All the White News That's Fit to Print

What do the following two recent news stories have in common? 1. Cincinnati race riots. 2. Pool of minority journalists shrinks.

Answer: You might not have the first if the second weren't a problem. At the least, you might have heard more about the blatant police brutality that provoked the Cincinnati outrage, or the Los Angeles riot in 1992, or even Watts back in August 1965. Those details might actually be news fit to print if newsrooms weren't so damned white.

"How, one asked, could the population as a whole be so taken by surprise?" asked journalism professor Jack Lyte back in 1965 about the Watts riot. "The answer in a word was ignorance." He added, in The Black American and the Press, that it's the media's job to report festering problems -- before a blow-up like Watts ... Like it or not, the individual citizen is dependent upon these media."

Now ask yourself when you knew that the Cincinnati police had killed 15 men, all black, since 1995. I'll bet you it was after riots broke out over the slaying of unarmed teen Timothy Thomas by a cop ("thought he was reaching for something" has replaced "he flirted with a white woman" as the excuse du jour). Even a federal lawsuit, filed by the ACLU in March against the city of Cincinnati for police brutality over 30 years drew scant media attention outside Ohio. No networks, no New York Times. Both blanketed the area, though, after bottles took flight. Just as Lyte said 33 years ago: "Once the violence exploded, news coverage was massive."

Earlier this month, Columbia University visiting professor Al Gore brought UCLA professor Frank Gilliam to class. Gilliam, an African American, warned that reporters need a "rainbow Rolodex" representative of the nation. Then Gore asked the audience, "Can you have a rainbow Rolodex without a rainbow newsroom?" Silence. I looked around at the audience that filled the Joseph Pulitzer World Room and saw no African-American face other than Gore's guests. There may have been one or two I couldn't see; but Gore and Gilliam didn't have to reach too far beyond the 2001 J-school "Facebook" to make their point.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors released bad news in April: For the first time in 22 years, the number of minority journalists working at US dailies dropped. It's not like those numbers had far to go: As of 2000, only 12% -- 6,665 of 56,200 -- were minority, the New York Times reported (not detailing their own minority breakdown, incidentally.) According to AP, 72 minority jobs were lost since then; now 5% of reporters are black, less than 4% Hispanic, less than 2% Asian. There are 249 Native American reporters.

Mark Trahant, of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, blamed the late dot-com revolution for pulling journalists away from newspapers, who in turn displayed "a complete inattention to retention," he told the Times. "[P]eople who didn't feel appreciated in the newsroom or invested in the newsroom took advantage of other opportunities."

True. For a dozen or so brief shining months, it looked like the new economy would change the face -- its gender and its color -- of journalism forever. The power would be decentralized and wrested away from the media ivory towers. Women and minorities could dump the old guys and start their own. They could be heard. They could talk about their communities. Silence no more.

Then it crashed, leaving the old school with yet another excuse not to hire diverse news staffs: Now, they explain, it's too competitive. Dallas Morning News executive editor Gilbert Bailon told the Times, "Fewer jobs are open. Papers are scaling back. The highly competitive people will be hired. But the numbers -- increasing them is going to be hard."

Hard? Isn't anything worth doing hard? Let's add up the excuses: The pre-dot-com newsroom didn't foster loyalty among non-white-male reporters, and the post-crash decision-makers aren't going to hire them back because the white folks are more qualified. Can you blame would-be minority journalists for not applying to J-school or newsrooms? sniped back at Bailon's comments: "Talk about your soft bigotry of low expectations. The suggestion seems to be that minority hires are some sort of drag on a newspaper's performance, a luxury that can only be afforded in flush times."

The reality is, just like in many other industries (ahem, high-tech), media outlets need to just decide to diversify their hiring no matter what, to actually reflect the colors of America by 2025, as ASNE says is a goal. That means recruiting from non-Ivy League colleges, on-the-job training, losing the press snobbishness. It's about realizing that important reporting isn't just what privileged white guys think it is. It means visiting every community every day. It means asking a black woman in Harlem, or Cincinnati, what she thinks about tax cuts, and then putting her picture next to the story because she has an opinion on an important issue other than affirmative action or crack babies.

It means spiking the sensationalist crime coverage, and covering minority youth positively just as often as rich white kids. It means never, ever asking again how a school shooting could happen in a "good," white community. A study released April 10, "Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News," showed that homicide coverage by TV networks increased 473% between 1990 and 1998, even as murders declined 32.9%. Killings by young people dropped 68% between 1993 and 1999, but 62% of the American public believes juvenile crime is on the rise. Guess whose fault that is?

In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission accused the news media of a "a systemic institutional myopia toward the plight of minorities." In 1991, an Ohio University study of journalists of color working for the white press found that little had changed: In the newsroom, minorities said a glass ceiling blocked promotions, and they believed they were held to a higher standard than their white counterparts, who in turn believed they were "special" hires. In 1991, 85% of top news execs were white men.

Now we hear there are fewer than 3,000 black newspaper reporters in 2001. As white America shrinks, its representation in the media is actually growing. At this rate, by the time whites become the minority American race in mid-21st century, no one in the media will notice.


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