Unconscious Stereotypes Slow Newsroom Diversity

By Lehrman, Sally | The Quill, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Unconscious Stereotypes Slow Newsroom Diversity


Lehrman, Sally, The Quill


Many newsroom managers make an effort to hire, promote and encourage people of all backgrounds to succeed. Yet, America's newsrooms have remained mostly white and male. Why?

Sociologists and psychologists have discovered hidden barriers that help explain the glacial pace of change within many an industry, even when the best intentions really exist. Without realizing it, they say, we all favor people most like ourselves. These natural human processes play into newsroom cultures and systems that tend to give white and male journalists an advantage.

Today, many editors will tell you they know exactly what they want in an "ideal journalist" - in job postings on journalismjobs.com, they seek reporters who are "goal driven" and "aggressive," prepared to compete with the "big boys." Important qualities, certainly, but is this male stereotype really all there is to it? What about being persistent, verbally talented, or good at developing trust with sources? These skills, stereotypically female, are just as important.

Because they operate at an unconscious level, stereotypes have their most power when people make subjective choices or must rely on incomplete information. Absent professional personnel practices, that's the way newsrooms tend to assign and promote, and when diversity remains unspoken and invisible except when it's time for staff counts, the ambiguity creates a lot of room for guesses and misunderstandings.

Scientists who study human interactions say this is when unconscious expectations and imagery- the stories and assumptions that everyone grows up with - can take over. Implicit stereotypes begin to limit people's opportunities, but may go unnoticed and unquestioned. Those in the minority - because of their sexual orientation, use of mobility equipment, or any other reason - may turn to stereotypes as well as they try to interpret and anticipate their colleagues' expectations.

When a stereotype is in play, the people affected by it tend to act unconsciously in alignment with it. Told that females usually perform poorly on a particular math test, women are likely to do just that. Otherwise, they score just as well as white men. The same thing happens when black people are asked to mark their race at the beginning of a difficult verbal test or are told that it measures intellectual ability. Or when a teacher starts talking about "white males," those students often begin to feel threatened and uncomfortable. Social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson studied this phenomenon at Stanford University. In their research, students' scores reflected racial and sexual stereotypes when the test situation "primed" them in some way. Otherwise, they fared the same as everyone else.

Stereotype threat am stand in the way of mentoring, an important means for less-experienced journalists to develop their skills and climb the ladder. White men might avoid relationships with people of another gender, race, physical ability or sexual orientation for fear of making a misstep or being judged. Yet they are the ones most often in a position to offer support and advice. In experiments at Stanford, when white men thought they'd be discussing racial profiling with black men instead of love and relationships, they moved their chairs further away. "What's interesting is that it's not related to how prejudiced they are," Steele says.

The U.S. public is now one-third Latino, Asian American, African-American and American Indian. The country will, the U.S. census says, be half "minority" by 2050. Yet 40 percent of the daily papers that reported to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on hiring and retention employ no journalists of color at all. Today, at the 926 daily newspapers that sent in their numbers, the share of journalists of color has reached just 13.4 percent. Broadcast data is equally discouraging - almost all of the numbers for journalists of color slipped last year, especially in radio. …

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