Local Newsrooms Are Going to Miss the Next Black Lives Matter Story

Lack of diversity in hiring is even more pronounced at the local level, new data shows.

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Aug 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

While the U.S. population becomes more racially diverse each year, newsroom staffs continually fail to reflect that shift. Though nonwhites make up more than a third of the U.S. adult population, only 6 percent of employees at newspapers with circulations of 5,000 or less are people of color.

“For decades, we’ve been hearing people say they can’t find qualified [nonwhite] applicants,” Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, told TakePart. “If you can’t find them, train your own. Develop your bench.”

New analysis from the Pew Research Center released Tuesday shows the lack of diversity in media outlets is even more pronounced at the local level, where minority representation is severely lacking at smaller TV stations and newspapers.

Media companies should invest in programs that develop minority talent early to help nonwhite journalists develop the skill sets they seek, Butler said. By not seeking and training minority journalists, television and newspaper outlets risk missing out on stories that matter and may produce homogenous news that doesn’t accurately illustrate the communities they seek to document and inform.

Some major newspapers are working to adapt to increasingly diverse young audiences through their hiring practices. The Los Angeles Times’ hire of Dexter Thomas to cover “black Twitter”—his work has garnered mixed reviews—is a clear nod to that need. In the last year in particular, race has become inextricable from daily news coverage as increased attention has been drawn to violence at the hands of police experienced in communities of color, as well as to the racial tension that is endemic in the U.S.

“If I have a newsroom that has nobody that lives in, relates to, celebrates with, or goes to this community or that one, then those stories don’t get told,” Joe Grimm, visiting editor in residence at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, told TakePart.

Grimm is a former newsroom recruiter and a beloved journalism mentor who crafted early websites with tool kits aimed at helping reporters land jobs and do their jobs well. During Grimm's 18 years as the recruiter for the Detroit Free Press, staff diversity peaked in 2006 at 32.2 percent. Since then, it has fallen, as has the national percentage of full-time minority journalists, according to the American Society of News Editors.

Of 32,900 full-time journalists at 1,400 American daily newspapers in 2014, the organization found, about 12.8 percent were people of color—a dip of about half a percentage point from 2013. Gender diversity is also lacking in newsrooms: Just 37.4 percent of bylines in print journalism belonged to women, according to a June report from the Women’s Media Center.

Homogeneity in local newsrooms doesn’t just affect the stories produced—it can also limit the diversity of larger national media outlets. Because smaller outlets are often an entryway to the industry for young journalists, not hiring journalists of color means those same writers, editors, and producers are less likely to gain the experience they need to land jobs at national outlets.

Still, to assume writers of color are the only ones who can or should cover race—or that they want to be siloed in the “race beat”—is problematic.

“It’s important to get people of color in the newsroom, but it’s everyone’s job to cover those communities,” columnist and editor Richard Prince, chair of the diversity committee of the Association of Opinion Journalists, told TakePart. “You don’t have to be part of that ethnic group to do a good job. It’s more about caring and paying attention.”

Prince emphasized that those newsrooms that lack diversity—that would be most of them—can effectively report on communities of color. He pointed to the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. Though its staff has become less racially diverse in recent years, the paper was commended for its recent coverage of the shooting of nine congregants at the historically black AME Emanuel Church.

To improve minority representation at media outlets, recruitment efforts must be deliberate and proactive, Grimm said. This has become more of a challenge since the recession began in 2008. Along with budget cuts came fewer newsroom tours, less outreach in local classrooms, and fewer resources all around. Doors closed to young minority reporters as internship programs designed with inclusivity in mind were shuttered in an effort to save jobs, while unpaid internship programs continue to limit minority applicants. When Grimm left his recruitment position in 2006, the job was eliminated and its responsibilities spread across the plates of five full-time staffers whose efforts were focused outside recruitment. That division means less time and attention have been paid to recruiting minority staffers.

Recruiters can also shift their expectations to diversify newsrooms.

“There are qualities that might be present in people who have online experience or experience in related fields that could be applicable to a newsroom,” Prince said. “I think [recruiters] could expand their definition of who is qualified.”