Journalism Leaders Talk Diversity

Organizations representing journalists of color are gathering for their quadrennial combined meeting, the UNITY convention, this week in Chicago. Presidents of the Native American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the Asian-American Journalists Association discuss the challenges of bringing diversity to the American media landscape.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We are turning the spotlight on the news business, specifically the issue of maintaining diversity as the industry undergoes critical changes. Newspapers are shrinking. International coverage is declining, while online offerings continue to grow, along with interest in ethnic media. In the middle of all of this, the four organizations representing journalists of color are gathering for their quadrennial combined meeting, the UNITY convention.

We're pleased to have the presidents of three of the organizations with us, Cristina Azocar, president of the Native American Journalists' Association, Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Jeanne Mariani-Belding is president of the Asian-American Journalists Association. We are sorry that Rafael Olmeda, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, was unable to join us, but welcome to the three other presidents. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. CRISTINA AZOCAR (President, Native American Journalists Association): Thank you.

Ms. BARBARA CIARA (President, National Association of Black Journalists): Thank you.

Ms. JEANNE MARIANI-BELDING (President, Asian-American Journalists Association): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you're all in Chicago, where the UNITY convention is convening tomorrow. As you start the convention, what's uppermost on the members' minds do you think, Cristina?

Ms. AZOCAR: I think that layoffs are forefront on everybody's minds right now, for the Native American Journalists Association. A lot of our members do work in tribal media. You had mentioned the growing ethnic media market, but our members do want to work in mainstream. And when we see downturns, it ends up concerning them, but it also ends up concerning students coming up. More than half of our members are students, and they want to know what's going to happen to them when they're not students anymore.

MARTIN: Jeanne, what about you?

Ms. MARIANI-BELDING: Well, definitely, it's the state of the industry, the layoffs, the cutbacks, and how it's affecting our members, from our entry level members to our most senior members. And I would say that's top of mine. I mean, in just the last two weeks alone, we've seen major major cutbacks at Tribune, McClatchy, The Baltimore Sun. It's just happening all over the nation, and so it's a really big concern for our members.

MARTIN: Barbara, you know, it's been four decades since the Kerner Commission Report admonished the media for the fact that too few journalists of color worked at mainstream newspapers and broadcasts outlets.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors did a survey earlier this year pointing out that the number of full-time journalists working at newspapers - that doesn't even consider broadcast sellers - but newspapers shrank by 4.4 percent, but the number of minority journalists held pretty steady. It's about 13.52 percent. Could you argue that that's pretty good considering the contraction in so much of the industry?

Ms. CIARA: Well, I associate it with treading water, and I don't even swim. So what I'm saying is that we really haven't gone anywhere. We really haven't progressed, and when you look at the management numbers, it's really shocking that we're slipping backward in that area in both broadcast and print. And when you talk about protecting diversity numbers, if you don't have managers who look like you, you really don't see that attrition upward, in terms of building those numbers in the management ranks.

So we don't see that as a win, and in fact, we really don't see it as treading water. Many of our members throughout the UNITY Associations are just kind of disappearing.

MARTIN: Why do you think diversity matters, particularly in the media? Some would argue that there's been so much advance of people of color throughout various sectors of society that perhaps this shouldn't be as important as it was at the time of the Kerner Commission Report. Barbara, why do you think it matters? Why does it still matter, in your view?

Ms. CIARA: Oh, it matters so very very much. When you think about the images that we looked at on television, do I see anyone who looks like me is usually what a child relates to. And so, when you think about positions where our children can aspire to, it's important on that level, and it's also important in terms of the bottom dollar. Because if the community doesn't see Hispanics and Native Americans and African-Americans, they tend not to lean toward that product. So why buy with a newspaper or a television station if it doesn't reflect the numbers in the community.

MARTIN: Cristina, other thoughts?

Ms. AZOCAR: At its core, the news industry is about democracy, and when news organizations remove diversity, that means they're not representing what's America right now, the demographics of America. If you looked at the Kerner Commission 40 years ago, the demographics were one thing.

But in 40 years, this country has changed an enormous amount, and we're not even treading water. Between 2000 and 2001 is the first time in the AS&E annual census that the number of people actually declined. And then there was a rise of a half percent, but that half percent only represented four people. And so, when you have that much attrition that there's actually more people leaving than staying, then where is that democracy?

And that's why so many people are turning to the ethnic media. Because, if they're not going to see their voice in mainstream media, then they're going to have to turn to a place where they have it. Unfortunately, mainstream media is where the general audience media is, a place where communities come together to talk about each other's issues. And so we need that to be there because otherwise, how're we going to find out about other people, and how are we going to make those cross-cultural connections.

MARTIN: Jeanne, is it hard to make the case for diversity, continuing to make the case, when industries are declining because, inevitably, you have people who say, well, the focus should be on keeping the best people or the most experienced people. If that collides with other goals, then that's just the way it is. Is it horrid to have those conversations in an environment where people feel that they are - I don't know any other way to say it except under threat or under siege?

Ms. MARIANI-BELDING: Well, I think it's crucial to continue to have these conversations, particularly now, and it's not a question of whether or not there are qualified journalists of color. Of course there are. It's a question of understanding the importance of diversity when you make these decisions. It's a great business decision. It makes sense, and it's not about finding qualified journalists of color. We're out there. It's about retaining and recognizing the value that added diversity brings to any community conversation.

MARTIN: One of the things that strikes me, though, is how you look at some of the big beats, like the White House, for example, even some of the sports coverage. which. as we know. is - sports is very diverse in this country in terms of the participation of people of color.

And a lot of these big beats still don't seem to be very diverse, or they seem to be the same as they were, sort of, 50 or 20 years ago. And I mean, when I look at the kind of - the White House press court's no different than it was when I was there, you know, 15 years ago. And I'm just wondering why is that? Anybody have any ideas?

Ms. CIARA: You know, I don't have a total explanation, and this is Barbara. But I do think that at least some of the broadcasters tend to lean toward the celebrity aspect. You may get a football player or a basketball player, and that sort of takes the place of the well-heeled and studied sports analyst who doesn't get a shot.

In terms of the White House press court, it's sort of like the old boys club, and I think you know and experienced that. Basically, it's about politicking. It's about socializing, and if you're not in that core group or in that circle, you sometimes don't get your turn up at the bat.

And if you've noticed, because we've watched these trends, many of the minorities who cover the White House are on the weekend. You'll have a minority assignment editor, a minority producer. You'll have minority correspondent, and they're all on the weekend, and that's their only time to shine.

And it's just very difficult to crack that ceiling. And when we talk to some of the network executives about that, they say, well, we're going for the people who have the most experience. But then it's a catch 22. How do you get the experience if,you never get a shot?

MARTIN: I hate to tell you. Shall we let people in on a secret, Barbara, that we have a name for those shows? We call it the soul patrol.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CIARA: It's on the weekends.

MARTIN: It's on the weekends. Go ahead.

Ms. MARIANI-BELDING: I just wanted to add to something Barbara was talking about. And, you, know UNITY released its White House press court study, and it is so important that we have journalists of color involved in covering the White House because this is where some of the most important news regarding our country, our policies, are generated.

And really, I would say it really adds to the fairness and accuracy of that reporting. We all come to the table with different perspectives, and if you have diverse perspectives involved in covering the White House, I would say that you have a fair and accurate report. That's important.

Ms. AZOCAR: And this is Cristina, just to go back to the question about why, I think that it's because we tend to replicate ourselves. And so, if you're a recruiter, you're going to look for somebody who is similar to you. And if you look like the people who are making the decisions, then it's going to be easier for you to get a job because you already have some sort of relationship with them.

And that's why UNITY is also really pushing for leadership right now. We really want organizations to focus on leadership within their ranks, so that the people who are coming up can say, OK, I do know somebody in there because we all know it's about who you know when you get a job. It's really about networking, and who you can make that connection with.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with the leaders of three of the four organizations that represent journalists of color. They're gathering in Chicago for their quadrennial combined convention.

I cannot help but notice that all of you are women. Of the four organizations, three of the presidents are women. Does that say anything? Does that mean something, do you think? Do any of you have any thoughts about that? I mean, and the fact that we were having a fabulous conversation before we started taping.

Ms. CIARA: Yeah. I think it's significant. I do. But I also think that it also reflects the number of women who are coming into the industry in both print and broadcast because, if you had a gender breakdown right now, I know what surprises me most is, when I go to a college campus, and I talk to a group of would-be journalists, there are very few young men in the room. So I think that the industry is taking a turn, where the majority of young people coming out of school right now who study journalism are women.

Ms. AZOCAR: That's true. This is Christina. 67 percent of college graduates right now in journalism and mass communication are women, but the industry is actually still 60-40, favoring the men's side. And I think one of the trends is that men are not looking at this as an industry anymore as much. I think that it's really important to have a lot of women, but I don't want men to consider it a women's career. But then I think that ends up being another trend, employment trend...

MARTIN: Well, that's an interesting point, though, because, I mean, are men becoming a minority in this business, and that is an interesting question. There are professionals that have flipped over, as it were, that used to be predominantly male that then become feminized. And there are sometimes repercussions that go with that. Does anyone have a thought about that?

Ms. MARIANI-BELDING: Well, I would say, especially on the print side, that in the senior management positions, I definitely still see this as a male dominated industry...

MARTIN: It is.

Ms. MARIANI-BELDING: Even though more women are entering the business and coming through the pipeline, it is still largely a business that's dominated by men at the top.

Ms. CIARA: Yes, in the decision making areas, we have no problem pointing out where the women are because it's still so unusual. But I think part of the issue, and this is just my conjecture at this point, is that some of the young men coming into the business see that, for the entry level positions right now, it just doesn't pay.

And many of our kids are coming out looking for positions that already pay 60 or 70,000 dollars a year, and traditionally, women have been willing to take that lower-paying job first just to get in. And so - and I'm finding that flexibility with some of the young women that I mentor, and I don't see that level of flexibility with some of the young men. And that might be part of the reason why they're shifting into other areas.

MARTIN: I wanted to spend just a couple of minutes talking about ethnic media and what role that that plays. On the one hand, you're all saying that people of color and women have fought hard to get a seat at the table, you know, push open the doors that were closed, walk through those doors, and to look for leadership positions within the industry, but what about ethnic media?

It seems that there's a growing interest in a media that speaks to the particular interests of particular groups. Is that a positive development, or does that lead to kind of a segregation of the mind, that we're only interested in that which already validates what we already think. Christina, if I could start with you, because I think a lot of your members work in both, work in tribal media and also work in general audience.

Ms. AZOCAR: Right. Well, they do, and ethnic media definitely plays a huge role in this country. And especially as mainstream media becomes less and less diverse, and I see that, although there haven't been any studies done, that there is probably a correlation between the rise of ethnic media and the decline of diversity in mainstream media.

And I think that, you know, without those ethnic media outlets, they're not going to have anywhere to turn to because the mainstream media doesn't necessarily have time or know even how to cover those stories. You know, potentially, this is where the jobs end up being also.

Unfortunately, a lot of these jobs don't pay enough for somebody to actually live on it. I'm actually doing a study right now of the health of the ethnic media, and there's kind of this evening out of what's happening with ethnic media. So now, we're, you know, we're seeing a lot of market saturation, probably, at this point.

MARTIN: Interesting. Barbara, any interesting thoughts on this? Because it's interesting. African-American journalists often got their start in ethnic media because they were not permitted to work in general audience media. Do you see, though, a kind of return to the roots, as it were, renewed interest? There's this ongoing interest about what role and relevance these black-oriented outlets have in the modern media world.

Ms. CIARA: In terms of media tastes and diets, I think it should be like a salad. It should be a little bit of everything, but are people gravitating more toward ethnic media? I think, if the boat is tilting, I'd say it'd be tilting in the yes column because, I mean, think about it. Your grandmother, your mother, you haven't made it unless you've been in Ebony, JED, or Essence. You know, they really don't know anything about your accomplishment unless it was noted in any of those publications.

But what we're also seeing is, while there was a trend for a period of time, in my opinion, that there was a focus on the minority community in the mainstream media, now, I find I have to pitch those stories harder. I have to really develop an angle in order for them to pay attention to what was a no brainer 10 years ago. We're not getting as much love in terms of content in the mainstream media, in my opinion.

MARTIN: Finally, I wanted to ask each of you, as briefly as you can, we've talked a lot of glass half empty stuff. I wanted to ask each of you if there's a way in which your glass is half full as you start this convention and think about the issues that you're going to talk about over the next couple of days. Jeanne, if you would start?

Ms. MARIANI-BELDING: Well, I think with change comes opportunity, and really, the changes that our industry is undergoing through right now does, in fact, create wonderful opportunities for our members and as an organization. And I know my other alliance partners feel the same way. We focus on training. We focus on making sure that our members are well positioned not just to survive, but to thrive in this new media landscape, so it's a time of opportunity, as well.

MARTIN: Barbara?

Ms. CIARA: It's going to be a challenge for some of us we affectionately call old-heads because we do see that our young people are embracing the new technology, and they are actually brilliant, in my mind. They can come in and make things happen. For us, in terms of the glass being half full, the enthusiasm, the love for the industry, it's still there with people who are mid career and beyond. We're just trying to figure out a way where we can transition with it.

MARTIN: Christina?

Ms. AZOCAR: I think one of the great things about Indians is that we've always had to be entrepreneurial, and we've always done a lot with a little. And so this is something that we probably have the ability to weather just because we've always been there, and I think that this is just an opportunity to take those entrepreneurial skills and continue to go with them.

MARTIN: Christina Azocar is president of the Native American Journalists Association. Barbara Ciara is president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Jeanne Mariani-Belding is president of the Asian-American Journalists Association. We were only missing Raphael Olmeda, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. All joined me from member station WBEZ in Chicago, where the UNITY Conference gets underway tomorrow. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. CIARA: Thank you.

Ms. AZOCAR: Thank you.

Ms. MARIANI-BELDING: Thank you.

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