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A New Sense of Mission

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

A New Sense of Mission

Article excerpt

In the wake of the Rodney King case, a coalition of minority journalists vows to improve the status Of minorities in the media

A coalition of minority journalists, badly shaken by the Rodney King case and the Los Angeles riots, vowed at a recent conference in Oakland to keep fighting to improve the status of minorities in the media.

Several journalists choked back tears in the opening session as they urged their friends to stay in the profession and to continue pushing for better news coverage of racial issues.

"As the Los Angeles story developed, we kept hearing that diversity was one of the things tearing us apart," said Lisa Chung, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, during th opening session. "As a journlist of color, I felt perhaps I was enough .... If we're going to rededicate ourselves to being agents of change, then we have to tell our stories again and again and again."

Her remarks came at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Journalism Education at the Parc Oakland Hotel in late May. The conference, called "Voices of Change," was the first of three gatherings across the country for IJE members and supporters.

Many of the journalists were veterans burned out by years of work on minority issues. The conference clearly energized them and renewed their spirits. In lively speeches and workshops, they shared war stories about the Los Angeles riots. They bemoaned the small pool of minorities in the newspaper industry. They devised strategies to improve the hiring of minorities and news coverage of minority communities.

After some serious jawboning, one verdict stood out: Little has changed since the 1960s, when the Kerner Commission blamed the news media for having ignored racial issues and adding to an atmosphere of racial strife that had led to the Watts riots.

"How many times does this have to happen to bring about a media system that is truly reflective of our multicultural society?" asked Dorothy Gilliam, a Washington Post columnist and chairwoman of the IJE board.

A. Stephen Montiel, the president of IJE, agreed. "Twenty-five years after the Kerner Commission," he said, "we're still measuring progress by fractions of percentage points."

The numbers tell a sad story. Less than 1% of journalists were minorities at the time of the Watts riots, according to Gilliam. Today, there are 5,120 minority journalists, or 9.4% of the total, in newsrooms across the country.

That is not nearly enough, argued Gilliam. "We need look no further than Rodney King's broken face to see that little has changed."

Recent research by IJE shows that it will be a long time before newsrooms are fully integrated. In interviews with 60 news executives, IJE found there are few minority managers in editorial, marketing, circulation, and production; and the number of minority candidates for prized management jobs is much too small, IJE learned.

Another bad sign: The newspaper industry is not attracting the best minority students, who believe that daily newspapers are hostile to them as readers and potential employees, according to the IJE research project.

Why so little progress? As in most discussions of race in America, no one at the conference had clear-cut answers or explanations.

"When it comes to [racial] diversity, perhaps the media is no different than any other beast in society -- it does business as usual," said Gerald Sass, senior vice president of the Freedom Forum foundation.

Sass and others stressed that the media play a crucial role in portraying images and spreading attitudes and opinions. To a large degree, newspapers set the public agenda. In this sense, the burden is much greater on the media to reflect a multicultural society truly.

But how?

"Everything and anything needs to be done," said Katherine Fanning, former publisher of the Christian Science Monitor and an IJE board director. …

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