By Edward C. Pease
Pease is a professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Utah State University, Logan, Utah. This was taken from his article Still the Invisible People: Job Satisfaction of Minority Journalists at U.S. Daily Newspapers (Athens, OH: Ohio University, 1991). It appears in Carolyn Martindale, Ed. Pluralizing Journalism Education: A Multicultural Handbook. (Westport, CT: Greenwood press, 1993).
Basically, there are only two reasons why the news media in this country -- and those who read newspapers and watch TV -- should worry about demographic change and the media's employment and coverage of "minorities" -- nonwhite Americans -- in America.
The two reasons? Well, as one of my colleagues likes to tell his students about beginning newswriting, "It ain't rocket science." Neither are those two basic reasons behind the imperative facing the news media to employ and cover what is fast becoming the most culturally and racially diverse nation on Earth.
Both reasons should be painfully obvious, but apparently haven't been to U.S. newspapers and other mass media that have been so slow in employing and serving America's rapidly changing information marketplace.
How slow is slow? As Chuck Stone of the Philadelphia Daily News , founding president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote in 1988, "Since the Kerner Commission, the number of minority journalists has inched up with all the speed of a one-legged tortoise climbing a hill in a hailstorm." 1
When the Kerner Commission chastised the newspaper business 20 years before for its failure to inform the society about issues in black America, more than 99 percent of U.S. newspaper reporters and editors were white. 2 Now, almost a quarter-century later, the proportion of racial "minorities" in the population still outstrips the proportion of minorities in newspaper newsrooms by three to one. At the end of 1990, 8.72 percent of newsroom professionals -- reporters, copyeditors, desk editors, photographers and graphic artists, etc. -- were minorities. 3 The country, however, is more than 24 percent nonwhite, and is projected to be 32 percent "minority" by the year 2010; by the middle of the next century, whites no longer will be the numerical majority in this country. 4 But where will news organizations be?
It is not only fatally short-sighted, but morally wrong for the press that covers America not to employ the people of America. And even if it weren't morally wrong, it is economic stupidity in a nation where 87 percent of the population growth between now and the year 2000 will be people of color. 5 Even now, 119 languages are spoken in New York City, and the non-Anglo populations in the states of Texas and California are approaching 50 percent. 6
At the start of the 1990s, many in this country thought racism had in fact grown even more prevalent than it had been in the 1960s, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement forced the nation to acknowledge the injustice of a society that systematically excludes citizens because of race or ethnic background. Much has changed since the 1960s, but people of color still are largely excluded -- or included only as second-class citizens -- from both newsrooms and news content. Although most large U.S. newspapers circulate in urban areas where the nonwhite population ranges into the 50 percent range and higher, a variety of scholarly studies of news media performance show that coverage of minorities by those large metropolitan newspapers tends to account for only about 3 percent of their total news coverage. 7 Further, more than half of white journalists and more than 70 percent of minority journalists surveyed in an national 1991 study said their own newspapers covered minority communities marginally or poorly. 8
From these examples, it is apparent that the news industry still systematically excludes people from the media mainstream because of their race or cultural origins. The news industry is not keeping up with demographic change in this country, either in terms of employing people of diverse backgrounds as information gatherers and gatekeepers or in terms of providing content and coverage of people who are not white.
Which brings us back to our initial question: Why should we care?
The two most basic reasons to worry about diversity in the newsrooms or in news content are both philosophical and practical. The U.S. news media should pay greater attention to employing and covering people of color 1) Because it is right and just under the democratic ideals on which this nation was founded, and 2) Because any company that ignores the nation's rapid demographic shifts may not survive in the changing marketplace.
The United States, despite (or perhaps because of) its demographic vitality, nevertheless remains inherently racist in its institutions and unwilling to acknowledge the implications of multicultural change in either the workplace or the marketplace.
The news media, ever reflective of what it perceives as the expedient social groundswell, may give lip-service to issues of racial diversity in the markets they serve, but lack either the moral strength or the economic vision to understand that times -- and the society -- are a-changin'.
There is no more comprehensive or far-reaching change in U.S. society than its growing multiculuralism and racial diversity. The result of the news media's ostrich-like tendency to bury its head in the sand on this point may be, and perhaps already is, that the "mainstream" news organizations in this country have abandoned both their moral imperative to represent the society they serve and their economic ability to survive in an increasingly diverse culture whose needs they fail to fulfill.
In the early 1970s, Timothy Crouse wrote that "Journalism is probably the slowest-moving, most tradition-bound profession in America. It refuses to budge until it is shoved into the future by some irresistible external force." 9 Crouse was referring to the way the news media covered politics in the 1972 presidential campaign, but his comment could be applied to a variety of journalistic traits, among them the news industry's stubborn refusal to acknowledge demographic evolution.
So how to raise the collective consciousness of the U.S. news media to remember and fulfill their moral obligations to permit the kind of robust and wide-open debate on which the marketplace of ideas and participatory democracy were built? It is worthwhile to recall the Hutchins Commission report of 1947, which provided a practical but eloquent five-point defense against any who might attempt to restrict the media's obligation and right to supply goods to the marketplace of ideas.
The Hutchins Commission -- formally the Commission on Freedom of the Press -- was convened by the news industry itself in 1947. Concerned that U.S. society might rescind the press's First Amendment "franchise" to operate in the marketplace of ideas, principally because of public concerns over who was forming what kind of media messages, Time magazine's Henry Luce convened the blue-ribbon panel to evaluate the roles and responsibilities of the press in a free society. The commission's charge was to evaluate, in the context of constitutionally-mandated First Amendment freedoms of expression, the press's responsibilities in the U.S. marketplace of ideas.
Robert M. Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago who chaired the commission, understood his task this way: "The tremendous influence of the modern press makes it imperative that the great agencies of mass communication show hospitality to ideas which their owners do not share. Otherwise, these ideas will not have a fair chance." 10
The commission said freedom of the press in 1947 was in danger for three reasons: 1) As the media's reach had growth, the diversity of ideas and opinions expressed through the media had declined; 2) Those who could express ideas in the press had "not provided a service adequate to the needs of society"; and 3) Press performance had so outraged, disenfranchised and disappointed segments of society that there was a threat that the media might lose their franchise under the First Amendment to participate in the free and open marketplace of ideas. 11
In the 1940s, the press feared government limitations on press freedom because of shortcomings in their performance. In the 1990s, however, it is clear that the media's loss of franchise in the American marketplace of ideas is market-driven and self-inflicted; poor service in a changing marketplace has resulted in information-consumers abandoning existing "mainstream" news media for other information sources that serve them better.
The Hutchins Commission guidelines for responsible press performance in a free society that few would, or did, contest:
In the civil rights context, the third point may be the most crucial: How well did the press then or do they today represent the constituent groups in the society?
By the 1960s, it was clear that press adherence to these principles was a matter of lip service, convenience or both. Most white Americans were caught by surprise by the racial violence that spread across the country in the mid-'60s. The Kerner Commission -- convened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 to explain what had occurred, reported that the environment in which most black Americans lived was "totally unknown to most white Americans." 13
Had the media provided a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day's events in black America, in a context that gave them meaning? Had they offered access to all segments of society for comment and criticism on matters of public importance? How well had the media offered a representative picture of all the constituent groups of society, helped the nation clarify its goals and values, provided full coverage of news in all parts of the nation? "Far too often," the Kerner Commission found, "the press acts and talks about Negroes as if Negroes do not read newspapers or watch television, give birth, marry, die or go to PTA meetings." 14
The media had failed both "Negro" Americans by ignoring issues in their communities, and white Americans, who lacked the information they needed to make judgments about their society. The Kerner Commission said,
Our . . . fundamental criticism is that the news media have 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 of 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. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro's daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls the "white press" -- a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society. 15
In the 1990s, there has been little real progress in the U.S. media in terms of providing for media consumers a "representative picture of the constituent groups of society," which is such an integral component of a free and responsible press in an open marketplace of ideas. Philosophically, efforts to increase diversity in news content must be -- as President Lyndon B. Johnson said in his charge to the Kerner Commission -- "fired by conscience." 16 If we are to exist in a pluralistic society governed by democratic precepts, we must know ourselves and our own values and goals for the society.Self-interest
If the moral argument pales, then it is both logical and perhaps expedient to invoke economic self-interest. Emerging from the 1980s, whose ultimate idol was self-interest, the philosophical imperative of making room in the marketplace of ideas to all newcomers in society might seem passe. There is reason to wonder if the precepts that formed the marketplace of ideas in the first place as an integral part of this nation even survived the "Me Generation."
Despite difficulties in attracting readers among immigrant groups, because of language and cultural barriers, readership studies have shown that ethnic and racial minorities are at least as loyal newspaper readers as whites. Further, readership depends much more on education and economic variables than on race, and nonwhite Americans are consistently gaining ground in college graduation rates and income. 17
If the news media do such a poor job of serving the particular needs of minority consumers, in terms of both tone and content, how long are those consumers likely to remain loyal? And how long will advertisers stay with media that are unable to deliver the only growing segments of the population -- African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics?
Stated more positively, the media ought to be able to see that large body of unserved and disenfranchised potential consumers out there in growing minority communities; making the news product fill those consumers' needs is not just good economic sense, but the key to economic survival in an increasingly multicultural U.S. melting pot.
As the latest U.S. census figures show, the melting pot is becoming much more ethnically and racially diverse. And, as former ASNE President David Lawrence, publisher of the Miami Herald, says, "Much of the energy behind minority hiring and advancement in our business has been the moral obligation to do what is right and fair. Rightly so. [But] what is right and fair is also smart business." 18
The Task Force on Minorities in the Newspaper Business made the case in 1989 that links the moral obligation for inclusivity with the economic opportunities of diversity. If the moral obligation to cover and involve all segments of society in the marketplace of ideas is not enough for a media owner, then the economic and demographic realities should be. Among those realities:
What all this means from a market perspective is that nonwhite groups quickly are becoming larger parts of the U.S. market for both newspapers and other news media, and for goods and services.
Between 1990 and 2000, more than 63 percent of the new U.S. workforce -- wage-earners and consumer -- will be women; 56 percent will be minorities. News organizations that fail to hold those wage-earners by delivering content and coverage that satisfy their needs will lose them; advertisers seeking to reach those increasingly affluent audiences will go with them.
For news organizations unable to reach, attract and hold the increasingly diverse people of America, the dawning of the next century may coincide with the end of a slide into a dark good night.
The news media -- and the society they seek to serve -- must come to the realization that there are compelling philosophical and pragmatic reasons to be concerned with the increasing ethnic and racial diversity of this country. How can an information medium remain a true mass medium central to the operation of a democratic society when its content is increasingly unimportant to the lives of the fastest-growing segments of the society? And once the realization of these stark facts has sunk in, the news media must act to reach and hold these growing audiences, not just for purposes of economic gain, but because communication between and among the diverse segments of an increasingly diverse society serves -- as the Hutchins commissioners said -- to set and clarify the goals and values of the society.
Without such internal communication and debate among all segments
and facets of the society, the media's franchise to inform the society
slips away, not by government edict but by neglect. The poorer for it
are not just the news media, but the society who can no longer depend
on them for information and tough scrutiny of issues of pressing
concern. As the workforce and the population change, news media that
fail to keep up with changes may go the way of the dodo.
Indeed, some current newspaper professionals fear that already is happening. Almost half of newspaper reporters and editors participating in a national survey in 1991 said they would not want their children to follow them into newspaper careers, many because they question whether the medium will survive another generation. "It's a dying business," one reporter said. "Being a newspaper reporter is like being a cowboy on a dinosaur ranch." 20
For minority journalists, the issue of race only makes the prognosis gloomier. "Unless you're a white male, there's no point" in pursuing a newspaper career, one black reporter said. "Your ideas are not respected and multiculturalism is a farce. Perhaps, as newspapering's ivory (I emphasize the color ivory) tower sinks farther into irrelevance in U.S. society, this will change. But probably too late to save newspapers." 21
It is a frustrating contradiction about the news business that we who cover society can know so well the culture's ills, and yet be so slow to recognize those same inequities when they are our own. The news industry, so self-righteous in defending its place in the democratic marketplace of ideas as essential to the republic, has proven itself -- like the dominant white society it reflects -- self-serving and short-sighted in recognizing the inevitable trends and directions of social change.
Editors and publishers and news directors may justify their lack of thoughtful coverage of issues reflecting the increasingly pluralistic nature of the society by saying that they're giving readers and viewers what they want. But even people living in homogeneous communities where racial diversity means the big city, not this neighborhood, live in a larger national and global community of many different kinds of people not like themselves. Sooner or later those people venture beyond their own monochromatic communities, either by bus or by thought, and they'll find they need to know about people not like themselves.