Why White Men Dominate American Newsrooms

When Trump cast out Univision's Jorge Ramos from his news conference a few weeks ago, we witnessed one of many ways journalists of color are told to get their skin out of the game.

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The mainstream American media is racist and sexist as hell. And it cares about these facts about as much as Donald Trump does when being called a misogynist and a xenophobe.

But this isn’t new: American media outlets have been on blast since 1968 when the Kerner Commission criticized the lack of diversity in newsrooms and bias in coverage of communities of color. 

The whiteness of the news media was on full display a few weeks ago during a tussle between Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos, described by CNN Money as “the best-known Spanish-language news anchor in the United States,” and presidential candidate Donald Trump, described by many as a bully with a gravity-warping vortex of hair. (Seriously yo, it looks like somebody stuck his head in a cotton candy machine.)

During a recent press conference, Ramos had the audacity to ask Trump about his immigration policies—everyone knows Trump ain’t about policies. Ramos had merely followed protocol, shouting out questions. Trump told him to “Go back to Univision.”  

Refusing to be silent, Trump’s border patrol—I mean security—escorted Ramos out of the press conference as if he were a criminal thug. After some fellow journalists complained, Ramos—who said he’d tried several times but not been able to interview Trump—was allowed back in. But no reporters in that room stood up and protested Ramos’s removal. Not one of them used his or her own privilege to be an ally or even a proponent of journalistic fairness, justice, and equality. How difficult must have it been for Ramos to reenter that press room?

It is easy to critique The Donald because he is low-hanging fruit. But what about the insidious culture that silences people of color and precludes meaningful and transformative diversity?

What Jorge Ramos experienced might have been shocking to him and the public at large, but this treatment is all too common for journalists of color. Our professionalism is incessantly questioned; our objectivity is challenged; our tone and decorum are policed; and our presence is denied, especially when it comes to matters of race. These are the obstacles that we constantly face working in a news media that is overwhelmingly White, male, and determined to stay that way.

In the post–Trump vs. Ramos discussions that took place among pundits, the press asked what happened and offered criticism, but few talked about the larger issues at play. Instead, the mostly White journalism establishment faulted Ramos. They suggested that he caused the incident by editorializing rather than asking a question; that he was rude, that he interrupted Trump.

It was clear that his direct challenges to racism and anti-immigrant sentiment were neither wanted nor supported in the news establishment. The criticism made clear that violating the “norms”  and “standards” and “ethics” and “values” of the “objective” White journalist class are subject to punishment and dismissal. Either fit in, or get out.

As the browning of America continues, as the consumers of this same news media becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, you’d think that the owners of the news organizations would try to keep up with the times. Instead, they are doubling down on their whiteness. Meanwhile, journalistic diversity is on the decline. In 2014, all minority groups account for 22 percent of journalists, 13 percent of radio and 13 percent at daily newspapers, despite comprising 37 percent of the U.S. population and rapidly growing. 

In a 2015 report entitled “Black Women in Journalism on the Decline,” the Women’s Media Center looked at the racial composition in newspaper newsrooms using 2014 American Society of News Editors staffing report results. It found that newsrooms were 55 percent White males, 31 percent White females, and a little over 2 percent each Black males and Black females. The percentage of other people of color was even lower than that of Blacks. Newsroom leaders such as editors are overwhelmingly White and male as well.

We know WHY (and the consequences) this is the case: Because White supremacy requires certain deficit narratives to frame people of color: stereotypes, failure, erasure, pathos, long suffering, yada yada yada—all painting us in the most dehumanized light. The racism of news consistently paints an ugly portrait of our humanity and our communities through disparity data, police sketches, depicting us as dangerous, felonious, murderers, thieves, rapists, gunmen, government cheats. This coverage usually highlights and basks in what it paints as our despair, our dysfunctions, always feeding the narrative that supports the status quo messaging about how we’re inherently inferior, problematic, and seemingly to blame for the hurdles society keeps putting in our way.

The needs of White supremacy are clear. But the absence of diversity isn’t simply a consequence of some Mad Men character deciding that White is right, but rather is the result of the culture of the newsroom, the daily toll of racism, and the hostility inside and outside the workplace. You don’t have to be a savvy mainstream news consumer of any race to understand the fundamental gaps in perception, culture, life experience, and power dynamics that impact how Black reporters and their White managers perceive issues of race in coverage, race in the newsroom, and concepts of decorum and professionalism when writing in our skin in a hostile, racist world.

Journalists of color who operate in an environment of frustration and fear, occupy completely different worlds than their White managers. Those managers likely have no idea the emotional toll so much Black suffering and death takes on journalists who, like those of other races, often get into the field to make a difference, share wider truths, shed new light, and spread understanding.

When there is not enough diversity at the top of these news organizations, where decisions are made and gates are protected by the guardians of the status quo, the news is not inclusive enough to be relevant or truly objective enough to help the consumer make sense of what’s happening in our communities, cities, country, and world. Gene Demby writes in CodeSwitch:

“We ask journalists to keep some critical, dispassionate distance from their stories. But what happens when the stories they’re covering are not abstractions, not just things that happen to other people? What happens when echoes of those stories keep sounding off in their own lives?”

As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder—and rightly so—we might do well to consider what it means that there’s an emerging, highly valued professional class of Black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of Black life in this country. They’re investigating police killings and segregated schools and racist housing policies and ballooning petty fines while their loved ones, or people who look like their loved ones, are out there living those stories. What it means—for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health—that we don’t stop being Black people when we’re working as Black reporters. That we, quite literally, have skin in the game.

When a journalist of color is required to put their perspective, their lived experience, their fears into a box as to as to not disrupt mainstream narratives and the fallacy of objectivity, everybody loses—especially the news consumer.

Rebecca Carroll expressed this in a 2014 essay for The New Republic:

“At the start of each new job, where I was almost invariably the only Black editor on staff (unless it was a Black publication—I have worked at a few), I would be heralded for my “voice” (and the implicit diversity it brought), until that voice became threatening or intimidating, or just too Black. My ideas were “thoughtful” and “compassionate” until I argued, say, that having White journalists write the main features on a new Black news venture sent the wrong message to the black online community. My editors disagreed.”

For a journalist, the knowledge that there is nothing to protect your personal or professional safety is devastating. It changes everything. And if you are judged, criticized or attacked for doing what you believe is right—in mainstream and on social media—with curses, slurs, nasty insults, and even threats, it’s more common for your media bosses, the people who profit from your hard work, great reporting and awesome writing, will be standing over your shoulder ready to chastise you, demanding your silence. Merely responding to the dehumanization of those slurs and attacks is deemed unprofessional. And as long as they’re profiting from the comments, clicks, algorithms and eyeballs, nobody will stand up and defend you.

Too many reporters, who, like Jorge Ramos, are speaking truth to power, are working for companies that claim to value diversity but don’t reflect that reality when it comes to hiring, the issues they cover, or the voices they amplify. As a result, White people continue to always make the rules about what makes news, which stories are covered, and when it comes to Black and other journalists of color—what constitutes “credibility,” “sound judgment,” and “professionalism.”

Jorge Ramos would never have been thrown out of Trump’s news conference if he’d been White. He’d have been lauded as a bold voice and a good reporter demanding answers. And his colleagues would have celebrated him as indicative of the fourth branch of government, rather than turning against him.

The culture of racism within America’s newsrooms produces a lot of stress and suffering. Yet, in the end it is you—the news consumer—who is the biggest loser in this racist, sexist game. As author and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans wrote in the spring edition of Nieman Reports:

“In my view, too often, coverage of racial issues at mainstream news organizations is treated episodically, focused largely on exploding controversies and breaking news stories. Someone is dead or is getting sued or has been arrested or has done something controversial, and media outlets are ready to track the fallout in stories almost guaranteed to rank at the top of their websites’ most-read list.

But in my experience this approach also segregates the topic of race to news, focused on conflict and controversy, that polarizes audiences. Audiences are conditioned to see race as a hot-button topic only worthy of the most blockbuster stories, making it tougher for journalists to tell subtler, more complex tales.”

When the decision-makers are stuck on maintaining the narrative of White supremacy and the inferiority and dysfunction of people of color, everybody loses.  When the news uses language that dehumanizes, that perpetuates lies and distortions, everyone loses. White news audiences might enjoy the ego-boost of the supremacist narrative, but they lose the opportunity to learn what’s really happening in the world around them. Audiences of color remain in the world of the news underdog and/or villain, and similarly suffer from a lack of news they can use to navigate their realities. The consequences are deadly: Police shootings and a potential Trump presidency. We all lose.

We’re in the Information Age, where news content and diverse perspectives are more valuable—and influential—than ever before. The one piece of good news is that the gatekeepers are losing their hold on the truth.

The internet has allowed marginalized communities to bypass traditional media to speak for themselves. The internet has given a new generation of activists the digital oxygen they need to help breathe life into their burgeoning movements, to challenge the master narrative, to help shape policies. We don’t need to ask permission to write about White privilege and racism as FACT, and if we tell a troll that their racism is showing, Becky and Connor aren’t ready to slip a reprimand into our HR file.  

As digital and social media flip the script to drive—rather than follow—the news; as the mainstream media struggles to keep up; and as Black Twitter is recognized as an official social and cultural driver, people of color can beat the digital drum to spread information, critique, and all forms of expression in pursuit of justice and change.

The stakes are really high. Donald Trump is angling to become president.  The GOP is ready to shut down the government. The right wing is poised to build fences and grow an already militarized police force that surely will continue to kill communities of color with impunity. Fox News will continue to push conversations to the right so much so that facts will remain as illusive as equity and justice in contemporary America. The stakes are high because now more than ever because diverse voices are needed.

Black and Brown voices matter, and we’re just beginning to see the power and possibility of what happens when they are unfettered and allowed to sing freely.

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