Monday, December 30, 2013

Color Commentary

When you look at a picture like this, what stands out to you? If, by chance, you noticed how overwhelmingly "white" the White House Press Corp is, then give yourself a gold star. The closer the people in the photo are to the front row, the more you're seeing the group of folks who have made it to the top ranks of the profession of journalism...and the less likely you are to see a person of color. 

Given the fact that in just a few years time, white people will lose their majority status in this country, you'd think that this would be changing. Well, according to Politico, you'd be wrong. They recently published a list of the 10 journalists to watch in 2014 and there's not a person of color to be found apparently. David Dennis noticed. And he came up with a pretty good reason for why this continues to happen.
A few months ago, I wrote a commentary for the Guardian about how unpaid internships create an unfair funnel system to media outlets. They create a homogenous voice that excludes those who don't have the money or privilege to work for free. This, to me, is the biggest challenge facing the media.
If being able to work for free is a requirement to getting your foot in the door at most media outlets, that would do a pretty good job of excluding a variety of points of view - including those of people of color.

Obviously Dennis has talked to various publications about this deficiency and he hears the same old line one often hears when white employers seem to have good intentions about diversifying their work force, but fail..."we just can't find qualified applicants." Dennis has a great response:
...the internet is full of thousands of people writing about issues from diverse perspectives every day. There are blogs, websites and even Twitter feeds full of brilliant, poignant and diverse writing pushing envelopes and driving conversations. These writers just need bigger platforms to affect change and shed light on issues.
There is no excuse if people are really interested. The talent is out there. But bringing it in would mean change - and there's the rub. Whether its media or some other business, the truth is that changing the demographics of your work force beyond tokenism is going to change your business. When it comes to journalism, that is likely going to mean a change in the kinds of stories that are covered and the kinds of perspectives that are included. By not being willing to go there, much of our current media will maintain the lens that distorts their racial, cultural and patriarchal view of the world.


  1. 'unpaid internships create an unfair funnel system to media outlets'

    Interestingly enough this point was brought to my attention when I was in DC for the 2013 Inauguration, but it was in relation to politics. I met a young volunteer who really wanted to become an intern on the hill, had the requirements/qualifications, whatever, but wasn't sure she could handle it for the duration because she had to supply her own transportation, meals, (business) clothing costs and interning would put a crimp in her part-time work possibilities. It's the first time I seriously paused to consider that the 'system' to get into politics did, from a practical perspective, heavily favour those with money and connections.

  2. While this article has merit, there are many other reasons for a less diverse media. In fact it's quite complicated. Many minorities aren't willing to sell-out and end up leaving the profession altogether. The few black voices out there often tend to produce the same coverage as their white counterparts and it's not always because they agree; it's pure survival. When I was in college, I worked unpaid media internships and paid jobs simultaneously. So, it can be done. It's just more difficult and once you get in the door, at least in my case, you are completely disillusioned with what you see in the newsroom among both white and minority employees. I left the industry in the early nineties for the same reasons most people hate the media today. I was in my twenties but apparently quite prescient because even then I felt the news was the least important thing in the news business. I've never regretted my decision and in retrospect wish I'd spent my college education studying a more worthy discipline.

    1. I believe you are adding particulars to this statement I made:

      changing the demographics of your work force beyond tokenism is going to change your business

      Surviving as a token most often means not rocking the boat. Its up to management to decide if they want the boat rocked. I believe that what we're both saying is that they don't. That's why things don't change.

    2. Neither I nor the minorities I'm speaking of would be described as tokens. We were all highly qualified and skilled at our jobs and there were enough of us where tokenism was a non-issue. I was never made to feel I should act a certain way. What I found disenchanting was the utter disregard for what I thought was the primary objective of a news organization which is to inform the public truthfully and contextually. Some have no problem with news as "infotainment" so they go along; others like myself did so I decided to move along and not look back. Clearly things have gotten progressively worse. The only real answer as I see it is to OWN your own network. I would love to see Oprah develop a news division that is devoted to just that. Also, I think it should be stated that white reporters can produce solid and thorough reporting if they choose to or if they are allowed to. Diversity of opinion, I believe, involves more than just skin color.

    3. Tokenism has zero to do with qualifications or numbers. It has to do with pretending that you are open to change when you really aren't.

      I totally agree with your assessment that the news media has embraced infotainment. As a matter of fact, my last post was pretty much about that.

      What I'm talking about here is something a bit different. And yes, while white reporters can write important stories and diversity involves more than just skin color, there are perspectives that we - as white people - lack. Those will never be included unless news organizations open themselves up to the kind of change people of color bring.

    4. I guess we're defining tokenism differently. I view it as having that one person of color who may not be particularly qualified or in any way essential to your operation but their color provides the patina of inclusion and tolerance. I agree that people of color can add something that often times white people miss but that's only if they want to, are allowed to or view it as important. For example, Don Lemon, April Ryan, Kristen Welker and Tamron Hall are black yet they all practice the same kind of shoddy, gotcha journalism as many of their white counterparts. The only person of color I can think of right now who is analytical and thorough in her journalism and media appearances is Joy Reid and that's probably exactly why she keeps getting passed over for a show of her own. She's good enough to substitute but entirely too smart and informed to get her own show. I've stopped watching network and cable news entirely because the only chance it has to change is if everyone stops watching. It saddens me to know there's a good chance that if she ever got a show, she might have to tow the company line as has MHP, who I once thought was terrific as a guest but who in my view is terrible as a host.

      In conclusion, I agree with your article but I just don't think black reporters in the WHPC are likely to report much differently than their white counterparts as long as news divisions are run by corporations who prefer that we are distracted by ridiculous, fake scandals rather than concentrating on the serious matters that confront us as a nation. It's been nice chatting with you but this is my last word on the matter. Thanks and have a Happy New Year!