We all know the names: Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner. At least part of the reason they are household names is because American newsrooms continue to do a terrible job covering race issues.
After 37 years of trying, it is time to call the effort by American newspaper companies to improve coverage of minorities and diversify their newsrooms what it is— a failure. This failure hurts American newspaper readership and, in a much larger sense, hurts the nation.
Efforts to improve coverage of minority communities by hiring more journalists from ethnic minority backgrounds in American newsrooms began in the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1978. In the past decade, the percentage of minorities in newsroom has wavered only slightly—between 12 percent and 14 percent. Those numbers include only the 70 percent of newspapers that participated. One can assume the 30 percent that did not participate are either too busy or ashamed of their numbers.
There is evidence that the situation is growing worse. Alex T. Williams writing in Columbia Journalism Review records the distressing numbers that show ethnic minority students are enrolling in communications and journalism degree programs (24 percent of journalism majors from 2000 to 2009 were minorities), but they aren’t getting jobs like their white colleagues.
“Overall, only 49 percent of minority graduates that specialized in print or broadcasting found a full-time job, compared to 66 percent of white graduates,” Williams wrote.
For years when I was editing newspapers and involved in the ASNE Diversity program we lamented the few minorities studying journalism. That’s an excuse that can’t be used anymore.
Some newspapers and editors have tried earnestly for many years to improve both coverage and numbers. At the time, I thought I was trying earnestly. Looking back, there were so much more I could have done to improve the coverage and the hiring. There are still good leaders in this effort. Gannett has always shown the way, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editor Gilbert Bailon covered race issues long before Ferguson. But the numbers show that far too many editors make diversity hiring a low priority. And it has a consequence on our readership.
In the Brown, Gray and Garner cases, the media covered rioting and demonstrations. In the final one of those—the Gray case—the crowd turned on the reporters. This was not a case of reporters being swept up in the crowd’s madness. The rioters singled out journalists and blamed them for their “spotlight” coverage of African-American communities because they only showed up when the news was bad.
They have a point.
The condemnation of mostly-white newsrooms is familiar. People of one race tend to think alike about people of another race. This myopic vision determines news coverage of these communities. And while journalists think they are giving voice to African-Americans treated unfairly by policy when they cover demonstrations and riots, the African-American community grows frustrated because they think, “This newspaper doesn’t send a reporter when our community is involved in doing something beneficial. They only show up when there’s a mob.”
This creates the false impression that ethnic minorities do not know non-violent channels to demand their rights. That’s inaccurate. That’s unfair. That’s against everything newspapers should stand for.
The spotlight effect also exacerbates the problem the news industry has in attracting talented minorities. When they see their race portrayed in media only when they are committing a crime, they distrust the media as much as the police.
There are places where issues of race are covered well—in social media channels, not mainstream media channels. If you want to learn about the roots of racial division, it’s easy to find talk of it throughout the Web and on Twitter. In an encouraging and ironic move, The Los Angeles Times hired a reporter to cover “Black Twitter.” So now the mainstream media is assigning a reporter to cover what the mainstream media does not cover.
It seemed that everyone had an opinion after the subsequent riots following the Gray, Garner and Brown incidents. But little of the coverage provided the depth, the background, and the reasons why there is such mistrust between law enforcement and minority communities. Fewer yet spotlighted the communities where law enforcement reaches out to minority communities and builds relationships.
It’s the height of hypocrisy for newspaper opinion writers to offer commentary on race relations in America when nearly nine of 10 people in their newsrooms are white. When other industries fail to represent ethnic communities (for instance, the hand-wringing over the lack of African-Americans in Major League Baseball), newspapers are quick to slam them. But they are blind to their own failings.
If newspapers have any hope of remaining relevant to serious Americans, then they need to get serious about having their newsrooms look like America.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.