Journalism is revered for its claim of being the “people’s advocate.” As journalists, we go after the truth, investigate wrongdoings, hold our leaders accountable, ask the tough questions on everyone’s mind and do our best to shed light on our fellow citizens’ stories. Yet, when you sit down to turn on your nightly news broadcast or open your local newspaper, you will find one fact: the overwhelming majority of journalists represented in the newsroom are white.
We are accustomed to seeing more news correspondents of color only when the topic is a celebrity’s racist past or when a horrific tragedy like the murder of George Floyd takes place. I argue that if we are indeed the fourth branch of government in America, then our news media must represent the full diversity of our country, across every racial and ethnic group.
Let’s first start with the facts. According to the Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, “More than 77 percent of newsroom employees – those who work as reporters, editors, photographers and videographers in the newspaper, broadcasting and internet publishing industries – are non-Hispanic whites.” Furthermore, even though “40 percent of Americans belong to a racial or ethnic minority group, they make up less than 17 percent of newsroom staff at print and online publications, and only 13 percent of newspaper leadership.” When we examine the major news publications such as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, they are more than 70 percent white. Despite being located in minority communities, newspapers like The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are 81 percent and 67 percent white, respectively.
These numbers are not due to mere coincidence, but rather due to the structural and systemic networks that play into privilege regarding socioeconomic status and race. The path towards achieving a successful career in journalism is not without fancy degrees from prestigious universities, exclusive connections, unpaid internships at high-profile publications and outlets, personal recommendations from editors and so forth. All of these attributes tend to assist and consider those who belong to higher socioeconomic groups. Nevertheless, when BIPOC journalists are selected to be a part of the newsroom, they are less likely to be promoted and are mostly likely the first to be laid off.
Without the presence of journalists of color, the truth is that issues belonging to minority communities are often unfairly reported or ignored. For instance, we have witnessed situations like The New York Times profile that labeled Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri as “no angel.”
As for a more recent example, the mainstream media’s intense and constant coverage of clashes with police, rioting, and looting, attempted to distract from the numerous and continued peaceful demonstrations taking place in the name of justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and countless more. Fox News even showed old riot footage to misguide viewers. Moreover, major news outlets have also chosen to disregard the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris‘ Indian-American identity altogether. These mistakes go against the core principles of journalism and do not bode well with the audience’s trust in the media.
This isn’t to say that you must belong to a specific racial group to be qualified to cover it, but rather that as journalists, we are in charge of providing the lens in which the audience views the news and informs their decisions. If we continue to exclude journalists of color who report the news and hold positions of power at major news publications, then we will continue to see stories that have a deep attachment to minority communities be pushed aside as well as a continued unjust and biased representation of minorities presented by the media.
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In addition, many in power fail to realize that the media influences not only the way others perceive minorities but also the way minorities view themselves. As journalists, one of our primary goals is to provide the public with a multitude of stories related to every part of their life. There is no better way to give that space than having a more inclusive staff of journalists who can use the nuances from their individual lived experiences to report on stories that would otherwise not receive attention.
As an Indian-American woman working towards a career in journalism, I am always thrilled to see journalists I can identify with in an industry that has always been predominantly white. It is not lost on me that we live in a time where the press is seen as the “enemy of the people,” and BIPOC journalists, in particular, have been both disregarded and attacked, even accused of playing the “race card.” Nonetheless, I believe that with the recent calls to further racial equality and diversity across all industries, we must take a hard look at the systemic under-representation of BIPOC journalists in the news media.