When I attended this year’s men’s basketball tournament in St. Louis I expected to be the only Black woman in the press area, but I did not expect to be asked to get coffee. I have accompanied a group of student sports reporters to the Missouri Valley Conference tourney for the last three years. I was grabbing a cup of water when a White man told me that the coffee urn was empty and could I refill it, despite the fact that I was wearing the same bright orange press pass as he was. I not-so-politely asked, “Why are you asking me to do that,” but didn’t wait for the answer and walked away.
This is what a microaggression looks like, and the only cure for this disease is for perpetrators to have more colleagues from diverse backgrounds. And that means management needs to do more than just talk about “diversity.”
This month the Women’s Media Center (WMC) released a report that reveals how unhealthy our profession is: Women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff, and 6.2 percent of local radio staff. “There are so many micro-aggressions that come with being a journalist and female and not White,” Soledad O’Brien told researchers.
(According to the report, the makeup of online-only publications “is far from fully known,” as the Online News Association, the largest association of digital journalism, does not keep a diversity count.)
It’s not like we just recently realized that this is a problem or how to fix it. Fifty years ago the Kerner Commission Report following the riots of the late 1960s included a chapter titled “The News Media and the Disorders.” Among the remedies to racial strife listed in this section was the recruit, train and promote more Blacks in journalism.
My own path to journalism is proof that it works. At age 14, my first-year English teacher encouraged my short-story fiction writing. From then I knew I would do something with this skill. So, I began writing for my high school paper. I majored in English in college and wrote for my college paper, eventually becoming the opinion editor. I earned a Masters in journalism and got my first job on the sports desk at The Post-Standard in Syracuse and have been working in media ever since.
I’ve been in the business for 18 years, and diversity has always been a topic. At every journalism conference there’s at least one panel on how managers can increase the number of staffers from underrepresented populations. Yet in the eight years I spent working on the sports desk and then in the graphics department, I was always one of few Black women on staff. Despite continuous efforts to improve diversity in journalism, the industry continues to fail. Why?
Because the approach is usually flawed. The process I have seen management take when trying to improve the diversity of their staff looks something like this:
- Manager says, “We need more people of __________” (insert group here).
- Management puts together a committee or task force to address this issue.
- Management gives this committee or task force zero data, zero suggested outcomes, and no power to execute whatever it is they come up with.
- Management gives this committee or task force no compensation for whatever work they do because acting in a sense of social justice should be its own reward.
- Management gets distracted by the daily minutia of work or budget cuts and never gets around to executing whatever recommendations made by the committee or task force.
- Rinse and repeat.
Missing from this process is almost always self-reflection. Managers need to assess their own environments, culture and politics that make working in their newsrooms unattractive, or sometimes even hostile, for underrepresented groups. What language is being used in meetings, emails, and other internal communications? What work are staffers from underrepresented populations being asked to do? Are there equity issues in pay or other benefits? Are there environmental barriers for people with apparent and non-apparent disabilities? Are staffers from underrepresented groups being asked to bear burdens of their social group instead of being treated as individuals with agency?
Of course, there has been some progress. Just last week Illinois local TV station WHBF hailed Tahera Rahman as the first full-time TV reporter to wear a hijab. Rahman is an alumna of Loyola where I currently teach, and her story resonates with those of us who have to fight every day to be measured by our journalistic abilities and not by how we look.
Newsroom managers must do a better job of seeing the talent that is all around them. They must get out of their comfort zones and do the hard work of introspection and make their work environments inclusive to all people. They must do the hard work they have failed to do for the last 50 years.
Jessica Brown is a Senior Professional in Residence in the School of Communication’s Multimedia Journalism department at Loyola University Chicago, and a Public Voices fellow.