In the three decades since the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders fixed a spotlight on media bias in reporting and hiring, news organizations nationwide have hired thousands of journalists of color.
Newspapers and broadcast media have spent millions on studies, conferences and job fairs to help make their staffs more fairly reflect the reality they cover. Media and public service foundations try earnestly to help: Within the last year, the Freedom Forum pledged $5 million toward increasing newsroom diversity, the Scripps Howard Foundation added $4 million to its earlier $3 million donation to establish a journalism school at historically black Hampton University, and the Ford Foundation has committed millions to a Columbia University program fostering diverse news coverage.
The industry realizes the color of America is irrevocably changing and it will lose its audience if it doesn't keep up. The result has been a remarkable, sustained recruitment of black, Hispanic and Asian journalists.
So consider this sobering fact: Whites still hold a disproportionate 89 percent of newspaper jobs and 82 percent of television news jobs nationwide.
Why? The media have learned how to recruit black journalists, but not how to keep them.
A disturbing Freedom Forum study released five months ago says the newspaper industry has hired an average of 550 journalists of color each year since 1994 -- but during that same period, an average of 400 such journalists quit. African American journalists in particular are leaving in record numbers out of frustration and a sense that they aren't valued. I know. I was one of them.
In 1993, I ended a newspaper career that had taken me to four different news organizations in 10 years. I covered important events in the New York State legislature, in New York City and on Capitol Hill. At New York Newsday, I shared in a Pulitzer Prize for spot news coverage.
Yet I often felt constricted by the media's narrow scope when reporting on African Americans. I found that our sensibilities, attitudes and experiences were often viewed with skepticism or alarm, and were left out of the coverage.
I didn't leave the field completely: I became a journalism professor. And I've researched the black experience in America's mainstream media for my new book. While interviewing scores of journalists nationwide and analyzing reports, studies and news coverage, I've compiled evidence that helps explain the rapid turnover.
Many African Americans said they felt obligated to validate a white-dominated view of black society as dysfunctional, even pathological. They felt their credibility was assaulted or harshly scrutinized when they tried to present more balanced portraits.
Arthur S. Hayes left the Wall Street Journal in 1993 after five years as a legal affairs correspondent. He said he felt pressured to change the way he thought and wrote: "In order to succeed, you have to adopt that voice and that voice, in my analysis, tends to be the voice of an affluent white male."
Take his Page One story that revealed how Bronx juries, made up mostly of nonwhites, tended to favor defendants in criminal cases. As Hayes wrote it, the jurors had a sophisticated skepticism of police officers when it came to inner-city suspects. As edited, he recalls, the story questioned whether the jurors understood the process.
"It's not that I don't know how to play the game," he said. "But do I want to?"
Hayes said he often felt his ideas weren't valued.
"You have to fight for story ideas," he said. "You have to be persistent ... putting together a proposal that will meet the criteria of what they want. You have to cast the story in a way that will be palatable to them. That may distort the truth about that story.
"What it does over time is make you frustrated. It makes you lose your voice and so even now ... I censor myself because I'm so concerned with this imaginary white male editor and what he's going to think. I'm concerned of sounding too militant," said Hayes, who now teaches journalism and is a contributing editor of the National Law Journal.
Many black journalists, hired with the expectation that they'll contribute to the coverage of race relations, often end up feeling less like conveyors of ideas and information than paid informants. Felicia Lee recalls reporting on violence between blacks and Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn's Crown Heights for the New York Times. She thought the stories did little to explain the underlying reasons for the rage, focusing too much on angry black youths and not enough on the neighborhood's sizable, articulate and knowledgeable black middle-class. "There were so many layers to that whole thing," Lee said. "It was incredibly complicated.
"One thing that's strange about newsrooms is that there are a lot of people who don't know about black people," said Lee, who is still at the Times. "There are things that I understand that other people will not just because we live in very separate societies."
Many African Americans express reluctance to report on race -- undermining the very diversity they bring to the newsroom. Over time, many choose to avoid what often becomes a tense, uphill battle to broaden coverage.
Even someone as successful as former "Today" show host Bryant Gumbel told me it took five years to convince the brass to take the show to Africa, the only continent other than Antarctica it hadn't visited.
Many black journalists also say they're frustrated over their personal advancement. Even when newspaper executives try to promote them, it often doesn't work out.
Consider Karen Howze, who -- armed with journalism and law degrees, five years' experience as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, and editing training at Newsday in a program aimed at minority journalists -- was hired as special projects editor at the Rochester (N.Y.) Times-Union.
Within a month, she was promoted to assistant managing editor, or AME, for local news. What she didn't realize at the time was that Gannett, the newspaper's corporate parent, had made diversity a top priority and she'd been hired under a plan that called for a black and a Hispanic to fill two AME jobs.
The resentment from whites was palpable. "I had to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get these white people to work for me," recalled Howze, then only 27 with no management background. She stayed in the business until 1992, when she left USA Today weary from battles over fairness and balance. Today she has her own law practice.
Making a difference is what draws many people of color to the newsroom. But we can't make a difference unless the news-gathering and management processes undergo the same dramatic changes that have been made in recruitment and hiring.
News organizations must realize the value of perspectives that clash with the white cultural mainstream, making for more dynamic, reflective newsrooms. It would help readers and viewers understand what was behind the celebration in some black circles when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges, or why many blacks have little faith in the criminal justice system. It would allow them to see that the tens of thousands who attend a march organized by Louis Farrakhan are not necessarily either antisemitic or naive.
More importantly, it would help white Americans understand a country whose racial composition is rapidly changing.
The author, a New York University journalism professor, is author of 'Within the Veil: 'Black Journalists, White Media' (New York University Press)
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