Minority image in media deplored Pool of journalists of color likely to decline, experts say; Social costs 'enormous'


Ask many African-Americans, in Baltimore and beyond, their views on how the media depict them and the answer likely will be impassioned, elaborate and bitter.

But blacks are not the only ones complaining. Latinos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans also lament their portrayals in newspapers and on television and radio.

Experts predict the perception will not improve soon.

As fewer young people choose careers in journalism and affirmative action falls out of favor, the pool of minority journalists likely will shrink, they say. Many believe more inadequate coverage of minority communities will result.

"The social costs are enormous and well-documented," said Federico Subervi, a University of Texas at Austin professor who chairs a committee on diversity issues for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which is meeting in Baltimore this week. "You have alienated communities, you have clashes and conflicts," he said.

The AEJMC conference -- attended by about 2,000 professors of journalism, communications and advertising -- includes several workshops daily, through Saturday, that address such issues as black representation in television news and minority ownership of online companies.

Compared with 30 years ago, the media are doing well on minority representation, data show. In 1968, in the wake of race riots across the country, the government-appointed Kerner Commission reported that inaccurate media representation contributed to the deadly clashes.

Today, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reports that 11.4 percent of newspaper staff members are minorities. According to the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Washington, 16 percent of radio journalists and 20 percent of television journalists are people of color.

Gains made

The numbers have generally inched up over the years. In 1978, less than 4 percent of newspaper staff members were minorities, ASNE reports.

But the gains have leveled off in recent years, experts say, with minority representation in television news slipping 1 percentage point last year over the year before, from 21 percent to 20 percent.

"Journalism isn't speaking to people overall, and it never has spoken well to people of color," says Keith Woods, who studies ethics for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism organization. "The consequence is that fewer people are choosing us and that includes fewer people of color."

Woods adds that, aside from the ethical issue of depicting minorities in a nonracist manner because it's the right thing to do, journalists have a higher obligation than most other segments of society.

"There's also a very clear journalistic message: You are not being accurate, fair, complete; you are not being any of the things that sit at the cornerstone of journalistic principle and craft," he said. "We are supposed to be telling the truth. We are supposed to be contextually accurate, and we are supposed to be fair."

The issue is familiar to many African-Americans in Baltimore, where local media -- largely The Sun -- are castigated for unfair representation. Many believe those who run the media, local and national, intentionally depict blacks inaccurately.

Internet gaining audience

Newspapers are losing readers and television is losing viewers to other media such as the Internet. Some experts predict that, in a drive to regain audiences, the media will figure out how to appeal to the fastest-growing segments of the population: people of color.

"The bottom line is there is a diminishing subscription rate whereas there would be an increase if there was a perception of fairness and inclusivity," Subervi said. "The market will demand it. They've got to sell papers and the market is going to demand that expertise [of minority journalists]."

Even as many are fighting to justify the need for diversity in newsrooms, some are beginning to ask the next question: What should the media do after they find and hire qualified journalists of color?

"Are you also training about diversity -- not just bringing in people of color?" Subervi asked. "How welcome are people [of color] once you bring them in?"

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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