, DC, Aug. 4-8. Six thousand members of the news industry are expected to attend.
ASNE found that newsrooms at U.S. daily newspapers collectively improved their diversity by nearly one-half of one percentage point in 2003.
That gain was the third successive hike of about one-half of a percentage point. But it is still short of the growth rate needed to achieve ASNE's goal of parity of newsrooms with their communities by 2025.
”The number of minorities in American newspapers continues to grow, which is a good thing,” said ASNE President Peter Bhatia in a recent interview. ”But the increase is at a snail's pace, and the overall total is still woefully low. As the economy improves and hiring increases, it is time for all of us in the industry to step up and move this number more quickly towards parity.”
Not enough is being done to improve diversity in the media, agrees Ernest Sotomayer, president of the UNITY board of directors. ”We have declared this a crisis in past years; we've stated that diversifying newsroom leadership is an obligation of this industry. But we see this year's survey as evidence that efforts simply aren't enough,” he said in response to the studies.
In 1978 ASNE said it wanted the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms to match that of the U.S. population as a whole by 2000. Today, 30 percent of Americans are people of color, but in the nation's newsrooms they account for just 12.9 percent of employees. ASNE's new goal is to achieve parity with the general population by 2025.
The RTNDA survey shows significant decline in the number of journalists of color working at English language radio and TV stations. From 2001 to 2003, the percentage of minorities working in TV news dropped from 21.6 percent to 16.7 percent. The reduction at radio stations in the same two-year period was from 10.7 percent to 6.5 percent.
Juan Gonzalez, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) traced the troubled history of the relationship between the media industry and journalists of color in a speech he gave at a NAHJ regional meeting in Dallas earlier this year.
”There were always qualified minority journalists. They were just excluded from the dominant press by the prejudices born of slavery, Indian removal and territorial expansion into Mexican territory,” said Gonzalez.
”From the early days, newspapers misrepresented and distorted events and the role of racial minorities ... and they certainly didn't hire any,” he continued.
Two years ago, the NAHJ launched the Parity Project in an effort to reverse the falling numbers of minorities in newsrooms. Its goal is to double the percentage of Hispanic journalists working in daily newspapers by 2008.
The project identifies cities where Latinos are a large proportion of the population, but are underrepresented in the media. It then surveys communities and newsrooms, holds public meetings, conducts cultural awareness workshops in the newsrooms, and creates a community advisory board. Since its inception, only eight newspapers have become involved in the project.
The industry-wide failure to increase minority representation has prompted talk of a changing role for UNITY, a member organization that serves minority journalists through an alliance between the Asian-American Journalists Association (AAJA), the Native-American Journalists Association (NAJA), the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). It numbers nearly 7,000 members.
This year's convention will be more advocacy oriented, said Sotomayer, adding that the groups were considering transforming the PARITY Project into a national coalition effort. He noted that the overall percentage of minorities, not solely Latinos, increased in cities where the project was working.
UNITY is also researching the percentage of journalists of color who are covering this year's U.S. presidential election and the issue of job retention for journalists of color The results of that investigation will be released at the convention.
ASNE has admitted that minorities are leaving newsrooms faster than they are being hired; UNITY wants to understand why.
In a press release the group declared ”early results show very few people of color accredited (to report on the election) by many of the agencies, including the White House, and a near total absence (of members of racial minorities) in the bureaus of some major news agencies.”
Sotomayer has described the rate of diversification in the news media as ”practically stagnant.”
Some 30 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the riots that consumed many U.S. cities in the early 1960s. Its findings included an extended critique of the media that continues to resonate today.
”The media,” it said, ”report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world ... 'the white press' -- a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.”
The media industry is fundamentally flawed by the lack of diversity in the staffs of newspapers, TV and radio, Gonzalez declared in his speech. Two historic studies have equated quality journalism with diversity of both staff and story, he added.
One was the Kerner Commission. The other was the Hutchins Commission of 1947. Also called the 'Report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press', it was the first attempt at an in-depth analysis of the role of the mass media in U.S. society.
When completed, the Hutchins Commission included five guidelines that, Gonzalez noted, would become the hallmarks of good journalism. He highlighted the third, which says, ”the media has the responsibility for the projection of a representative picture for the constituent groups in a society.”
The commission also emphasized that ”when the images (that the members of the press) portray fail to present a social group, truly they tend to pervert judgment.”
”For the past 50 years this has been discussed,” Gonzalez declared in his concluding remarks. ”There has got to be diversity of viewpoint, the media must portray all groups in a society, they must provide meaning and context to the events they report, they must provide a forum for diverse views.”
According to Milton Coleman, chair of ASNE's diversity committee and the deputy managing editor at the 'Washington Post', the upcoming UNITY convention ”can help to energize efforts to diversify the news media.”
”The notion of 7,000 journalists of color coming together at not only a job fair, but also a full blown conference would seem to ignite the diversity fire of anyone really interested in the issue -- and to eliminate any excuses for not doing better,” Coleman added in an email interview.
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service