Race + Journalism: New Data Shows Lack of Diversity in American and British Newspapers

By Arturo R. García

Newspaper stand in downtown Chicago. Image by Chris Metcalf via Flickr Creative Commons.

This week has seen two developments underscoring the lack of advancement for journalists of color in the print world — and on two continents, even.

In the U.S., as The Atlantic reported, the American Society of News Editors’ (ASNE) latest study of newsroom diversity revealed a slight decline, with POC making up 12.37 percent of editorial staffers. Consider, though, that the high bar, set seven years ago, was 13.73 percent.

Meanwhile, the Radio and Television Digital News Association reported near-negligible increases in POC representation, going up .9 percent in radio and 3.7 percent on television compared to 2012. But these gains are backstopped against much greater increases in both the POC population and spending power. And the RTNDA found that these gains are also offset by the fact that the vast majority of news directors (86 percent in TV, 91.3 percent in radio) are still white.

While the Atlantic story delves into the many financial aspects fueling the continued stagnation of diversity initiatives and “efforts” by news organizations, this passage grazed a point that otherwise went unreported:

With the rise of smartphones in many communities, everyone has a newsgathering tool in their pocket, Brady says, and mobile has brought down cost needed to give oneself a digital presence. Pew studies suggest that mobile penetration is indeed increasing, particularly in Hispanic and African American communities.

But many are skeptical about diversity in web 2.0 culture. “Online news gives everyone a chance to work in news, but the issue is how do you get paid?” asks Doris Truong, president of Unity, an umbrella organization of minority journalists.

“Very few people have had access or desire to have training as a reporter, journalist, critical thinker,” says Danyel Smith, a writer, editor, and Knight Fellow at Stanford University. “Just because there’s Tumblr, WordPress, and Twitter in terms of instant publishing, doesn’t mean these populations are much better served to the degree they can and should be.”

The idea that the Internet has made the news more diverse “is a bit of a trap,” agrees Lehrman, the Santa Clara University professor. While journalists once felt responsible for creating diverse public spaces and forums, today, she contends, journalists sometimes assume people create them for themselves and don’t attempt proper civic debate.

“Digital tools increasingly narrow the scope of information you have access to unless you deliberately push it open,” says Lehrman.

Ms. Truong’s point is well-taken, but what nobody here is crediting for the development of sites like, say, the recently-retired Pam’s House Blend, Colorlines, Clutch Magazine, the Crunk Feminist Collective, Disgrasian, Muslimah Media Watch, Gradient Lair — or, if I may say so, Racialicious — is that they are identifiable as offering POC writers not just diversity but equity. I believe they, and many of our fellow social-justice-driven sites, are safe spaces to work, even if many of us have to balance that work with another full-time job. They are places where you can read the emphasis on critical analysis — a tenet of good journalism. And if “traditional media” isn’t providing those kinds of spaces, that’s a trap it built for itself.

Speaking of critical analysis, Samantha Asumadu’s project, Media Diversity UK, recently unveiled its #AllWhiteFrontPages campaign to illustrate the utter lack of diversity in newspapers across the United Kingdom. As she explains at Comment is Free:

I wondered how my teenage nephews felt in a system that wasn’t designed to help them thrive. In a recent article in Britain’s biggest-selling black newspaper, the Voice, entitled The Evening Standard of Whiteness, one student said: “Sir, if all the images of black males shown to me are negative, therefore my perceptions of black males are negative, how am I supposed to succeed?”

I know there are brilliant black British, Asian and Middle Eastern men and women toiling away out there in the midst of this recession, but if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I might not think they existed – and I doubt that some in our leafy suburbs do. Why are there barely any journalists or columnists of colour in national and local papers? London is just one city in the UK that would fall apart if we (people of colour) suddenly decided to leave. When black people are seen in newspapers, more often than not it’s around sports, entertainment or crime, which feeds into the time-honoured tradition of negative stereotypes.

The author of that Voice article, Rodney Sealy, counted the photos of BAME people in one edition of the London paper. The results were not pretty (or colourful). Why are we not either seen or heard? After all, according to the Office for National Statistics, the non-white British population was 9.1 million in 2009 – one in six people.

She goes on to point out that it wasn’t until last month that a national newspaper, the Independent, hired a non-white editor, former columnist Amol Rajan — the first POC ever to reach such a position. Asumadu’s stated goal for Media Diversity is to “agitate” and call for a newspaper world that more adequately reflects the world around it. It’s quite telling that, once again, it’s someone working from an online platform leading that charge to begin with.

[Image by Chris Metcalf via Flickr Creative Commons]

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  • Africameleon

    I’m visiting the UK now and umm, newspapers aren’t the only thing lacking diversity. Wow, I’ve had a serious culture shock while watching British network and cable television. It’s like a snow storm over here! I’m amazed the Idris Elba was able to have success with Luther. It’s a big deal for black Americans, and it’s definitely a big deal for blacks in the UK. He’s a serious star to be able to break into this market.