Prioritizing (Or Not) Diversity In Newsrooms The Census estimates people of color comprise a third of the U.S. population now, and nearly half in 2050 if trends continue. But newsrooms don't show similar representation. Michel Martin explores this issue with members of CNN,, Journal-isms and the NABJ. Also, the NABJ's latest survey finds minorities are only 12 percent of news managers.
NPR logo

Prioritizing (Or Not) Diversity In Newsrooms

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Prioritizing (Or Not) Diversity In Newsrooms

Prioritizing (Or Not) Diversity In Newsrooms

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are coming to you live from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the National Association of Black Journalists is holding its annual conference. Coming up on the program, it's time for a shape-up Philly style. The Barbershop guys are here in the City of Brotherly Love. We hope they've got some love for each other when we talk about this week's news. It's going to be spicy.

But first, are today's newsrooms really telling the story of today's America? The latest U.S. census estimates that people of color comprise a third of the country's population. If current trends continue, by the year 2050, people of color will make up nearly half the population. But these growing communities are not equally represented when it comes to the faces we see on the news or the decision makers working behind the scenes.

According to a new survey released today by the National Association of Black Journalists, people of color make up only 12 percent of newsroom managers. In the past, the group has also expressed concern that there are no African-Americans anchors in prime time cable news. And it's important to note that public broadcasting organizations, including NPR, have also been criticized by the NABJ on diversity issues.

Joining us to talk about all this is NABJ's vice president for broadcast, Bob Butler. Also with us is CNN executive vice president and managing editor Mark Whitaker. Joining us as well, Latoya Peterson, digital news producer and editor of the popular blog that explores the intersection of race and pop culture. Last but not least, Richard Prince. He is the editor of the online publication Journal-isms, which follows issues of diversity in the media and journalists of color. Thank you all so much for joining us here in Philadelphia.

BOB BUTLER: My pleasure.


MARK WHITAKER: Great to be here.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask each of you this question, but I'm going to start with Bob Butler because the organization released this report. We talk about diversity quite a bit, but why should diversity in newsrooms, particularly among managers, be a priority? Not just for people of color, but for the broader audience, because there are those who would argue that this is really just about jobs and protecting jobs for certain people. And so why do you think it matters?

BUTLER: I think there's no better reason than to look at what happened in Chicago late last month at a TV station owned by CBS in which they broadcast video of a four-year-old boy talking about a shooting, basically saying that he wanted to have his own gun. And people were upset about that, but what they did not know is what the boy said, and his statement was, I want my own gun 'cause I want to be a police officer. That part was edited out and it made the boy look like he's going to be a thug, where he really wanted to be a police officer. There was nobody of color in management at that newsroom that could've said, no, don't do that.

MARTIN: Why isn't that a matter of basic ethics and journalism as opposed to a perspective that's driven by identity?

BUTLER: It is a matter of ethics. In fact, so many people have criticized this, from Poynter, from SPJ. Everybody's criticized it, but the reality is, this is a young African-American kid who's made to look like a future gangbanger. And somebody there should've said, wait a minute, this is not right. But it didn't happen. And is it because there's nobody of color there? I can't say, but that's the reality.

MARTIN: Mark Whitaker, as a veteran newsroom executive working across media platforms, as we say, what do you say about this? Why do you think it matters and does it matter?

WHITAKER: Well, look, we have to remember that big media news organizations are businesses. And I think they have to view it, and I'd say certainly at CNN we view this as a business imperative as much as a social imperative, that in order to ensure that we retain our audiences, as the country becomes more diverse, we have to be speaking to them both in terms of who's on our air, but also who's behind the scenes and making the decisions about the stories that we run.

MARTIN: Latoya Peterson, what about you? Particularly given the new media perspective, who are the gatekeepers there of online news?

PETERSON: Interestingly enough, it's not the same type of issue, but it's very, very similar so that new media still has the same diversity problems of old media. A lot of times, particularly when there's crossover when people are looking for people to promote and put into mass media, they go for the same types of faces. I mean, when you look at the pundits that have been promoted to the Washington Post masthead, what do they look like? Who do they repeat(ph) ?

So we're noticing that not only is there a problem of access, which has been kind of minimized by the prevalence of Internet, but there's also a big problem in terms of structure. Not only structure from the mass media side, but also the way in which we can build infrastructure in the new media realm.

MARTIN: Why is that? You know, this is supposed to be the brave new world. One of the things that people like about the online space is that there are fewer barriers to entry. Why do you think it is?

PETERSON: But that's also that higher signal to noise ratio online. There are so many sources you can get information from that people have started defaulting. We've seen this in, like, the trajectory(ph) of the Web. People started defaulting back to really safe corporate targets. The same 10 or so, 15 websites. The same properties that they would engage with offline, they're engaging with online. They're discovering less things to happen.

So it's more important for those of us in the online space to start building more infrastructure so we can make sure that these views continue to be heard and that don't get drowned out by all the other noise that's on the Internet.

MARTIN: Richard Prince, what do you have to say about this?

RICHARD PRINCE: Well, I think that we just had - we're at this convention (unintelligible) and yesterday, Eric Holder, the attorney general, gave us a list of some of the things that we could be covering. And a lot of them involved, for example, let's pay as much attention to black victims as we do to black criminals. What about the other racial disparities? The president said the same thing, we should be speaking truth to power.

If you talk to Latinos, they will tell you that they are more than just the immigration issue; there are a lot of second generation Latinos that don't even speak Spanish and have been here a while. And if you have people in your newsrooms and making the management decisions about what to cover, these kinds of things are more likely to get on the air.

MARTIN: You know, Bob, the survey indicates some disturbing trends from the standpoint of diversity in the media. The study indicates that the number of black TV managers has fallen from 7.8 percent in 2010 to 6 percent in 2011, the 2011 survey of 339 managers at 74 TV stations found that 88 percent are white, 12 percent are nonwhite, 19 percent - I'm sorry, 6 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic, 1 percent Asian, none are Native American. So to give the global picture.

But, again, you have to ask, obviously, many of these media organizations are operating in an environment where they're contracting, not expanding. How do you make the case for diversity in a contracting environment?

BUTLER: Well, first thing, the figures you cite, we've done 15 stations, 15 companies so far. This report, the first part of this census report, is only for five news stations. The other 10, the Legacy Media, Hearst, Tribune, CBS, NBC, they'll be released later on sometime next month. But you need to have your newsroom reflect the diversity of your community. I think it's - nobody will argue with the fact that we need diversity.

But the fact that when you have a newsroom in a city like Chicago, which has a large non-white population, there's nobody in management that can call the shots. It's all - you see it on the air everywhere. (Unintelligible) has people on the air, look on a website. But it's the people behind the scenes calling the shots, doing the hiring and the firing and setting the news agenda, that needs to reflect the community also.

And you have a lot of cases where you have very diverse cities like Chicago and Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina, where there's no diversity at all in management.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are broadcasting from the National Association of Black Journalists. They're holding their annual convention in Philadelphia. And the hot topic here is diversity in the newsroom. We're talking about what the trends are, we're talking about whether it matters and why it matters.

Our guests are Bob Butler of NABJ. He's the vice president for broadcast, CNN executive Mark Whitaker, Latoya Peterson of, that's a popular blog that talks about the intersection of race and pop culture, and Richard Prince is the author of the online publication Journal-isms.

As I mentioned, we are here at the convention, so we want to take a question from somebody who's here on the convention floor. I think we have Cameron Jones with us. He's a recent graduate of City University of New York at Oswego. Cameron, what's your question?

CAMERON JONES: Yes. How would journalists be able to become more involved in the recruitment and the decision-making to make it more diversified? Are there training programs? Are there management training programs, or should there be?

MARTIN: Mark, did you hear the question? He's asking, again, what is the - what are some of the ways that we can address this issue?

JONES: Yeah. What are some avenues that they can be more involved in that process of recruitment?

MARTIN: OK. Mark Whitaker, I think you're ideally positioned to answer that.

WHITAKER: Well, I actually think that this is a very important area. And, you know, I think that media organizations need to not just be waiting for people to come to them at conventions like this, but actually actively going out and seeking talent that can be in front of the camera or, you know, writing and so forth. But also in management, who aren't - wouldn't necessarily think that that was their career path for them, you know.

Because, I mean, ultimately diversity should be about not just the number of people, it should be about do they actually bring a unique and different perspective? And you know, there are people in universities, there are people in law firms, there are people, you know, we're here with a lot of journalists who have a lot to bring. But I think in the effort to actually get more diverse voices, we have to be as broad in our recruitment as possible.

MARTIN: Latoya, what about that in the digital space? 'Cause, you know, you get the sense that the digital space is one where people elect themselves, unlike - they select themselves unlike the traditional media where people are hired.


MARTIN: You create your job in the online space. So this is another reason why it's particularly interesting to me that the diversity issue doesn't even seem to be advancing that much more in the online space.

PETERSON: Right. It's who's able to be listened to and who's able to gain a larger platform. So for people like me who would've never come to journalism through a traditional path, the online world's opened up this whole entire world of understanding. But at the same time, the same types of issues and hierarchies to replicate themselves in society are the ones that we also see in the online world. You know, there's an entire black blogosphere that talks about politics. There's an Asian-American blogosphere that talks about politics. There's a Native American blogosphere that talks about politics. But when they ask who are the top political bloggers, they're almost all white and they're almost all male.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Mark, I have to ask - and not to pick on you, of course, but NABJ has sent CNN a number of letters criticizing the network for failing to fill prime time anchor positions with black journalists - well, black journalists for NABJ, but journalists of color in general, because other media organizations have raised similar questions and concerns.

Most recently when CNN announced its fall prime time lineup, what - you know, why is that?

WHITAKER: Well, it's a complicated question. And personally there's nothing I would like to see more than, you know, a diverse anchor in prime time. But I think one of the things that people don't understand, sometimes, is that if you look not just at what's happened at CNN, but at our competitors, at MSNBC, Fox News and so forth, when you're looking just at cable news prime time, the anchors and the host who are successful in gaining audiences aren't necessarily just the sort of traditional straight news journalists.

They're people who often have a point of view and personality. I call it a filter on the news, that people often who already know the headlines want somebody's filter on the news. So, you know, Fox and MSNBC can find those people with that point of view who come from it from a perspective of political ideology.

At CNN it's more complicated because we don't stand for that, but we still have to have some of those qualities of having a personality that breaks through, having a voice, having a point of view. And, you know, I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of people who come up through traditional journalistic training, who might not have that, but it's not the same thing as the kind of qualities that we're looking for in our anchors and hosts at other times of the day in the week.

MARTIN: Well, it's been reported that the head of CNN, Jim Walton, said that the network continued to seek and develop a candidate who has the image and the substance to carry a prime time show. Did he - but what does that mean?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, but it's not just about - well, no, I think he was trying to sort of address some of these qualities that I'm talking about. But I got to say, you know, we and others, 'cause I had just came from NBC and MSNBC myself, a lot of those - putting all those qualities together is rare for people of any color. You know, it's a unique skill and sort of profile that you're looking for in this day and age in cable prime time.

MARTIN: Richard Prince, you've been reporting on this debate argument, you know, for years. What do network executives say?

PRINCE: Well, they say what Mark says. In fact, on MSNBC and Fox it's just, I mean, there's no - there are no journalists there. I mean, they do want journalists. They want personalities. But I have to chuckle at what Mark said because in traditional journalism you have plenty of young people with personality and pizzazz and all that, but it's beaten out of you as you're coming up through the ranks because you're supposed to be objective. And then when they finally get to a point where they can, you know, get on prime time, they say, well, you don't have any personality.

MARTIN: Do you think that that's a particular challenge for journalists of color because there is some sort of a subliminal sense that they have to prove that they are really objective? They have to prove they have a higher bar and a way to assure the general audience that they aren't bringing too much opinion to the table. Do you think that that might be true?

PRINCE: Yes, I do think that.

MARTIN: Bob Butler, what do you think about what Richard - Richard's saying, in a way, kind of the screen screens out people of color because they get - I don't know any other way to put it - that they get so flattened out by the need to assure their audiences of their neutrality. That by the time they get into a position of being considered for anchor, they're so flattened out, nobody knows who they are anymore. Do you think that's possible?

BUTLER: Yeah. I think as you're coming up through the ranks, Richard's right. You know, you have to be twice as good to get half the opportunity as somebody who is not a person of color. So I think when you go through that as you're coming up through the ranks, when you get to that point where you now have the gravitas to take a job like at CNN or at Fox or MSNBC, maybe you spend so much time being PC, politically correct, that you don't have the edge that they want.

But NABJ's point when it comes to the prime time is that it's just hard for me to believe, it's hard for NABJ to believe that in 2011, there is not one black journalist in the country - or one black person - in the country of 300 million that can't carry a prime time show.

MARTIN: Or Latino, for that matter. Or Asian-American or Native American.

BUTLER: But of course we're at NABJ, so I'm going to (unintelligible).

MARTIN: OK. Well, fair enough. Fair enough.

So, Latoya, let's fix this thing. What's the solution right here? Let's just get this thing straightened out right now.

PETERSON: What are we going to fix? First, traditional media needs to stop looking at the same old candidates and really revise what you need to have someone as a dynamic personality. Maybe this person didn't go to journalism school, but they ran an online show via YouTube the way that they did with Cenk from Young Turks, right?

Secondly, we need to figure out ways for those in the new media space to build a type of infrastructure that is needed to carry news. 'Cause news online is not profitable. None of us are going to be able to do the same things that you can do. So if the traditional media falls, we are in serious trouble.

MARTIN: OK. And, Mark, can we have a final thought from you? What do you think - I mean, you've been working in this area, which you mentioned you were an executive at Newsweek, you're a king of all media. You were at a traditional broadcast network that also has a cable component, NBC, MSNBC and now you're at CNN.

WHITAKER: Well, look, you know, I think it's going to happen. But, first of all, I would say that it's a little bit of a shame that all of this recent discussion has been focused just on prime time as though that's the only thing that counts. And I think, unfortunately I think it doesn't do justice to the accomplishments of a lot of really talented black journalists and anchors and so forth who have, you know, succeeded in other areas.

But, look, at the end of the day, as I said, it's a business, it's about getting an audience and I think everybody - the person who can draw an audience is, I think, going to break through.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for drawing an audience for us today. Mark Whitaker is the executive vice president and managing editor of CNN. Bob Butler is a radio journalist and NABJ vice president for broadcast. Latoya Peterson is a digital news producer and editor of the popular blog Racialicious. And Richard Prince writes Journal-isms, an online publication about diversity in the media.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

WHITAKER: Thank you, Michel.

PETERSON: Thank you.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.