How to Fix Journalism's Class and Color Crisis
Courtesy: Internews Network. Image: Charles Eckert. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
When I was a kid, my family loved watching science fiction films and television shows. Some of them, from Star Trek to Soylent Green, featured a multiracial band of humans, plus various sentient life forms. But in other features—let’s say the awesomely campy Logan’s Run—everyone (or nearly) in the future was white. My family suspended disbelief for the duration of the movie. Then, depending on our mood, we either laughed at or lamented the idea that anyone thought the future would be monochrome, except for the pantsuits.
Today I feel like I’m watching that movie all over again. This time, it’s called The Future of Journalism, and we can’t afford to suspend our disbelief. CNN recently published a promotional graphic saying, “Allow Us To Reintroduce Ourselves.” It featured thirteen on-air personalities. No one in the group was Latino, East Asian or Native American. The graphic included 2013 CNN hire Michaela Pereira, who is black, but so far unfamiliar to most of the CNN audience, as her duties as a morning host begin next month. Quite a reintroduction for a network once personified by Bernard Shaw, a man who gave a blistering speech at a National Association of Black Journalists Conference about the promise of journalistic diversity denied. (Full disclosure: I worked at CNN very happily in the mid-’90s.) Of course, CNN’s staffing is more diverse than this promo indicates, which makes it even more puzzling. Do they think this is good branding? Do we just not care anymore about the implications of race in this so-called post-racial world?
In fact, we are witnessing the resegregation of the American media. The 2012 annual survey of the American Society of News Editors found that while total newsroom employment dropped 2.4 percent in 2011, the loss in minority newsroom positions was 5.7 percent. Between 2007 and 2010, ASNE noted, the minority job losses were even more pronounced. In 2005, the Knight Foundation stated plainly, “Newsroom diversity has passed its peak at most newspapers.” A report by the Radio Television Digital News Association, meanwhile, found that in 2011, when 35.4 percent of Americans were considered “minorities,” only 20.5 percent of those employed in television were people of color; and, shockingly, only 7.1 percent of radio employees—in that medium, a sharp drop since 1990.
In the March/April Columbia Journalism Review, I curated a forum bringing together eighteen journalists, from Jeff Yang, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, to author and broadcaster Carmen Wong Ulrich, to discuss not just what had happened, but what could be done. Among the possible solutions: diversify media ownership, using less expensive technologies to launch strong media brands; return to paid internships; and embrace new paradigms by journalist-activists like those of Occupy Sandy. One strong feeling was that traditional journalism would simply become obsolete if it didn’t embrace deeper storytelling about race and class. After all, since the country is predicted to be “majority-minority” as soon as thirty years from now, outlets that can’t adapt risk their very existence.
The issue comes down to money. Mainstream journalism, with its endless unpaid internships, has come far from its working-class newspaper roots. Getting your start in journalism often doesn’t pay. Instead, you have to chip in to join the club.
You’d be amazed at the sacrifices many young working-class journalists and journalists of color make. When I was in my mid-20s, working in TV, I mentored a young woman of color graduating from college. She had been in the fostercare system and wanted to take an unpaid internship in network news. I let her stay in what used to be my home office for six months, free, because there was no magical trust fund that would allow her to work without income in New York. She ended up getting a job and later winning an Emmy, among other awards. Now I have journalism students, white and nonwhite, who are grappling with questions like, “Can I take my dream internship if it pays me only enough each day to buy lunch, but not pay rent?” (While some media companies—like the one my protégée worked for—have responded to concerns by making their internships paid, others still do not pay interns or offer only a token “honorarium,” which does not a salary make.) I’m proud of them for continuing to fight for their place in journalism—and dispirited that they’re finding it so difficult. By contrast, I started my career through a paid minority internship program at Newsweek during college, continued there as a full-time paid intern once I graduated, and later landed a job.
News managers can make a short-term case for unpaid intern labor, or layoffs that decimate the recently hired, more diverse segments of their staffs. But a long-term recovery for our hard-hit news industry requires an investment in talent, even if that talent doesn’t come from family money. This reliance on un- or underpaid labor is part of a broader move to a “privilege economy” instead of a merit economy—where who you know and who pays your bills can be far more important than talent.
One journalist I respect responded to my CJR article, saying that his mostly white cadre of reporters covered a diverse city well during Sandy. In that case, I think he was right. The broader question is whether you can separate diverse reporting from diverse staffing. First, I’d argue that crisis reporting is a different beast from long-term community coverage. That said, my being a black American helped my coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and not just in the obvious ways. I got a key interview because I’d met the niece of Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who took military command of New Orleans after Katrina, because she had hosted me for a Black History Month speech. Maybe that’s unusual, but as the saying goes, “It’s a small colored world.” How we circulate, work and socialize has an impact on how we report.
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Now to daily reporting. I happen to live in a gentrifying, mostly black Brooklyn neighborhood. Living there tunes my journalistic radar: for example, seeing how the police operate in Crown Heights versus the mainly white Manhattan neighborhood where I previously lived. Who I am and how I’ve lived—from growing up in working-class Baltimore to going to Harvard to visiting dozens of countries—shapes how I view and execute my craft. Why should we think that white reporters, or reporters who grew up privileged, or reporters from Ivy League schools (all of whom are overrepresented at the top publications and outlets), are not shaped by their experiences? (I once had a funny conversation with a fellow black Harvard graduate in media, in which I said there were too many Ivy Leaguers dominating journalism—and he strongly disagreed.) On a direct and practical level, we reporters mine our personal contact lists all the time. Often, we end up interviewing people with whom we have weak ties—the friend of a friend; the person recommended by a college classmate. Homogeneity of staffing does not doom an outlet to irrelevance, but it often produces a damaging false consensus.
For example, I remember being upbraided by a colleague at Newsweek years ago for questioning our coverage of the Central Park jogger rape trial. I didn’t know if the young men were innocent, but I resented the widespread newsroom assumption that they were guilty before conviction and should be written about as animalistic (remember the term “wilding”?). Now we know that the men—then boys—were innocent. Even if they hadn’t been, they still deserved us journalists to be fair in our coverage. Who in the newsroom will speak up the next time there’s a story that produces that much racial heat—the one black or brown person in an otherwise white newsroom? Who will speak up when working-class Americans are portrayed in patronizing and simplistic ways—the unpaid cub reporter/intern?
Actually, now that I think of it, I was that black cub reporter/intern at the time of the trial. I had just graduated from college. I didn’t know who I could or couldn’t say what to. In my experience, the candor of the greenhorn and the inevitable culture clashes in a truly diverse newsroom make for better journalism with broader appeal. From a business standpoint, let alone a moral one, there’s too much at stake to ignore journalism’s class and color crisis.
In April, Michelle Dean explored how white critics had been giving African-American writer-director Tyler Perry a free pass on his depictions of women and race.