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.