In Depth

Keeping Pace With the Candidates

Field’s Diversity Not Matched by Journalists Covering Presidential Campaign

The battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination made this a historic election season. At Unity ’08, however, journalists are taking a hard look at what hasn’t changed with the times.

“The historic nature of this year’s presidential race underscores the lack of minority journalists covering it,” said Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “If we are going to look at race as an issue and then say we’re having a ‘kumbaya’ moment because we potentially have a black nominee, look at the people covering it.”

Ms. Ciara is not alone in her assessment of a presidential race that reveals troubling indications of racial disparity in U.S. newsrooms. Pamela Gentry, BET senior political producer in the Washington bureau, was concerned enough to propose a panel on the topic at the Unity ’08 conference.

“This particular campaign, there has been so much talk about the diversity of the candidates, that it was historic, and that in the Democratic nomination race, we had an African American, a woman and a Hispanic running,” said Ms. Gentry. “But when I looked at the White House beat, it’s still being covered by white males. The candidates were more diverse than the press corps. How did this happen? And why?”

That’s the topic of “Making News: Patriotism, Pandering and That Preacher Man: Minority Journalists and the Unpredictable, Unprecedented Presidential Campaign,” scheduled for Friday at 3 p.m. Among the evidence to be examined is a study commissioned by Unity ’04 that revealed “journalists of color represented one in 10 writers, editors and bureau chiefs in the Washington press corps.”

In addition to Ms. Gentry, Headline News anchor Richard Lui, NBC News Senior VP Mark Whitaker, Telemundo Washington bureau chief Lori Montenegro and Washington Times journalist Brian DeBose will attempt to shed light on the state of affairs.

“I think it is a complex situation and there might be different aspects to it,” said Ms. Montenegro. “The most obvious is that [minority journalists] are simply not hired. I don’t think that has to do with people not applying, but who’s actually doing the hiring.”

Tightening budgets in broadcast and print newsrooms also are leading to layoffs that affect minority journalists. “We’re not getting support from the networks and the papers,” said NABJ Executive Director Karen Wynn Freeman. “They’re downsizing like crazy. Often, people of color are the last to come in, so they’re the first to leave. The sensitivity to making sure representation is there … from what we’re seeing, that’s just not happening. That’s why we’re here, to try to raise the awareness that stories need a diversity of voice.”

Other Unity ’08 attendees stress the gains that have been made. Telemundo President Don Browne noted, “Market by market, we’ve made a lot of progress recently.

“I’ve been a journalist most of my life and I’ve been watching a lot of television,” he said. “The composition of the pundits has changed a good bit. If you look at Fox, CNN, MSNBC, you’re seeing more diversity this year than you’ve seen in many years.”

“You’re going to see a lot more pundits, inclusive of myself, to talk about the campaign, not just about Obama but this presidential race,” said Ms. Gentry. “You’re seeing more women being asked to step forward at the networks in the political coverage. If you go in the gallery of the White House, you won’t see a huge change, but I think that change will filter up.”

Ms. Montenegro said she’s seeing more African American pundits on television, but has yet to see growth in the ranks of Hispanic journalists. “As we get closer to the election, I personally hope to see that there are more Hispanics in that role,” she said. “And when I say Hispanics, I want to see political analysts. You always see a lot of Hispanics who support one candidate or the other. But where are the strategists? It’s important that we have Hispanics who can be free to criticize [a candidate].”

Mr. Lui said CNN Headline News’ pundits include Amy Holmes, Gloria Borger, Joe Johns, Suzanne Malveaux, Rick Sanchez, Donna Brazile and Roland Martin, who come from diverse backgrounds. “It’s not just white pundits,” he said. “And that within itself is quite dynamic compared to any election before.”

Mr. Lui also notes the need for diversity behind the scenes. “Off-air or behind-the-scenes team members absolutely should be put in this conversation, too,” he said. “They are the executive producers, writers, editors and news directors that make the key decisions on coverage and craft the great stories we tell every day. Diverse perspectives in this group impact coverage in a big way, but these are often the faces you don’t see on TV.”

Mr. Lui also finds evolution in how the candidates view diversity among voters. “You can see that in the way they’re mobilizing groups in, for example, small geographic elements,” he said. “They’re learning to treat voters as a body of one, and that’s a dynamic I find interesting.”

Those who believe that the election is creating an opportunity for journalists of color wonder whether those gains will be permanent or will disappear after the ballots are counted.

“Unfortunately, it’s probably true that blacks are only covering [the election] because it’s an African American candidate,” said Ms. Gentry. “That does not say that after this election, when they choose the White House correspondents for the top networks and newspapers, that any of them will be in the selection pool. I’m not sure that minority journalists [will get that chance]. We have nothing to compare it to. But I think it’ll be a great conversation.”

That’s a conversation the panelists believe and hope will continue when Unity ’08 is over, in the newsrooms of local and network TV outlets and newspapers.

“I think it’s an important time in U.S. history, where this country has a great opportunity to embrace the possibility of something that many of us have thought about but never thought we’d see,” said Ms. Montenegro. “We will play a part in reporting everything historic about that, and I think we’ll walk away with new ideas and new perspectives on what our role in society is.”