What stagnant diversity means for America’s newsrooms

December 15, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
As racial concerns continue to rise to the surface across America, is the media doing enough to tell the stories of people of color? Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault speaks to Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute about the industry’s struggle with diversity.

GWEN IFILL: Newsrooms across the country have long been accused of failing to represent the communities they cover. And as racial concerns continue to rise to the surface across the country, who is telling those stories?

That’s the question being raised by one group of journalists, and the topic of the latest installment of special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s solutions-based series “Race Matters.”

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Race nowadays is all over the news media, not at least coverage of protests in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and New York.

But the media are also taking hits from critics, especially those who complain of a lack of fairness or consistency, again, when it comes to issues involving race.

Richard Prince is a journalist focusing on race and diversity in his thrice-weekly online column “Journalism.” It runs on the Web site of the Maynard Institute, the sponsoring organization started in the wake of the mid-’60s riots and aimed at trying to correct the lack of stories relating to race and diversity.

We met Prince at the Newseum, a Washington, D.C.-based institution that’s home to examples of media committed to fairness and balance in their coverage of race and diversity.

Richard Prince, thank you for joining us.

RICHARD PRINCE, The Maynard Institute: So glad to be here.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Your column carries a lot of articles about journalists who are themselves complaining about fairness in media. What’s your take on the criticisms of media and their issues?

RICHARD PRINCE: I don’t think there is any more criticism of the media than there has ever been. It’s just that we get to hear it now and see it instantaneously.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you’re a little younger than I am, but I remember the presidential commission that reported on the riots in the mid-’60s. And it blamed the media for not having enough people or any people at all in the neighborhoods where people were simmering over few — lack of jobs, poor education, no opportunities.

And it said that you have got to get more African-Americans or people from those neighborhoods in the media.

What happened?

RICHARD PRINCE: Well, since that time, there was a great push, as you say, after the Kerner Commission report of 1968.

All through the ’70s, diversity was a great buzzword. And then in the ’80s, you started getting a backlash to affirmative action and that kind of thing. Then you had the recession, which meant that newsrooms had to sort of tighten up and not hire as many people, start laying people off, and the Internet, which made things worse, because it took away a lot of the revenue base of newspapers particularly.

And so diversity sort of went off the table. And so now we are sort of in a stagnant situation, where the — I think of newspapers, for example, and online outlets. We have 13 percent of the newsrooms now are people of color, whereas the population has a third people of color.

So there’s a big gap there.

So there continues to be this black-white divide in racial discourse. How much of that is the fault of the media?

RICHARD PRINCE: Well, of course, one of the purposes of the news media, and particularly of newspapers and local television stations, is to have different parts of the community talking with each other.

I think there are a lot of news organizations that do take that role very seriously, less so with others. It also depends on the staff you have and how aggressive they are in demanding of their editors that certain things be covered.

And, logically, the more people you have of color there, or good-thinking people who are not of color, the better the coverage will be.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But are we losing people of color as the — as you have the consolidation of media?


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what’s going to be the result of that?

RICHARD PRINCE: Well, because of all the layoffs and buyouts and everything, that African-American journalists particularly have been harder-hit than others.

But, you know, covering people of color and communities of color is not just the responsibility of the journalists of color on the staff. It’s everyone’s responsibility. So, if you have people, white people, white journalists who care about this issue, then it will get done.

And we have — saw a good example of that, and when a crisis happens such as in Charleston, South Carolina, with the church shooting, where that newspaper there had actually decreased in diversity, but they still did a good job, according to most estimates, because they cared and they put their nose to the grindstone.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But do you think there should be a specific race beat? And, if so, who should — who should have it?


RICHARD PRINCE: You can have a specific race beat, but you can also make it everyone’s responsibility.

And at another conference, Paul Cheung, who is the head of the Asian American Journalists Association, he recommended that, when you do these race projects, you have — you make them integrated, so that the white journalists learn a lot about what’s going on in the communities of color, and they can learn also from their colleagues of color.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, when you look at the landscape of media today, how hopeful are you that the media are going to live up to your hopes and the hopes of those journalists of color and others who are writing to you and complaining that the media are not doing their job?


Well, I think that there is just too much indifference to the whole idea of diversity. Yes, we will do it if we get to it. I mean, the number of newsrooms in this country that have no people of color at all in them is appalling. And the fact that it’s allowed to remain, I think is scandalous.

But we’re fighting apathy, indifference and competing interests. And people are saying, look, I have to worry about the bottom line. And they don’t realize that the bottom line is tied to the changing — our changing country that’s becoming browner and browner. And that’s where your potential customers are.

And so you better learn how to relate to them if you want to stay in business.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But after the Kerner Commission report…


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: … newspapers, and then there were only three networks, invested in educating African-Americans to live up to what the Kerner Commission said. You need more people from those communities.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Anybody doing that today?

There are internship programs at a lot of the networks. Even FOX News has an apprenticeship program for people of color, something that might surprise folks who think of FOX News in a different way.


RICHARD PRINCE: And FOX News also has a separate Web site, FOX News Latino, to reach Hispanics, English-speaking Hispanics. And that was just praised and got an award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

So, when — when people see that — the business imperative, as well as everything else, I mean, I think that’s when you get action.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you’re not as pessimistic as some of the people you report on, but, still, you say there are things that need to be done.

So what are the solutions?

RICHARD PRINCE: There are a lot of other answers, too.

Like, the American Society of News Editors has a program where they go out into communities and they interact with community folks and they give them a chance to talk to the media. And there’s a lot of exchanges of ideas there.

The University of Missouri, Mizzou, just said they were going to have diversity — a diversity initiative required for all students, faculty members and staff members. This creates a climate so that, when people actually do enter the work force, they will be more aware of the need for inclusiveness and the need for covering what needs to be covered.

There are a lot of solutions that people are trying. And, as people say, if one thing doesn’t work, then you just try something else.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Richard Prince, thank you.