September 6, 2007
When the Kansas State Collegian failed to send a reporter to cover the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government in 2004, the school’s Black Student Union didn’t take the snub lightly–after all, the event had attracted 1,000 participants to K-State’s campus. The controversy soon escalated. Meetings were held between minority groups and the white editors of the Collegian, who apologized repeatedly for their misstep. Complaints about a pattern of poor coverage persisted and eventually the administration reassigned the paper’s longtime faculty advisor. That action led to a free press lawsuit against K-State that is still pending.
“The staff can be all white, for all I care,” Natalie Rolfe, the Black Student Union president, said at the time, “but they need to be diverse in their minds.”
Was she right? Can a college paper composed entirely or mostly of white reporters and editors ever adequately cover communities of color on campus? Today that’s a very real question for student dailies across the country.
It is a persisting state of affairs: College papers are the province of mostly well-off white and Asian students. African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented compared to the student body or absent altogether. Incidents like the one at K-State–every paper has its own stories of editorial blunders and community protest–occur with a regularity that should no longer be surprising.
Why do these editorial mistakes follow from the lack of diversity on staff? Because in campus journalism, where there are few press releases, word of mouth is everything. Thus when the campus paper is run by students from a certain demographic, coverage tends to mirror the concerns and perspectives of that demographic.
Right now, top editors at college newspapers everywhere are gearing up for the annual fall recruiting push. Before the grind of putting out a daily paper consumes their schedules and wreaks havoc on their social lives, this is the moment when they may pause, consider the monolithic racial makeup of the staff and wonder, what is to be done? There are lessons to be learned from several papers around the country that have begun to deal with racial and socio-economic disparities. But it’s far from clear whether these new efforts will work. History seems to be against them.
Consider the case of the Brown Daily Herald–certainly not unique–where I was an executive editor last year. The Herald holds the distinction of having had the first black editor-in-chief in the Ivy League, Wallace Terry, back in 1958. Even more remarkable is that Terry was just one of three black students in his class of 1,500. He went on to a celebrated career as a Vietnam correspondent for Time. Today, Brown’s student body is typically 7 percent black and 7 percent Latino. Yet a full half-century after Terry broke the Ivy League color barrier, the Herald has scarcely a handful of Black and Latino staffers out of a staff of over 100. That’s an appalling rate of progress, by any measure. Why has so little changed?