When Jessica Lynch catapulted onto the media landscape as America's poster girl for the Iraq War, it was thanks in large part to editors, reporters, producers and commentators around the country who could see in the pretty, young, white Army private from a tiny town in rural West Virginia their daughter, niece, kid sister or next-door neighbor.
But William Douglas, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder, took a very different approach to the story about Lynch's capture by Iraqi forces and subsequent rescue by U.S. troops. As America prepared to watch a made-for-TV movie re-creating Lynch's much-celebrated saga last November, Douglas, who is African American, wrote a feature comparing Lynch with Shoshana Johnson. Like Lynch, Douglas wrote, Johnson was a female soldier and a member of the 507th Maintenance Company who came under fire and suffered serious injuries. However Johnson, who is black, received little media fanfare. "Lynch," Douglas wrote, "got the full American celebrity treatment, while Johnson largely got ignored." The piece went on to describe how many African Americans felt Johnson was the victim of a racial double standard because "she didn't have the right 'face.'"
That's just the kind of story editors envision when they dream of newsrooms that reflect the nation's growing racial diversity--stories that are conceived and developed by journalists of all different backgrounds, viewpoints and perspectives. The Knight Ridder Washington bureau, with a national staff of editors and correspondents that is nearly 30 percent minority, comes close to the racial parity that the newspaper industry has explicitly sought since 1978.
But Knight Ridder is an anomaly in the nation's capital, and minority journalists such as Bill Douglas remain a relative rarity in Washington. A new study conducted jointly by UNITY: Journalists of Color Inc. and the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the publisher of AJR, finds that fewer than 10.5 percent of the correspondents, columnists, editors and bureau chiefs in the Washington bureaus of U.S. daily newspapers are minorities. That's a smaller percentage than the much-maligned national industry figure of 12.5 percent reported this year by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The study identifies only three minority bureau chiefs (see "At the Helm," page 35). Some of the nation's biggest newspaper corporations--including Hearst, E.W. Scripps, McClatchy, Copley and Belo--have at the most one minority correspondent or editor in their Washington bureaus. And perhaps most significant, the study finds that most of the nation's largest newspapers--the ones that help define coverage of Washington for the rest of the press corps here and abroad--have dramatically smaller percentages of minority journalists in Washington than in their newsrooms back home (see chart, page 33).
The census numbers, however, tell only part of the story. The UNITY/Maryland research, which is being released at the UNITY convention in Washington in August, also concludes that minority reporters and editors in the Washington press corps believe their colleagues--and their own bureaus--don't do a good job in covering race-related issues. Many feel the coverage is getting worse. The minority journalists surveyed are generally optimistic that increasing diversity would have a positive impact on coverage. But nearly half feel they personally have little or no influence over race-related stories by their bureaus, and they believe their colleagues outside the Beltway do a better job of covering those stories.
Only one-third are convinced they will retire as journalists. And, in perhaps the most ominous sign about the future of racial diversity in the Washington press corps, the study finds most hope to be out of Washington within five years. Thirty-nine of the 60 minority journalists, or 65 percent, responded to the survey. …