By Kendall Worman
Newsrooms in the U.S. are not exactly the most diverse places when it comes to race. Is it possible for journalists to report objectively and holistically on race and minority issues when the journalists telling those stories don’t represent even a significant fraction of that demographic?
According to The Atlantic a 2012 diversity study by the Radio Television Digital News Association, 86 percent of television news directors and 91.3 percent of radio news directors are Caucasian.
These numbers are important, because they represent the lenses of reporters who cannot attest to the experiences of people of color and minorities, who comprise 37 percent of the U.S. population. These large percentages also represent a hegemonic microsystem that calls the shots on what content gets reported and how much of that content gets reported.
As a white journalist, I am in no way attempting to speak for black reporters or black people. I am white; I am a woman; I am a journalist. I am expressing my sentiment to institutions of power in hopes of dismantling hegemonic powers from controlling the bodies, experiences and livelihood of the oppressed. This control is a detriment of newsrooms and substantive reporting.
Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, mass incarceration and systemic racism are planted in the roots of America’s existence. Therefore, those occurrences cannot be accurately understood and reported solely by those who literally cannot experience certain things because of the color of their skin. Despite your stances on race relations in the U.S., that statement cannot be refuted.
I don’t have to relay a history lesson about racism in the U.S. for someone to understand that white people have been at the summit of its very perpetuation. In order to grasp the concept of how white-heavy newsrooms are detrimental to accurate reporting, we must recognize the stark resemblances of those newsrooms to the U.S. government and other hegemonic structures of power.
The Washington Post reported that the 114th United States Congress is 80 percent white and 80 percent male. While the homogeneous trend is apparently diversifying according to these statistics compared to recent years, this makeup of decision-makers cannot accurately represent the needs and experiences of an increasingly diversifying society.
American newsrooms are demographically worse when it comes to minorities. It is crucial in not only the business aspect of journalistic distribution, but also in the ethical realm for newsrooms to have an equal amount of minorities reporting on issues that other minority readers can relate to. That is democratic common sense.
Society will prioritize the importance of people based on what they see and consume; If they see whiteness put on a pedestal and minority issues barely at all, that will shape their perceptions and treatment of the people around them. This mirrors a hierarchy of concern where white is at the top, and non-white is consistently at the bottom.
In The Atlantic’s story, the late Dori Maynard who was president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said,
“African-Americans are in stories about crime, sports, entertainment. Latinos in immigration. Native Americans and Asian Americans apparently don’t contribute to the fabrics of our lives.”
The deep complexities of racism and social injustices go unnoticed far too often in newsrooms. Diversifying these spaces is not enough. The colliding implications of being a black reporter in America can cause levels of influence to come in conflict with one another. We must understand that perceptions based off of experiences and socially created obstacles, affect reporters reporting on sensitive topics. Reporting on gut-wrenching acts of violence against people of color can not and should not be avoided; it should however, be understood by executive voices that these occurrences are a result of a hegemonic system of power that has made life unlivable for those who have brown skin.
It is not logical for this racial disparity to exist in American newsrooms when news stories surrounding issues of racially motivated attacks by law enforcement against people of color have been so prevalent over the last several years.
An NPR story honed in on the experiences of featured black reporters who have weathered through assignments of Ferguson and the numerous tragedies following. Gene Demby recounts the experiences of Ida B. Wells and her reporting on lynchings of the 19th century. He examines the overwhelming pressure on black journalists to report on issues surrounding people of color due to their underwhelming presence in newsrooms.
Demby said in the story, “It does seem there’s one good way of preventing black journalists who cover black death from burning out, or relegating their own well-being to ‘minor importance’ status, one that was far less inevitable in Well’s time: hire enough of us that no one black reporter or editor in a newsroom has to feel like it’s entirely ‘fallen upon him’ to tell these stories.”
Minority journalists offer new perspectives and perceptions of otherwise alien conditions than white people do on issues of race and prejudice. Therefore, people of color should be the reporters at the helm of this coverage. Just as overwhelmingly white bodies of government exercise their constructed sovereignty and will against those who do not share their same beliefs or experiences, newsroom directors and corporation owners play that same oppressive role. Their decisions tell society who and what is important — often negating those who are not white and male. Representation matters.
When hegemonic powers make all executive decisions for an establishment, politically or journalistically speaking, a significant loss is taken in ethics, integrity and overall humanity.