Unity 08: making newsroom diversity a reality

CHICAGO – Although Barack Obama’s appearance here at the Unity ‘08 convention gathered most of the media’s attention, the convention had some other business to attend to.

Monique Walker is an African American sports reporter with The Boston Globe and says she always knew, since age 12, that she would be a professional journalist someday. “I was obsessed with newspapers at a young age,” said Walker. “My grandmother read the paper every day and she loved sports. I give her credit,” she said.

Walker was one of more than 400 recruiters and more than 7,000 journalists and students who attended the Unity ‘08 Journalists of Color Convention here July 23-27 at the McCormick Place under the theme, “A New Journalism for a Changing World.”

The convention began in 1994 and is the nation’s largest gathering of journalists of color bringing together news workers and students to discuss the need for diversity and multiculturalism in a changing and evolving news industry.

Unity was organized by an alliance that includes the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the Native American Journalists Association. Together they represent more than 10,000 journalists of color who advocate fair and accurate news about ethnic communities and promote aggressively challenging the media at every level to reflect the nation’s diverse backgrounds.

Reversing racial and ethnic stereotypes and myths about minorities in news was a key theme at Unity as well as encouraging a more inclusive newsroom that allows people of color to hold positions of influence in the journalism field.

“In the media if your going to cover communities of color then there has to be representatives of those communities doing the reporting to fully understand what you’re covering,” said Bowdeya Tweh, a 20-year-old African American intern at the South Florida Sun-Sentinal. Tweh believes once news companies become more accepting of diversity in all aspects of society then that may lead to less bias and stereotypes in the news.

Obama was Unity’s closing speaker and received a standing ovation. He talked about his trip to the Mid-East, affirmative action and education. He faced some tough questions by the journalists, including on how he handles the politically-charged rumor about him being a Muslim.

“This is the most interesting election in my lifetime and it’s very important,” said Tweh. “Obama will break down many barriers if he wins, but will that translate in the media?” he asked. “I hope it does.”

But with the growing use of the Internet, newspapers nationwide are facing buy-outs, cutbacks and layoffs. Hundreds have been laid off recently at some of the country’s most prestigious newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. The National Association of Black Journalists reported that nearly 1,000 reporters lost their jobs at the end of June.

The American Society of Newspapers Editors reported in April that diversity was up slightly in newsrooms to just over 13.5 percent, yet newspapers as a whole are down 4 percent. Plus, they point out, the totals are not representing the nations minority population, which is 34 percent according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Laurence Paul, executive editor with The New York Times told the World, “The world is so interconnected now and it’s important that we have as many minority communities reflected in our coverage and keep our staff diverse.”

Kevin Olivas with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is the director of the Parity Project, which sets up working models for news companies to expand the hiring of minority journalists to better reflect ethnic communities at work and in coverage.

Media companies should have a workforce that reflects the audiences they serve, said Olivas. Olivas also said journalists today must utilize all media outlets such as audio, photo slide shows, and blogs. “People want to see it and hear it, they want a story that envelops them.”

The ethnic media sector is one of the fastest growing sectors but it doesn’t have much visibility and it should, said Sandip Roy, associate editor with New America Media. Roy said 51 million Americans access ethnic media in the country.

Executive Director Jeff Harjo with the Native American Journalists Association said the convention is an opportunity to “voice our concerns.” Harjo said providing scholarships and internship for young people is also important.

plozano @pww.org