Look at America. It’s changing. Within the next few decades, the nation is poised to become like California, where people of color will outnumber whites, and no one ethnic or racial group will have the majority. Already, over half of the children born in the U.S. are of color, as are a majority of the children attending public school. This reality has implications for the media, and how the news should be covered in order to include the perspectives and voices of the diverse population that lives in this nation.
Lack of Minorities in Journalism
But this reality is not being reflected in the news media. For many newsrooms, they’re partying like it’s 1956. That was the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the year that Georgia added the Confederate logo to its state flag for no good reason other than segregation. Back then, newsrooms were white and male. And today, newsrooms are white and male. How is this so?
When comedian Larry Wilmore, host of The Nightly Show roasted President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he busted the balls of various political figures and elites, just as we would expect. But he also had some choice words for some of the major cable news outlets.
For example, of Fox News he said: “Well, welcome to ‘Negro Night’ here at the Washington Hilton, or as Fox News will report, ‘Two thugs disrupt elegant dinner in D.C.’ That’s how they do us, right?”
And of another cable network, Wilmore said: “MSNBC — MSNBC here tonight? No? Which actually now stands for ‘Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents.’ Am I wrong? They like fired Melissa Harris-Perry, they canceled Joy Reid, they booted Touré. I heard they put Chris Hayes on probation because they thought he was related to Isaac Hayes. That’s wrong.”
“MSNBC got rid of so many black people I thought Boko Haram was running that network. What was going on…?” he added.
Media Discrimination Cases
Meanwhile, The New York Times was just sued by two of its employees—two black women in their sixties–for alleged racial, sex and age discrimination. In their multimillion-dollar class action suit, the women claim the newspaper has “become an environment rife with discrimination,” with a preference for younger white staff. “Unbeknownst to the world at large, not only does the Times have an ideal customer (young, white, wealthy), but also an ideal staffer (young, white, unencumbered with a family) to draw that purported ideal customer,” said the lawsuit, which could add up to 50 additional plaintiffs. “In furtherance of these discriminatory goals, the Times has created a workplace rife with disparities” the suit added.
The Times’ CEO, former BBC head Mark Thompson, reportedly hired Meredith Levien, chief revenue officer, to “carry out his vision of the ideal workforce”. According to the suit, Levien said she wanted a workforce with “fresh faces” and “people who look like the people we are selling to,” and allegedly told employees “this isn’t what our sales team should look like.”
In response, The Times dismissed the lawsuit as “scurrilous and unjustified,” and on its website says it is committed to diversity and inclusion.
This lawsuit comes on the heels of two other discrimination lawsuits against The Times. One was filed by an Asian-American employee who claimed older and minority employees were cleared out, and she was fired after complaining about a sexist, insubordinate staffer who worked for her. It settled out of court. The other was filed by a woman ad executive who was fired while on maternity leave, and claims her manager said her pregnancy-related weight gain made her look as if she “drank a few beers.”
Newsroom Diversity Statistics
A look at the statistics on newsroom diversity tells the story. According to the 2015 survey from the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University, journalists of color were only 12.76 percent, or 4,200 of the 32,900 people working in newspaper newsrooms throughout the U.S. The number has declined slightly over a decade. And while 63 percent of newspapers had a woman as one of their top three editors, a figure which has remained steady, 12 percent of news organizations said a person of color was among their top editors, a three percentage point drop.
“The fact that our industry isn’t making progress continues to be frustrating,” said Karen Magnuson, co-chair of the ASNE Diversifying the News Committee and editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “As the makeup of our nation changes, our news reports must change, as well. Our newsrooms and coverage must be inclusive to tell the real story of what is really happening in our communities. How can we do that well if our newsrooms lack diverse voices and perspectives? We editors can and should do better.”
In other areas of journalism, the pattern continues. Although so-called minority groups are 37 percent of the population, they are 22.4 percent of television journalists and 13 percent of radio journalists. Further, 49 percent of journalists of color who studied print or broadcasting in school find a full-time job, as opposed to 66 percent of whites.
Looking at digital journalism, the International Business Times found last year that digital newsrooms were a mixed bag, with some making progress, and others offering no comment. BuzzFeed has a nonwhite editorial staff of 27 percent, while Mic is 26 percent, and IBT is 25 percent. These compare favorably with traditional outlets such as the Washington Post (31 percent), Newsday (26.5), Houston Chronicle (25.4), New York Times and USA Today (19 apiece). However, Business Insider was estimated at 10 percent, and Politico at only 8 percent.
A number of explanations have been offered to make sense of the inclusion problem in journalism. For example, diversity has been a casualty of the financial crisis. There is the hidden racism, the unconscious, implicit bias and stereotyping that govern hiring decisions. Employers will say they cannot find qualified people of color, although they exist in large numbers. Gatekeepers favor the types of experience that people of color are less likely to have, such as writing for the campus newspaper. Unpaid internships favor wealthy, privileged young people who can afford to work for free, or work in freelancing while being subsidized by their parents. Working-class journalists don’t have such a luxury. (Go to the Twitter hashtag #MediaDiversity for more information.)
Consequences of Lack of Diversity
The consequences of a mostly-white corps of journalists reporting on an increasingly brown and black populace are devastatingly clear. Without different voices at the table disseminating the news—whether gender, race, sexual orientation, what have you—the result is news that does not reflect the real world, a distorted, incomplete or biased version of reality. Even worse, you get the rise of Donald Trump.
When everyone at the table looks alike, when all the gatekeepers went to the same schools and have the same experiences, you get groupthink. The concept of journalistic objectivity is countered by the notion that everyone has an opinion or a perspective based on what is included in or omitted from their coverage. If more women, or more African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Muslim-Americans and others were at the table deciding on what is reported and how it is reported, do we really think Trump would have been given such as free ride? Despite his racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, sexism and misogyny, Trump was embraced by the media and treated like a celebrity—the reality show celebrity he is. Despite his intolerant, hateful remarks, and the lynch mob atmosphere that marked his campaign rallies, someone in a newsroom decided to cover him in a favorable light. And in an all-white, and possibly mostly-white-male news operation it is that much harder to see the 10-ton elephant of white privilege in the room. This is a newsroom culture problem.
Watching an episode of HBO’s series The Newsroom brings the problem to the forefront–in an environment where black and brown faces are scarce and invisible, women are for sex, and those who are running the news pat themselves on the back for being so brilliant, just because. It is cringe-worthy, and that’s because it is not so divorced from reality.
According to the American Press Institute in 2014, only 25 percent of African-Americans gave the media high marks for accuracy in covering their community, and a third of Latinos said the Hispanic community is accurately portrayed in the media.
In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) following the urban rebellions throughout the nation pointed the finger at the media. “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” the commission’s report said, adding that:
“Fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are Negroes. Fewer than 1 percent of editors and supervisors are Negroes, and most of them work for Negro-owned organizations. The lines of various news organizations to the militant blacks are, by admission of the news men themselves, almost nonexistent. The plaint is, ‘we can’t find qualified Negroes.’ But this rings hollow from an industry where, only yesterday, jobs were scarce and promotion unthinkable for a man whose skin was black.”
Nearly 50 years later, it seems little has changed in the color of the news and inclusion in the newsroom.