By: Pamela Newkirk
It’s Not Enough To Hire Minorities, Says Guest Columnist
In 1993, as I joined the journalism faculty at New York University, I began to reflect on a daily newspaper career that had taken me to four news organizations and had allowed me to bear witness to a number of momentous events as a reporter assigned to New York City, the New York State Legislature, Capitol Hill, and South Africa.
I had covered the inaugurations of two presidents, a mayor, and a governor, and I had witnessed the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. In 1992, I was privileged to share a Pulitzer Prize for spot news with colleagues at New York Newsday.
But, despite my success, I had often felt constricted by the narrow scope of the news media that largely marginalized African Americans. Their history, attitudes, and daily trials and tribulations were often eclipsed by the news media’s appetite for African-American crime, entertainment, and dysfunction.
I often found myself swimming against a tide that rewarded those eager to write stories that conformed to a set and stereotypical view of African-American life. As much as my daily journalism career had helped me realize a childhood dream, I had, in time, tired of a predictable script where African Americans were concerned. I had won some newsroom battles over coverage, but the resistance to ideas that fell outside the white cultural mainstream had thwarted many of my efforts to portray the full range of black life.
In my new position as a journalism professor, I began to examine the history of the American media and how African Americans figured in that history. It was immediately apparent that the contributions African Americans had made to the American media were largely ignored or relegated to footnotes. Left in the archives were the contributions to leading publications by early 20th-century journalists such as Lester Walton, John Bruce, Earl Brown, and George Schuyler.
Spurred by a desire to fill in the gaps of media history and to examine the extent to which African Americans have made a difference in the mass media, I began a study of blacks in the mainstream media that resulted in “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media” (New York University Press). While I focused on the three decades since the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders highlighted news media bias in hiring and reporting, I also attempted to place more recent issues into a historical context.
In the newsroom, the clash of distinctly colliding world views is evident. Despite his success, Bryant Gumbel was unable for five years to convince NBC brass to take the “Today Show” to Africa, the only continent it had not been to.
Sylvester Monroe, a Time magazine correspondent, had to go against an emotional tide of bias and objections in his newsroom to present an objective portrait of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan that went beyond the anti-Semitic sound bites. Many journalists report that their contributions to racially sensitive stories such as the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trial have been minimized or ignored. Their reflection of black perspectives that could help fill in the puzzle of race is instead viewed with suspicion or alarm.
In newsrooms all over the country, African-American journalists and their colleagues of color are often angry over the ways in which their organizations portray people of color. Stories that underscore a societal belief in black inferiority, underachievement, criminality, athleticism, and dysfunction continue to prevail. While time has softened the glaringly crude projections of African Americans in the popular press, the mainstream view of African Americans is still warped by years of persistently negative portrayals.
Sadly, few in positions of power appear eager to confront the ways in which race continues to influence how news is gathered, reported, and presented to the public. Only through a sober and honest appraisal by news executives can we begin to tend to the cancer in our racial realm.
Of all our institutions, the news media still have the greatest potential to guide us over the chasm of mistrust, misunderstanding, and resentment that divides us. But this will only happen when news organizations begin to value the validity of viewpoints that fall outside the white cultural mainstream and embrace, in a way many have not, a diversity of ideas.
It is not enough to hire people who look and think differently. To matter, that diversity must somehow be reflected in the news product.
Pamela Newkirk teaches journalism at New York University.
Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.