WASHINGTON - Minority journalists are underrepresented at newspapers' Washington bureaus, compared with minorities' proportion of the U.S. population, according to a study released Wednesday.
It found that 10.5 percent of newspapers' Washington reporters and editors are "journalists of color," while minorities compose 30.9 percent of the U.S. population. "Journalists of color" - defined as black, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian - make up 12.5 percent of newsroom staffs nationwide.
UNITY, a journalists' organization representing those groups, sponsored the study, which the University of Maryland conducted. It was released on the eve of a UNITY conference in Washington.
Christopher Callahan, the associate dean of the university's journalism school, described Washington journalists as "arguably the most important press corps in the world."
"The makeup of that press corps would, I think, be incredibly important to our industry," Callahan said. He said the news industry had made only "incremental improvements" in diversity since the 1980s.
Edwin Chen, a White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, called the representation of minorities in Washington journalism appalling. "I am often the only minority that the president of the United States has called on," said Chen, an Asian who served on the study's advisory committee.
The racial makeup of a newspaper's staff influences coverage, according to UNITY's survey, which is based on a questionnaire distributed to Washington's minority press corps.
"People bring different perspectives, different ways of thinking, and not just on issues about race," Chen said.
Others said race and ethnicity should have no bearing on coverage, and criticized newspapers for taking such factors into account.
According to Mark Tapscott, the director of the Center of Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington, "The color of a reporter's skin is only significant in the news if it affects the way that reporter does their job. In no other way should it even be considered."
Chen argued that minority journalists are needed to reflect the diverse readership of urban papers.
The Los Angeles Times, which serves a city that's 70.3 percent nonwhite, has only two Hispanics, one black and one Asian among its 43 Washington reporters and editors. Tom McCarthy, the Times' deputy Washington bureau chief, called that number "unacceptably low."
"We should have better representation than we do," he said.
The study tallied the racial makeup of 18 newspaper companies' Washington bureaus. Of them, Knight Ridder, Gannett News Service, Newhouse News Service and The Boston Globe had the highest percentages of minority journalists.
At a news conference Wednesday to discuss the results, John Walcott, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief, said topping the list at 29 percent was a "dubious honor." He said Knight Ridder would continue to seek talented journalists of all races to work in its Washington office.
Among the companies with the least racial diversity in their Washington bureaus were The Dallas Morning News, USA Today, Scripps Howard and Cox Newspapers.
The number of Washington reporters counted is small - 574, of whom 60 are minorities. For many bureaus, a change of just one would make a huge difference in percentage.
Andy Alexander, the Washington bureau chief of Cox Newspapers, attributed the showing to a number of factors, including a seniority-based hiring system that benefits white men.
"We need to improve," said Alexander, whose 13-member bureau includes just one nonwhite journalist.
As for the shortage of minority perspectives in the Washington press corps, he said, "You'd have to be blind not to see it."
© Copyright 2004 Knight-Ridder