Newsroom Diversity

Black Journalists: Wanted! Needed?

The Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander thinks the paper doesn’t have enough minority reporters.  He makes a good case.  But he buries the lead.  In his blog post today, he narrows in on the key problem:  Not talk, but story decisions.

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.

Talk isn’t a bad idea.  And in this way and at this level, it may not be cheap.  But at the end of the chat, it takes a newspaper’s commitment to cover the stories of minorities, which will include stories about depravation, hopelessness and prejudice as well as inspiring ones about overcoming the challenges or the experiences of those who’ve inherited a leg up.  In any case, a newspaper making that commitment must come first.

That’s hard to do in today’s news environment, especially if The Post sees itself as the newspaper of political record.  You can’t have reporters investing time to find out what’s happening in minorities communities and explaining why it’s important, if you’re assigning “he said, she said” stories and covering or covering tea party rallies.

And what would that change in focus bring?  Before anything else, charges of “liberal media!”  Are the Post editors ready take the heat, or will they stick to stories of Clarence Thomas  clones?

Not only is it safer to be the stenographer of the political elite arguments, it’s cheaper.  Plopping a reporter in the White House briefing room or sending one to a Congressional press conference costs less that sending a reporter into a community to enterprise stories, for which even the minority reporter requires time to build trust among communities that don’t necessarily crave news coverage—and return with the best stories. 

So before they count face colors in the newsroom, they’ll need to decide whether it will make a difference.

UPDATE:  Seems like Politico is catching flak about the predominance of white men at the top.