A largely white, male-dominated news media has been guilty of constructing an inaccurate and harmful narrative about people of color
It’s been said that when white America has a cold, people of color get pneumonia.
That notion could apply to news organizations and journalists of color across the country.
While declining revenues forced newsrooms to downsize, journalists of color are leaving newsrooms at a faster rate than journalists leave newsrooms as a whole.
Between 2007 to 2015, the number of total newsroom journalists fell by 38 percent. The number of newspaper journalists of color fell from 7,400 to 3,200, a decline of more than 55 percent, according to the American Society of News Editors’ annual census.
Where did those 4,200 journalists of color go? It certainly wasn’t into new media spaces. A look at the roster of new digital outlets and startups finds mostly white faces, with a few rare exceptions, such as ESPN’s The Undefeated and NPR’s Code Switch team.
What does it mean when the nation is getting browner but the pool of journalists doesn’t follow suit? Is it possible to write an authentic, complete first draft of history, as journalists are charged to do, if diverse reporters and photographers and editors aren’t at the table? How might a more diverse media corps cover Black Lives Matter, the wave of police shootings of unarmed black men or racial inequality?
Sometimes Black Twitter and its social media peers fill the reporting void, as users deftly sidestep or even ignore traditional media in favor of telling and controlling their own stories.
It’s easy to understand why: Dating as far back as the 1968 Kerner Commission report, the media has been guilty of constructing an inaccurate and harmful narrative about people of color, particularly in times of crisis.
“[T]here were instances of gross flaws in presenting news of the 1967 [Detroit] riots,” the report found. “Some newspapers printed ‘scare’ headlines unsupported by the mild stories that followed. All media reported rumors that had no basis in fact. Some newsmen staged ‘riot’ events for the cameras.”
An explanation for the biased coverage might be found in the “shockingly backward” hiring and retention of black journalists, the Kerner report indicated. Less than five percent of journalists then were black. Less than one percent of those were editors or supervisors, primarily at black-owned papers.
Today, the share of journalists of color in leadership roles is slipping, from 15 percent in 2015 to 12 percent in 2015, according to ASNE.
Of course, journalists of color leave newsrooms for the same reasons white journalists do – to move into a different, perhaps more stable, industry, to care for family, to take advantage of a lucrative buyout and yes, to escape burnout.
Still, a few recent incidents raise questions about the environment in which journalists of color work and the value placed on their contributions.
In May, Associated Press race and ethnicity editor Sonya Ross sued the wire service for racial discrimination, claiming that AP suffocated her advancement and even posted an opening for her job — while she was still in it. Through an intermediary, Ross declined to comment.
Ironically, Ross’ first job at the AP stemmed from a 1973 discrimination lawsuit that took 10 years to resolve. The 1983 settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission required the AP to fill five percent of entry-level jobs with African Americans and five percent with Hispanics.
Ross’ lawsuit came just weeks after a union representing New York Times journalists reported that wages of minority journalists were 10 percent less than average wages. At Dow Jones, which owns The Wall Street Journal, the average white male employee earns $545 more per week than a black male and $631 more than a black woman, according to a March analysis of union-covered employees’ salaries. The wage disparity was slightly less for Asian-Americans, but nearly as bad for Hispanics.
The number of black journalists who have abandoned hostile newsrooms will never be accurately tallied, because many simply leave. Others file complaints internally and are paid to depart without speaking the truth about how they were treated.
I reached out to dozens of journalists of color for this story, but very few wanted to talk on the record about their experiences, for fear of jeopardizing future employment chances.
By contrast, Melissa Harris Perry spoke very publicly in March about her departure from her eponymous show on MSNBC after the network increasingly chose to pre-empt her show for political coverage.
Fifty-five percent of Harris Perry’s guests were people of color, a stark contrast to the mostly white male lineup of other Sunday morning shows.
“There is a level of professional decency, respect, and communication that has been denied this show for years,” the political scientist and author wrote in a goodbye post to her staff.
This comes at a time when the national conversation on race shows no signs of slowing and galling reports on racial disparities in practically every arena fill headlines.
“We know we have an inequality problem in the country,” said Debra Adams Simmons, a 2016 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. She and I spent the last 10 months as fellows, studying the impact of the digital news revolution on diversity, ethics and local communities.
“In many ways, I think that narrative is getting short shrift and that’s tied directly to the staffing in our newsrooms,” said Adams Simmons, who most recently was a vice president for Advance Local and previously, the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal.
She’s concerned that the next generation of journalists will look much like the one that came before.
“So much of the digital landscape is a very white, male dominated landscape and unfortunately, it seems that we’re making many of the same mistakes digitally that we made and worked hard to correct in print.”
She offered no magic bullet, but suggests that both sides work together.
“Media companies need to renew their commitment to diversity and journalists of color need to more aggressively jump in and be proactive about developing the skills necessary to lead in the digital age,” she said.
Wendi C. Thomas was a 2015-2016 Nieman Foundation writing fellow and is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.