August 7, 2019

The Kerner Commission tried 51 years ago. ASNE has been trying for 41 years. Corporations have tried initiatives on and off for decades. And Monday, the Knight Foundation and the Maynard Institute announced the latest attempt to attempt to help America’s journalism institutions diversify their staffs.

The $1.2 million donation could have funded 10 to 15 journalists, but literally throwing bodies at journalism’s diversity problem hasn’t worked. I’m going to be cautiously optimistic that the newly announced Equity and Inclusion Transformation Program could accomplish the goal that many programs haven’t been able to: transform newsroom culture. Or better yet, reset journalism’s perception of race.

The problem isn’t hiring or nurturing “diverse” journalists — it’s journalism’s approach to diversity, which points at “them,” at “others.” To people who aren’t straight white men.

White skin needs to get in the game to make diversity a reality.

As outlined in scores of case studies, especially Pamela Newkirk’s 2000 book “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media,” the quest for newsroom diversity began after 1968 Kerner Report dissected years of rioting in black communities. The report concluded that the news media had failed “to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States and, as a related matter, to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism. By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions.”

Hiring African Americans to integrate white newsrooms started with a not-so-rhetorical question that renowned writer and NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois had heard half-century before: How does it feel to be a problem?

The recently announced Maynard program is designed to put the onus on news executives to rethink how they perceive diversity.

“It’s always been put on us to solve the issue,” LaSharah Bunting, Knight’s director of journalism, said in the news release. (Like me, Bunting is an African American woman and, also like me, a former New York Times editor.) “This puts responsibility on the institution.”

But we need to go a step further. For true change, we must put the responsibility on the cultural institution we call journalism, not just its individuals or organizations.

Like all white patriarchal institutions in America, journalism has seen itself outside of and superior to race — and also by extension, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion and able-bodiedness.

But as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put it: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Executives might see the need for more journalists who aren’t white males in their newsrooms, but our profession has failed to identify factors beyond privileged networking that put us in this position.

It’s another knock against objectivity. That longstanding yet flawed journalistic tenet, which many of us consider impossible to achieve, has also stacked the deck against journalists who are not cis white males. It’s bad enough that newsroom culture often casts diversity hires as unworthy outsiders. In the name of objectivity, these hires  are implicitly told to check their identity at the cubicle – until it’s needed to appease a community or snare an interview.

In my dissertation about black columnists at “mainstream” newspapers, finished in 2014, I challenged Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach’s thoughts about “diverse” journalists included their seminal book “The Elements of Journalism”:

“Whatever adjective attaches itself to them as journalists – Buddhists, African American, disabled, gay, Hispanic, Jewish, WASP, or even liberal or conservative – it becomes descriptive but not limiting. They are journalists who are also Buddhist, African American, conservative – not Buddhist first and journalist second. When that happens, racial, ethnic, religious, class and ideological backgrounds inform their work, but do not dictate it.”

Back then as I was studying this issue, I wondered if their stance meant that being white was a non-issue but “diverse” journalists possessed extra layers that could call their objectivity into question. I now admit I had overlooked WASP among their litany of identities, though I still wonder if a practicing profession, even one as altruistic as journalism, ever overrides who you are 24/7.

A lot has changed in five years. Journalism has been forced to see whiteness as newsworthy. As The New York Times wrote on Sunday: “Aggrieved white men over the last several months have turned to mass murder in service of hatred against immigrants, Jews and others they perceive as threats to the white race.”

Last week, I emailed Rosenstiel and Kovach to clarify their position on identity and journalism, given the Trump administration and the rancor over the Democratic debate moderation. Both were gracious enough to reply. With Kovach concurring, Rosenstiel wrote that they said that a person’s background isn’t irrelevant to journalism. But there are rules that apply to all journalists, including white males.

“There is no implication that if you are an African American journalist or Hispanic or Jewish or Buddhist that you deny that or blot it out,” Rosenstiel wrote. “Just the opposite. It informs your journalism. It becomes descriptive, as we say, not limiting. An African American journalist doesn’t cover only African American matters. Nor does she deny her ethnicity. It should make her a better journalist. Just as her gender does. But she wouldn’t put it ahead of her job. Her knowledge helps her do it better.”

Understood. I was the black sports journalist who eschewed basketball for tennis years before the Williams sisters were on the scene.

But I still believe many newsrooms place the burden on that diverse journalist – and not white males — to prove her loyalty. In “Within the Veil,” Newkirk pointed out that some newsrooms were reluctant to send black journalists to cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial.  Did any editors pause before sending a white man to cover Timothy McVeigh?

I wholeheartedly believe in journalism’s mission to seek truth and tell it fairly and dimensionally. And brave journalists of all stripes have done so in producing extraordinary reporting on oppressed people in this country and around the world.

But I also believe that journalism, like the other cultural institutions it covers, can turn the spotlight on itself to change for the better. It starts by acknowledging the white patriarchal perspective has been the default approach to hiring journalists of color, then scrutinizing them. We all have identities, but power dynamics often decide whether they are problems.

Transforming newsrooms could mean embracing this notion: assumptions about whiteness are as much a part of the problem of diversity as they are part of the solution.

If the new Maynard project achieved that one goal, then maybe newsrooms might start learning how to fish instead of begging for them before throwing them back.

Kathleen McElroy is director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is the G.B. Dealey Regents Professor in Journalism.

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Kathleen McElroy is director of the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin.
Kathleen McElroy

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