Number of minority journalists declining
April 17, 2001
An editor once told Angelo Henderson that he wasn't cut out for journalism.
Henderson, who is African American, spent years feeling under- appreciated and alienated as a reporter, says a story in the September/October issue of 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 that newsrooms across the country suffer from an inability to retain minorities.
Earlier this month, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) 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 has declined, going 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 of them, or 44 percent, had no people of color on their newsroom staff.
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. The same goes for Chinese-American journalists who may be asked to cover events related to Chinatown. This kind of tokenism can severely limit a journalist's role in a newsroom. It can also be terribly demoralizing.
Former Los Angeles Times writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez cites racial categorizing in newspaper stories as a problem.
"While we endlessly profile 'Asian' authors and 'black' celebrities, we never classify the 'white' people we write about as 'white' unless they have committed a hate crime, or are being compared in a poll or study to 'other,'" Valdes-Rodriguez wrote in an e-mail to her former employer. This form of racial profiling in print was a factor in her departure from the Times, she wrote.
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 now 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 to retain minorities in newsrooms.
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 workforce, news organizations can catch and prevent insensitive or careless blunders in their coverage, errors a homogenous staff could likely miss.
"You have to value my difference," Angelo Henderson said in the Columbia Journalism Review article. "You can't make me what everyone is."
That is something journalism must take to heart.