I’ve always worn my cultural identity on my sleeve. As a woman of color born to immigrant parents, I’m considered a minority almost everywhere I go.
Unsurprisingly, this is hardly any less true for the industry I will enter after I graduate in a matter of months: journalism.
In late 2017, the American Society of News Editors announced that journalists from minority backgrounds make up only 17 percent of the workforce in American newsrooms.
Lack of diversity isn’t exactly a new problem in the news industry. Male, white reporters have traditionally dominated the highest levels of many news agencies. By contrast, reporters from minority backgrounds, particularly women of color, have faced many hurdles when it comes to advancing their careers and applying for higher level positions.
This lack of representation in an increasingly interconnected world has had an impact on the depth and breadth of news stories, as well as the way in which stories are told.
”Journalists from minority backgrounds make up only 17 percent of the workforce in American newsrooms”
Consequences of a Shifting Industry
When journalists seek new story ideas, they tend to be drawn to current events that are relevant to them and also have some sort of personal value.
That’s according to Charisse L’Pree, a professor who teaches a course on race, gender and the media at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. L’Pree says by assigning value to a story, journalists unwittingly allow their upbringing, relationships and other personal factors to impact their reporting style.
“If you grew up only around multi-generational Americans, you might cover immigration from a fear perspective,” she said. “And if you only grew up around immigrants, you might focus more on how immigration has helped communities.”
L’Pree says it would be impossible to cover each and every story and community that is affected. She says some voices are always inevitably left out. L’Pree says the bigger issue stems from the rise of increasingly specialized media platforms.
Things were easier when there were fewer targeted platforms that focused solely on one aspect, and more general news platforms that provided information of a wide spectrum of topics, L’Pree says.
“Now you’ve got a fracturing of the industry, so if you want to cover black news, or if you are black and well versed in talking about black issues, you could find a space that would be more welcoming to you instead of fighting a system that’s mainstream,” she said. “I think it’s worse now because we are in more walled gardens and cylos. If I don’t want to hear a good story about Black Lives Matter, I don’t have to.”
As a result of this, L’Pree says many people get stuck in the same mindsets and they don’t care about perspectives outside their realm of reality.
”Everyone views reality from a different perspective, so when you have only one point of view, or only one experience being hammered down, you affect the way people understand reality”
A Monotone News Palette
But a lack of diversity in the news media isn’t just an industry problem, it’s a newsroom structural issue too.
Cristina Lopez is a senior researcher at Media Matters, an American politically progressive media watchdog. Lopez says the way newsrooms have been traditionally structured makes the issue of diversity all the more difficult to work with.
Traditional newsrooms usually follow a hierarchy, with a few people at the top controlling the majority of the content that is produced. Reporters and contributors make up the majority of the news platform.
Although many newsrooms may have a diverse group of people from different backgrounds producing content, this same diversity is not always reflected across positions of senior status, which again, are often occupied by male, white reporters.
Lopez says this structure leads to journalism that more often than none, deviates from an accurate narrative.
“Everyone views reality from a different perspective, so when you have only one point of view, or only one experience being hammered down, you affect the way people understand reality,” she said.
According to Lopez, newsroom contributors and guest speakers who are brought into newscasts or to write op-ed columns play an important role in diversifying the media. But she says many of these individuals fail to represent the variety of communities that live in the United States today.
“The minorities in this country are increasingly growing and that is not being reflected in news rooms nor in the guests that are invited to talk about the issues,” she said.
Lopez stressed that lack of diversity doesn’t just attribute to the color of someone’s skin. People from non-white communities are traditionally raised with fewer resources, fewer opportunities, and less exposure. Journalists raised in these conditions may not be able to get the right type of experience or have a degree from a prestigious university, she said.
An Intimate Touch on Storytelling
An NPR report in ‘Code Switch’ says the newsroom is “stuck behind the gender and color line.” The implications of this, the report says, is that storytelling is skewed and impersonal, particularly when it comes to stories about underrepresented and minority communities.
The report says journalists of color bring an added layer of knowledge and depth to stories about minorities, which makes for more effective storytelling.
J. Gabriel Ware is a master’s candidate in communications at Western Michigan University, and is also a contributor at Yes! Magazine.
Ware says there is something inherently valuable about sending a reporter to cover a story about which they have some prior knowledge, and with whom they may even have a personal connection.
“We all have our own biases. If I am a white person telling a story about a black community, my biases as a white person would affect the way I told the story. So when I do tell that story, it might not be an accurate representation,” he said. “I’m not saying white people shouldn’t tell these stories, but we should have people from those communities being able to tell those stories too.”
It should be noted that these biases could work both ways, and a reporter with a personal connection to a community he/she is covering may still report in a subjective way. But Ware says this is a minor issue when compared with the immense benefits that would come the other way.
“Journalists from different backgrounds, particularly from underrepresented communities, help tell authentic stories about our communities,” Ware said. “That’s very important when it comes to breaking down stereotypes.”
“The one thing we can always do is remind media organizations and societies of their pledges to diversity”
Breaking Down the Barriers
Lack of diversity isn’t something that can be solved overnight, much like many issues society faces today.
But Yvonne Leow, president of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), says she is optimistic about the future, particularly because of organizations like the one she leads.
AAJA is a nonprofit educational and professional organization that has over 1500 members throughout the United States and Asia. The organization provides working reporters as well as student journalists with job and internship opportunities, as well as a tight-knit interconnected network.
“AAJA and other cultural journalists organizations are important because they foster a sense of community through support, advice and mentorship,” Leow said.
J. Gabriel Ware was a part of the Chips Quinn Journalism Scholarship Program, a program which offers mentoring, internships and awards to college students and recent graduates pursuing media-related careers.
“There’s a huge gap in opportunity and privilege between different communities,” Ware said. “But programs like this help bridge that gap and give us a chance to the same opportunities as other journalists.”
Ware says he is still in touch with many of the other Chips Quinn scholars, and is also a member of a group chat for journalists from minority backgrounds. He says connecting with people from similar backgrounds has made it easier for him to get his foot in through the door, as well as do the very best he can in his field.
Lopez says Media Matters and other media watchdogs play an important role in making the new industry continues to diversity through its reporters and stories.
“The one thing we can always do is remind media organizations and societies of their pledges to diversity,” she said.
Lopez says the new industry has made strides by having quotas, having special programs for minority groups, and releasing diversity reports. But she says if one looks at the overall picture, there is still a lot yet to be done.
“This is an ongoing battle,” she said. “But it’s one we will not stop fighting.”
Saniya More, a senior at Newhouse, speaks five languages and squeals over every dog she meets. She enjoys capturing candid yet poised photos of everyone she meets. If she’s not juggling news wraps, internships and homework in organised chaos, she can be found cooking up a mean Thai dinner.