Quiet Crisis in Many Newsrooms

Too often minority recruits come and go – for good

Willie Chriesman, WVTM-TV, Birmingham, Ala.

Willie Chriesman, WVTM-TV, Birmingham, Ala.

Newsroom diversity can enhance coverage of race and ethnicity, but retaining journalists of color is a stern challenge to news media executives. The point was underlined when a workshop panel of gatekeepers discussed two recent surveys by the Freedom Forum of minority journalists in the newspaper and television industry.

One problem is the widespread feeling among journalists of color that they must work harder than white counterparts to succeed. When minority journalists make a mistake, said Willie Chriesman, vice president for news at WVTM in Birmingham, they often feel that they carry an extra burden. “It’s not that a journalist screwed up but that I as a black screwed up,” he said.

The perception that nonwhite journalists work under different standards, and face other job frustrations, emerged when the Freedom Forum not only analyzed the annual newsroom census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors but also polled both print and broadcast journalists of color on their views of newsroom diversity. The study underscored the difficulties ASNE has in achieving its long-stated goal of getting the racial and ethnic makeup of newsrooms to match that of the United States. The latest ASNE census showed that minorities hold 11.8 percent of professional newspaper jobs but number 28 percent of the national population.

Under a revamped timetable, ASNE now hopes to achieve parity by 2025, but the Freedom Forum analysis shows that meeting this goal is highly unlikely unless something is done about retention. According to the study, newspapers have hired an average of 550 journalists of color a year – but have lost 400 annually – leaving a net gain of only 150. “At that rate, we’re never going to make any progress,” Robert Giles, senior vice president of the Freedom Forum, told the workshop.

Lucy Himstedt, WFIE-TV, Evansville, Ind.

Lucy Himstedt, WFIE-TV, Evansville, Ind.

The survey found that newspaper journalists of color were leaving the news business for three major reasons: interest in another field, lack of advancement and career burnout. Many also said they would contemplate leaving because they were unable to cover stories that interest them. Television has a better retention record than newspapers but television journalists of color were also much more likely than their white counterparts to cite lack of advancement as a potential cause for abandoning journalism.

After hearing the findings, one of the panelists, Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., said they pointed to the need for continual conversation with minority journalists. His newspaper, he said, talks about news assignments and career goals with journalists who may be frustrated. “You work with them on it,” he said.  “A lot of times their complaints are unrealistic and lot of times they are realistic…[but] you confront it, and I think we should be talking about it all the time.”

Deborah Goeken, managing editor of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, added that her paper encourages all reporters to talk about what is going on in their individual communities and to suggest ways to better cover those communities. “That tends to make them more involved in the coverage and have a higher stake in it,” she said. 

Lucy Himstedt, general manager of WFIE-TV in Evansville, Ind., said news organizations, especially in small, predominantly white communities, face the difficulty of attracting younger minority journalists who might fear social isolation. “They want a date,” she said, and typically with people with whom they identify. 

While acknowledging the scope of the diversity challenge, Charlotte Hall, managing editor at Newsday and chair of the ASNE Diversity Committee, sounded a positive note. She cited efforts by the Freedom Forum and Knight Foundation, working with ASNE, to draw more high school students into journalism and to find journalists from non-traditional backgrounds who will intern and then work on smaller newspapers.