By: Mark Fitzgerald
Thousands meet in Seattle despite threatened boycott
SEATTLE ? Voting with their feet, the number of minority journalists who attended Unity ’99 indicates the threatened boycott of the event here because of an anti-affirmative action initiative in Washington never really caught fire.
At press time, Unity organizers said the opening-day count of 4,900 registrants meant the convention was on track to meet its goal of 6,000 member attendees. That figure does not include recruiters, students, or journalists covering the five-day event. At the first Unity meeting of its four national minority journalists associations, held in Atlanta in 1994, the final attendance was about 5,750.
“Some members did say they would not attend, and they are not [attending], but at last count we had 1,700 members here,” says Vanessa Williams, president of the largest of Unity’s four groups, the 3,100-member National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). “That’s a little bit lower than we do in other cities, but you have to remember that two-thirds of NABJ members live on the other side of the Mississippi River.”
When planning for Unity was in its final stages, foes of affirmative action put Initiative 200 on the ballot. Some minority journalists urged a boycott, but the four associations ultimately decided to go ahead with the Seattle site. Initiative 200 ultimately passed statewide, but was voted down heavily in the Seattle metropolitan area.
Catalina Camia, the president of the Asian American Journalists Association, says 850 of its 1,900 members attended Unity, a number that exceeds its goal of 800. National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) president Nancy Baca says the 617 members who attended was a little below its goal. NAHJ has 1,600 members. About 300 members of the Native American Journalists Association were present, representing about half the total membership, says president Kara Briggs.
There was a mix of pessimism and optimism at Unity, which was called to discuss media coverage of minorities and the roles that minorities play in newsrooms. The percentage of journalists of color is stuck at about 11% of all newsroom employees, which leaves many frustrated.
“Days like this make me feel really old,” says Lavonne Luquis, a Unity attendee and a former newspaper journalist who is now president of LatinoLink, the Internet distributor of news and features about Latinos that was launched in 1995. “We’ve been talking about diversity so long.”
David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, says he is heartened by the industry’s response to last May’s National Time-Out for Diversity. “For years, we’ve been told that diversity is good for business, which it is, and that it is the moral thing to do, which it is. But by refocusing this as an issue of accuracy, we hit a nerve,” says Yarnold, a board member of the Associated Press Managing Editors, which sponsored the effort jointly with the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).
More than 2,000 journalists in about 200 newsrooms participated in the program during the week of May 17, Yarnold reports. That includes more than 140 newspapers in 37 states, 43 domestic bureaus of The Associated Press, Gannett News Service, Reuters, and Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. The newsrooms were encouraged to hold workplace discussions; conduct content audits for the diversity of sources of news stories; and adopt specific practices for the future.
At his own paper, Yarnold says, those practices will include twice-annual content audits by every news department; citizen focus groups; “civic mapping” to ensure a wider variety of news sources; and a focus on diversity issues at daily news meetings.
He also says ASNE is creating a series of short- and long-term strategies that show promise to “really move the needle” in recruiting, retaining, and promoting minority newspaper journalists. ASNE launched an Internet job bank for minority journalists at Unity. The Talent Bank is especially designed to help editors of small- to medium-size newspapers find minority candidates for their newsrooms. Editors can search for candidates from their communities or students from nearby colleges. Professors enter the names, e-mail addresses, and backgrounds of their students who are interested in journalism.
Local TV seem to be doing a better job of building diverse staffs, according to the latest study from the Radio & Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). Overall, 19% of local TV newsroom employees are racial or ethnic minorities and 25% of on-air reporters are minorities ? almost matching the 26% of Americans who are members of minority groups. African Americans account for 9% of employees; Hispanics, 7%; Asian Americans, 2.5%; and Native Americans, 0.5%. The figures were reported by RTNDA president Barbara Cochran at a meeting on the eve of Unity’s opening.
By contrast, ASNE reported this spring that minorities account for just 11.46% of employees in newspaper newsrooms. Local radio stations report only 11% of their newsrooms are minorities, Cochran adds.
As newspapers seek to hire more minority journalists, they’re also saddled with the difficult task of retaining the ones they have. A Freedom Forum study released at Unity shows widening discontent among minority journalists. Among the findings, says Freedom Forum fellow Victor Merina: 55% of journalists of color say they expect to leave the newspaper industry in the next five years. Among African-American journalists, he says, the number increases to six of every 10.
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