Journalism organizations geared toward women and people of color have for years made the argument that the only way that the mainstream media can survive and truly serve the public as a source of information is to make an effort to make the nation’s newsrooms more reflective of the citizens they serve.
But according to a new book, for the mainstream media to survive, it needs to adapt to a combination of changing demographics and a more tech-savvy populace of traditionally marginalized communities that will use social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to tell the stories that these media outlets refuse to tell.
“There’s an indication that there’s interest in the stories of people of color not only in pop culture, but also in news,” says Joshunda Sanders, the author of a new book that looks at the importance that diversity is going to play as time goes on.
That book, “How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why The Future of Journalism Depends On Women And People Of Color,” is the latest book in Praeger Publishing’s “Racism In American Institutions” series. In the book, Sanders, talks about the challenges of media diversity, why many of those challenges are self-inflicted by media organizations, and how social media is circumventing some of those challenges.
Sanders, who has written for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, Austin American Statesman, The Root and Buzzfeed, was doing some writing about portrayals of people of color in the news media for the Maynard Institute For Journalism Education in 2012 when she decided to write the book, she said.
As part of her research, Sanders found that there were a lot of forces working against newsroom diversity. Because there aren’t a lot of women or journalists of color heading into academia, a possible set of mentors for students looking to study journalism and communications isn’t always there. Internships–many of which are either free or don’t pay well–are hard for students who need to raise money for tuition or simply to live to take, thus making it hard to get the necessary experience and contacts for journalism careers.
But, the strongest force working against newsroom diversity may be newsrooms themselves, Sanders said. While the Kerner Commission report laid out the problems in a largely segregated news media, problems that were similar to society overall at the time, the nature of journalism keeps certain conversations from happening, she said.
“It’s difficult to talk about racism and sexism in society, and it’s especially hard to talk about it when it comes to journalism,” Sanders said. “Journalism prides itself on being fair, and racism and sexism are things that are unfair. I wanted to point out how racism and sexism manifest themselves within journalism.”
Since hiring and retention appears to be the biggest issue when it comes to diversifying newsrooms, Sanders addresses that in the book. While not bringing people of color and women into newsrooms isn’t necessarily a part of a nefarious plot, it is subject to the whims of a network that doesn’t necessarily include them.
“When journalists learn about an opening or have an opening in their shops, the first thing they ask themselves is ‘Who do I know?” Sanders said. “The people that they know are in their peer groups and people are going to recommend those who are in their peer groups for these jobs.”
And even if women and people of color get into the newsroom, they still have to fight to be able to tell the stories of their communities without having to fight the perception of not being objective enough or being pigeonholed. Throughout the book, Sanders talks about how the stories of women and people of color aren’t integrated into daily coverage and are usually relegated to “special project” coverage, something that allows news organizations to take credit for covering the issues without actually doing a lot of heavy lifting.
But while that’s been the case traditionally, the advent of social media is changing that slightly, Sanders said. While monetizing social media is still something that few have figured out, without it, movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the stories of unarmed people of color being killed by police would never have gotten out, she said.
“Social media has emerged as a place for women and people of color to share their stories,” Sanders said.
While much of the book focuses on journalism, “How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media” also touches on how portrayals of women and people of color in the mainstream media. One of the more interesting sections touched on black women and how they seem to be a personal favorite of folks like comedian and self-styled relationship expert Steve Harvey, who recently found himself in hot water after taping a show entitled “What Men Think” that turned into a display of raw sexism.
Usually, when a group of men get on a television show like Harvey’s and the discussion of educated, unmarried Black women comes up, the myriad reasons that said “expert” has for why these women aren’t in relationships are always somehow connected to said woman’s personality…and the fact that she may not be as focused on finding a man as she should be.
“It was driving me crazy and it was laughable,” Sanders said. “It’s as if they’re saying it doesn’t matter if you do all of the right things like having a good career, take care of yourself and take care of your bills, it doesn’t matter. If you pass all of these metrics for success and yet you’re still single, that’s all that’s focused upon. Your achievements are irrelevant. I find that particularly interesting.”
While it seems as if the getting mainstream news organizations to move toward newsrooms that include more women and people of color might be an effort worthy of Sisyphus, there is hope, Sanders said. News organizations like the New Republic and the New York Times are making an effort to do better in these matters. So the ship is starting to right itself a little, she said.
However, if the needle is going to be moved forward in terms of bringing more women and people of color into the mainstream newsroom, it’s important that diversity is talked about with news organizations not as a social construct, but as an economic one.
“It’s about the bottom line,” Sanders said. “If someone who has privilege doesn’t want to shift from that privilege, you can’t make them if they don’t want to. But there’s no longer a lack of information about how often stories are shared and retweeted. Metrics don’t lie and that’s not a trend that’s going to be reversed.”
“How Racism And Sexism Killed Traditional Media” is now available via Amazon.
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Denise Clay is the assistant editor for AllDigitocracy. She is a contributing editor and columnist to the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, and the Philadelphia Public Record. Her work has also appeared on XOJane, and Time.com.