The Racial Politics of College Newspapers

The Racial Politics of College Newspapers

The Racial Politics of College Newspapers

Why college newsrooms are often neither diverse nor racially sensitive.


Justin Elliott

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?

John Davisson, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Spectator–another top college paper that struggles with inadequate diversity–offers one explanation, a kind of maddening loop. “It’s tough to attract writers if they don’t feel like the Spec is a publication that speaks to them. But it’s difficult to make the Spectator speak to them if they aren’t willing to write for the Spectator.”

And there’s often long-term–sometimes it seems almost ancient–bad blood between newspapers and minority groups on campus. The Herald, for example, has had its very own David Horowitz incident. In 2001, the Herald printed an anti-reparations advertisement by Horowitz, which triggered demands from outraged students that, when not met, culminated in the student activists stealing 4,000 copies of the Herald and replacing it with fliers critical of the paper.

Then there’s the not insignificant financial commitment of putting in volunteer hours at the campus newspaper (though a few papers do pay). The more hours you’re in the newsroom the fewer you have to spare for a paying job.

Davisson thinks getting students from low-income families in the door is the easy part. The real challenge is making it possible for these students to rise within the organization. “Right now the system doesn’t make that very easy,” Davisson says, noting that Spectator editors have had to resign in recent years for financial reasons.

Beyond the university gate it’s hardly a secret that a career in journalism is more a “noble calling” and less a reasonably paid profession. In this unfortunate trend Patsy Iwasaki of the University of Hawaii, Diversity Committee Chair for College Media Advisers, sees yet another disincentive. “[M]inority students realize that only a few positions in media provide the large financial rewards and job status after graduation. Many students feel the pressure from their parents (especially if they are recent immigrants) to go for the standard fields such as business, law, medicine, engineering, etc.,” she writes in an e-mail. “Becoming a journalist might seem like becoming an actor to many recent immigrant parents.”

No one consistently tracks staffing demographics at college newspapers. But five of six editors-in-chief of sizable college dailies I spoke to for this story told me black and Latino students are underrepresented on their staffs. The other, at the University of California-Berkeley, said there were too few blacks and Latinos in the student body for them to be underrepresented at the Daily Californian (thanks to Ward Connerly). The disparities are particularly glaring at the Harvard Crimson‘s annual conference for Ivy League editors, where non-white faces are hard to find.

An old survey by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, despite an uneven methodology and data on only one minority group, turned up some stark numbers. At the 20 or so highest-ranked universities, just 2.6 percent of student newspaper editors were black in 2003, up from 1.3 percent in 1995–but down from 3.8 percent in 1998. There were only nine black editors out of 350 total in the 2003 survey. Progress has been uneven or, worse, going backwards.

Of course racial diversity is only one objective that college newspapers must pursue. But in college newsrooms today–particularly on campuses that are often more self-segregated than we’d like to admit–boosting racial and socio-economic diversity is an essentially pragmatic goal. With minority perspectives in the newsroom, particularly in upper editorial positions, fewer stories will be missed and fewer will be misconstrued. Papers will be able not only to patch up areas of shoddy coverage, but also to increase readership in whole segments of the student population.

Gerrick Lewis, a junior at Ohio State, believes he is the first African-American editor-in-chief of the Lantern, OSU’s student newspaper. He’s also the only black student currently on the paper’s staff. Lewis knows firsthand the outsized influence a small number of editors have on what makes the paper every day, and how stories are played.

“We’ve dropped the ball on so many things, it’s almost embarrassing,” he says. “That’s changing now, of course, because now that I’m in this position I have my friends who I need to answer to. They say, ‘Gerrick, why aren’t you covering this or that?'” This year, for example, Lewis plans to send a reporter to the school’s special graduation ceremony for black students. He doesn’t think the Lantern has ever covered the event, and he only knows about it because his brother participated.

But several editors told me that attracting and retaining black and Latino students has proved stubbornly difficult. Last year Lewis started a chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, but the response has been lackluster. “I have personally e-mailed every black journalist at this school and I attracted three or four people to this meeting.” Lewis thinks the problem may be a general lack of interest in extracurriculars. “It’s been really hard for me to try to explain the low turnout,” he says.

Several newspapers, including the Brown Daily Herald, have created scholarships to offset the financial burdens of campus journalism. A committee of Herald alums has distributed $11,000 in scholarships in the past five semesters, thanks to a single donor. The fund has helped socio-economic diversity, but there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in minority staffers. And raising even small sums is hard work. Daily Californian Editor-in-Chief Stephen Chen says a new “DailyCal diversity scholarship” has been supported for two years by proceeds from a special comedy fest. This year the paper is running a charity auction, hoping to raise enough for two or three scholarships of $500 to $1,000 each.

Richard Just, who was editor-in-chief of the Daily Princetonian in 2001, runs the Princeton Summer Journalism Program, probably the most ambitious program of its kind in the country. After grappling with the familiar racial disparities in staffing and coverage, Just and three Princetonian colleagues resolved to increase the pool of potential minority and low-income student journalists. The result is a 10-day, all-expenses-paid journalism camp for high school students from under-resourced high schools that has met at Princeton for the past six summers. About 20 participants a year hear from a star-studded cast of professional journalists (this year’s camp included New Yorker and Washington Post reporters) and produce their own paper (pdf).

The program was originally limited to black and Latino students but is now open to any student with a combined parental income of under $45,000. The program also has a strong college counseling component–“once they graduate, we’re going to spend six months helping them with the college application process, editing their essays etc.” says Just, now deputy editor of The New Republic. All the work has paid off, with graduates attending a range of top universities and snagging internships at the Philadelphia Daily News and the Today Show.

With a $40,000 annual price tag, Just says he is desperately looking for a big donor to shore up the program’s future. This year organizers had to whittle down a strong applicant pool of 878 to just 22 students. “If we can ever find money to expand we could make a medium-size dent rather than a small dent in the problem,” he says.

Lacking surplus cash or deep-pocketed alums, there are cost-free alternatives. At the Red and Black at the University of Georgia, editor-in-chief Juanita Cousins has assigned a reporter to a new “diversity beat.” Cousins, the paper’s second black editor-in-chief, says that means covering not just racial minorities on campus, but also gay students and handicapped students.

But if a “diversity beat” seems like an uncomplicated way to increase minority coverage, think again. Last year David Graham, now editor-in-chief of the Chronicle at Duke, was assigned to the diversity beat, a slot the paper created three years ago. Even as Graham produced interesting work on racial clustering in campus housing and disparities in study abroad at Duke, a black friend of his would frequently complain about Chronicle coverage.

“The Chronicle just doesn’t understand the black Duke,” Graham recalls her saying. “‘There’s this whole other world out there and you guys are just failing to pick up on it.’ That was something I took pretty personally. That’s a serious problem.”

So Graham did what any good reporter would: he asked who represented the black Duke. Armed with a list of 10 or 15 names, he began making inquiries. But an old problem reared its head. “People would refuse to talk and often what they said was: We just don’t really trust the Chronicle,” he says. While Graham says he’s making it a priority to maintain good source relations with minority groups this year, he’s at a loss as to an overarching plan to improve minority staffing and coverage. “I’m still kind of stung by this idea that there’s a black Duke we’re missing.”

At the Columbia Spectator editor Davisson says a candid assessment of race at the newspaper–published in a campus magazine, complete with striking pie charts, in 2006–was “a wakeup call.” The paper has increased involvement with Columbia’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, and Davisson says he plans to make a recruiting appeal to students of color. But with the fraught issues involved, even this isn’t simple. “We run the risk of tokenization and that’s something we very much want to avoid,” he says.

Back at Kansas State, the current editor-in-chief of the Collegian, Alex Peak, was not around when the controversy flared up in 2004. Aware of the history, though, she says she developed good contacts with the Black Student Union when she was campus editor. Now, she wants to give every group on campus the opportunity for coverage.

If racial disparities persist, though, student dailies will be destined to miss story after story. And the next big racial incident on campus will be right around the corner.

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