A key to newsroom diversity: Talk
Late last week, as word got out that I was writing Sunday’s ombudsman column about the challenges of expanding newsroom diversity, a number of minority staff members contacted me to offer their views. Many dealt with hiring patterns and the ratio of minorities to non-minorities in the newsroom. But Post staff writer Theola Labbe-DeBose sent me an e-mail making the point that the issue goes beyond numbers and percentages.
“Diversity is about numbers,” she acknowledged, “but on the social level of how we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis, it’s really about feelings” and perceptions. To narrow what she terms a “diversity gap,” Labbe-DeBose said it’s first necessary to acknowledge that differences exist over what is an acceptable level of diversity in the newsroom. Journalists of color account for 24 percent of The Post’s newsroom, which many minority staffers view as woefully inadequate. At the same time, many among the 76 percent white majority view it as acceptable, especially given the fact that Post diversity is comfortably higher than industry norms. “When you can close that perception gap,” Labbe-DeBose wrote, “that’s when you have created an environment that’s more widely considered to be diverse.”
Many years as a newsroom manager taught me to never underestimate the divide of perceptions between whites and non-whites. I recall a decades-old industry study of attitudes about newsroom employment. Among journalists of color who were surveyed, an extraordinarily high percentage felt whites were consistently given preference in hiring and promotion. The feelings among whites were almost exactly the opposite, with an equally high percentage convinced that minorities were given preference simply because they were of color.
With a “diversity gap” this large, it’s difficult to know where to begin. But newsroom managers can start with something simple and free: Talk. They can hold one-on-one conversations, preferably outside the newsroom in an informal setting, where race and ethnicity are more likely to be discussed in a way that is open, direct and genuine. Or, managers might consider a series of brown-bag staff lunches where non-journalist representatives of different racial and ethnic groups in the community -- African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Christians -- talk about how they are portrayed in The Post. Do they believe they have been stereotyped? In what ways is The Post’s coverage of them inaccurate or unfair? What types of stories could The Post provide that would appeal to readers of their particular audience?
These types of casual discussions inevitably are informative and expand awareness. They help reduce misconceptions and can foster an environment in which racial and cultural differences can be discussed openly. The result is more honest dialogue in the newsroom, which leads to coverage that is more sophisticated and, ultimately, more accurate.
My Sunday column quoted from an April 2008 memo to The Post’s top editors from Milton Coleman, then a deputy managing editor. Coleman, who is African American, warned that The Post’s newsroom needed more diversity if it was to remain attuned to the exploding minority populations in The Post’s circulation area. But he also said editors needed to do more to make minorities want to remain with The Post.
He wrote: “There has been for years a staggering turnover rate among minority journalists in our newsroom, especially blacks and Hispanics, and this churn has been a major factor holding back our progress.”
Some minority staffers have told me they have considered leaving The Post because they feel that white assignment editors too often won’t embrace their story ideas. They believe the reason often is that the white editors simply don’t buy into the coverage idea because it’s on a topic that isn’t familiar to them or is uncomfortably outside their cultural environment.
Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who now is a diversity consultant to the American Society of News Editors (disclosure: I sit on its board), said it’s a problem in newsrooms. Frustration often builds among minority staffers “because they don’t think anyone listens to them” when they propose story ideas or new areas of coverage. In rejecting these ideas, she said, assigning editors often are saying to themselves: “This hasn’t happened to me, so it isn’t ‘news.’” The remedy, she said, is for editors to think outside their cultural comfort zone and be more willing to “accept other people’s definition of news.”
That becomes easier as newsroom diversity grows and minorities move into supervisory positions where they can shape news coverage. But in the current financial climate, when the Post is still struggling to return to annual profitability, expanding diversity is an extra challenge because staffing levels are being further trimmed.
All the more reason to expand newsroom conversation around the issue. Talk is cheap, but critically important.
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