Diversity falters at papers

Journalism: The nation's newsrooms are not making headway in recruiting and retaining minorities.

April 22, 2001|By Sanhita SinhaRoy

AN EDITOR once told Angelo Henderson that he wasn't cut out for journalism.

Henderson, who is African-American, spent years feeling underappreciated and alienated as a reporter, says a story in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Then in 1999, a few years after joining the Wall Street Journal, Henderson won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His story had a happy ending. But many other minority journalists have not received the kind of encouragement that Henderson finally found at the Wall Street Journal. That's one reason newsrooms across the country suffer an inability to retain minorities.

Earlier this month, the American Society of Newspaper Editors released numbers from its annual survey. For the first time in the survey's 23-year history, the percentage of people of color in newsrooms declined, from 11.85 percent in 1999 to 11.64 percent in 2000.

This drop may not seem huge, but it's a bad sign. It reflects the inhospitable climate many minorities encounter in the newsroom. Of the 950 newspapers ASNE reviewed, 422, or 44 percent, had no people of color in their newsrooms.

These numbers hardly mirror the nation's growing diversity. Minorities comprise 30 percent of the population, according to the latest census figures. Compare that to the percentage of minorities on newsroom staffs, and ASNE's goal of ending the disparity by 2025 seems little more than a pipe dream.

What's more, once minorities are hired, they are sometimes made to jump through more hoops than their white colleagues. Vanessa Williams, an assistant city editor at the Washington Post and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, told the Associated Press that the burden is greater for minorities in the profession.

"Managers still too often hesitate, express doubts and demand some proof that black journalists can handle assignments that they wouldn't think twice about handing to white journalists," Williams said.

Some minorities may also be leaving journalism because they're tired of racial pigeonholing. Just because a reporter is black does not necessarily mean he knows (or cares) about Harlem.

Within the past year, the retention rate of minority journalists has dropped from 96 percent to 90 percent, according to the ASNE survey. Recruitment and retention of minorities in the profession should become a primary focus. Journalism organizations and foundations interested in the media have already begun efforts to reverse the downward trend. They have launched initiatives to study newsroom practices relating to retention, funding minority scholarships and providing training to minority journalists.

But more needs to be done. Making a commitment to diversity is not only the right thing to do, it also makes a newspaper better. Newsroom staffs need to reflect the diversity of the communities they cover if they are going to provide fair and complete coverage. And with a diverse work force, news organizations can prevent insensitive or careless blunders in their coverage, errors a homogenous staff could likely miss.

"You have to value my difference," Henderson said in the Columbia Journalism Review article. "You can't make me what everyone is."

That is something journalism must take to heart.

Sanhita SinhaRoy is the associate editor of the Progressive Media Project in Madison, Wis.

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