Depending on who you talk to, the media leans left, or leans right, or doesn’t lean at all. Politically, that is.
One thing’s for sure, though: the media, especially print media, leans way to the white.
And here’s the harsh truth about that: very few people really want to talk about it, and even fewer have the first idea what to do about it – at least in the short term.
By most measures, about 12 percent of newspaper journalists are racial minorities — considerably lower than the 40 or so percent of the total population. This number hasn’t changed significantly in the last decade, though it is up significantly from the 3.95 percent reported in the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ first census of newsrooms. In 1978.
Here at home, it’s much lower than even that 1978 number, which will surprise no one. At the only daily newspaper in the Madison area, it’s zero percent. Put together all the print outlets and you get to almost one percent.
Is that a problem?
Yes, says Wisconsin State Journal editor John Smalley.
“We want and need diverse voices,” Smalley says. “When you’re trying to tell stories from a variety of perspectives, it’s hard to do that without diverse voices.”
Former Capital Times reporter Gail Moore is a bit more blunt.
“If you don’t have a different perspective, that’s what we called, back in the day, propaganda,” she says.
Moore, recruited from the Milwaukee City Edition in the early 1990s, was very aware of her position as one of only two African Americans in the newsroom — the other being a copy editor.
“I was a novelty,” she says. “All these people were lily white. I had to be a serious, credible reporter.” She was credible enough to earn a spot on the newspaper’s editorial board. But she still appreciated the effort.
“I have only good things to say about the Capital Times,” she says, and is pleased to hear her old paper recently hired an African American reporter to cover education. “That’s like hey, the company I worked for is still doing the right thing. You’re getting a different perspective.”
It’s not that issues of race aren’t covered in all-white (or mostly-white) newsrooms, says Sue Robinson of the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism.
“There are a lot of well-meaning white reporters,” Robinson says, but they’re not necessarily trusted in communities of color and lack the background to understand the deeper nuances of what people of color experience day to day. “When they try to talk to people, they’re stymied. Maybe people will talk to them but don’t want to give their name. They come up against these obstacles time and time again that thwart their ability to cover these issues. Their coverage is fairly event-centric. There aren’t many deep dives.”
Robinson studies the way white reporters cover race issues, especially in cities that are considered “progressive” but remain plagued with persistent racial disparities. Her forthcoming book examines the way people in progressive cities talk about race in public spaces like journalism, looking specifically at Madison; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Evanston, Illinois; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She notes that in those cities, the daily newspaper newsrooms are virutally all white.
Another reason to be bothered by an all-white media is that it can perpetuate blind spots.
As we learned in an earlier Madison365 piece, the most “progressive” cities are often relatively oblivious to their own racial inequities. Could this be in part due to the whiteness of the media in those cities? After all, no one really wants to be racist, or to be called racist — least of all progressives. There may be a deep-seated incentive among white, progressive journalists in white, progressive cities not to cover racial disparity issues, thus perpetuating among their white, progressive readers that everything in their fair city is just fine and progressive.
That same sentiment — revulsion at the very idea of being seen as racist — may be one of the first obstacles to overcome when attempting to diversify newsrooms.
“When I talk to these reporters and editors, they’re very defensive,” says Robinson. “What about this? We did that! We hired an intern!” That defensiveness often prevents editors and publishers from actually discussing the issues.
The Capital Times, once an afternoon daily and now a print weekly with a strong online presence and a newsroom staff of about 20, proudly calls itself “progressive” and has made an explicit commitment to supporting work toward diversity and coverage of race issues. But whether or not that commitment extends to its own newsroom staff, we’ll just have to take their word for it.
Editor Paul Fanlund says the paper “recognizes the importance of diversity in the newsroom. We have been working on it and will continue to work on it.”
He refused to say, however, what “working on it” means, citing confidentiality of personnel matters, even though the question involved recruitment, not personnel. So why should anyone believe they’re actually working on it?
“People will choose to believe what they want to believe,” Fanlund said. “I know what we’re doing.”
The State Journal’s Smalley keeps no secrets when it comes to his newspaper’s whiteness and their efforts to diversify.
“I don’t get defensive because not having diversity in the newsroom is pretty indefensible,” he says. “It’s our loss and our failing. We just have to own it.”
Smalley says the State Journal makes efforts to make their job openings known to people of color by listing those jobs with the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, in the diversity section of journalismjobs.com and has reached out to the Urban League of Greater Madison, the City of Madison’s Affirmative Action Division, Joining Forces for Families and the YWCA.
So far, it’s all been for naught; every one of the more than 50 newsroom staff is white.
“In my time at the Wisconsin State Journal (since December 2008), we have had no African Americans in the newsroom,” he says. “Rarely do we come across a minority candidate.” Madison isn’t alone though, he says; his career has taken him to newsrooms in Iowa, Minnesota and La Crosse, Wisconsin and he says he’s never worked with a person of color.
Smalley puts the problem on the supply side.
“Everybody is trying to get candidates out of a very small pool,” he says. And not many of them want to live in Madison. “We have particularly brutal winters here. If you’re a family of diversity and you hear about all the disparities … (Madison) is a difficult place to recruit to at times.”
“If you have any desire to move any further in your career,” says the former reporter Moore,” you work here a couple years and the just get the hell out of here.”
“It’s hard to attract journalists of color to a newsroom where no one looks like them,” Robinson says. “They don’t get paid enough to be that token person. And any time they find someone good, they get snatched up by the New York Times.”
Indeed, the more desirable newspaper jobs seem more diverse; The Washington Post editorial staff is 31 percent people of color, and The New York Times and USA Today are both 19 percent, according to the ASNE census.
But Moore, one of only two African Americans in The Capital Times newsroom in the 1990s (the other being a copy editor), wants to hear no excuses.
“The State Journal does not feel like they have to have a minority reporter,” she says. If they really and truly did, they’d find one, she says. “They’re out there. They can find one. I’ll show you how the plan can be done. There are black reporters out there who are not working in their field, who would endure whatever to get back into it. I would tell them to put a different spin on the job ad.”
“We need people of color in all levels of decision making in these newsrooms,” Robinson says, calling the profession “entrenched” and unable to change until there are more people of color serving as editors and publishers. But editors and publishers are often former reporters; with no reporters of color, the future doesn’t look to hold a lot of editors of color.
This issue might require a long-term fix. Like, really long term.
“What we need to do in journalism schools is consider alternative qualifications, other than just grades,” says Robinson. “Journalism schools are not helping this problem.” She says the lack of students of color in journalism schools is rooted in achievement gaps going all the way back to elementary school age.
Smalley sees the mostly-minority middle school students who visit his newsroom twice a week to work on the Simpson Street Free Press as a potential talent pool.
“That’s a long road,” he says, “but you gotta start somewhere.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the nature of Dr. Sue Robinson’s forthcoming book.