During a White House press conference on February 16, April Ryan, an African American reporter for the American Urban Radio Networks, asked US President Donald Trumpwhether he is going to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), an organisation that represents African American members of the US Congress.
Trump responded to Ryan by asking if she would like to “set up the meeting” with the CBC. “Are they friends of yours?” he asked.
After the back and forth between the journalist and the president, many websites sought to highlight how Trump’s comments might reveal racism or “how he views people of colour”. The exchange also highlighted another issue in the room that day, the absence of people of colour among the journalists.
While other American industries, such as banking and universities, now have slick websites that showcase diversity, the White House Correspondent’s Association’s website has an image of reporters raising their hands to ask questions. Almost all of the 29 clearly visible faces are white (and mostly male), although there is one black man at the very back holding a camera and two women of colour.
It’s not the WHCA’s fault that it is so monochrome. In an America, where minorities account for 38 percent of the total population, according to the US Census Bureau, few of them find their way into the newsroom and even fewer find their way to prestigious beats.
The Columbia Journalism Review noted that “newsrooms have addressed the issue in fits and starts over recent decades, but those efforts have stagnated in the past 10 years.” Their study showed that even in cities such as New York, where Hispanics, blacks and Asians collectively account for 65 percent of the population, The New York Times, was more than 75 percent white.
Nothing could be starker. Veteran journalist Howard French called this the “enduring whiteness of the American media”, when he looked back at decades in the profession.
Lack of diversity starts with hiring. Having journalists with different life experiences and backgrounds would seem essential to a newsroom. Journalists sometimes pretend they are neutral observers above the fray. But everyone brings their bias and baggage with them.
Eva Tapiero, a French freelance journalist, told me that the lack of diversity harms coverage. “Especially because we are getting used to not being challenged at work. If everyone has the same schooling background and asks the same questions, I think it becomes harder to think outside the box.”
While UNESCO calls for gender equality in journalism, noting that “media are a mirror of society, as they should be, they certainly need to reflect better the fact that gender equality is a fundamental human right”, there doesn’t seem to be an equally consistent call for other types of diversity to mirror society.
Journalists and their management should take this into consideration. Instead of hiring minority reporters to cover minority communities or hiring local stringers in foreign countries, but rarely bringing foreign and diverse voices into the headquarters, they should make a better effort to increase diversity.
It’s time to acknowledge the problem and press for change. Readers and journalists have nothing to lose and they stand to gain a plethora of new perspectives and ideas for covering stories that have gone underreported.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Where is diversity in American newsrooms?’