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As nation changes, so do TV newsrooms

Jul 23, 2001  •  Post A Comment

While the Latino and Asian populations have grown by about 50 percent in the last 10 years, some news executives say it is hard to find qualified minorities to hire at stations in large markets, mainly because they aren’t being hired at the small market level.
“The demand is higher than the supply for experienced, high-potential minorities,” said one general manager in a top 10 market. “In the smaller markets, station management has to cultivate it. It’s really hard to find a diamond in the rough, but you just keep trying.”
Latino and Asian population growth during the past decade was most noticeable in the nation’s top three markets.
And newsrooms are beginning to reflect those numbers. In the New York market, Asians grew at a faster rate than any other ethnic group. One in 10 residents is defined as Asian, up from one in 14 in 1990. In Chicago, Hispanics fueled the largest population surge in the region since World War II, with a total of 1.4 million Latinos. That’s beginning to rival the black population of 1.5 million.
The recently released RTNDA/Ball State University study on women and minorities showed that there has been growth in TV news for those two groups in the past seven years.
Minorities now fill 24.6 percent of all jobs in television news, the highest number ever. According to the study, Latinos make up
10.1 percent of television newsrooms, up from last year’s 7 percent. Asians make up 4.1 percent, up from last year’s 3 percent. African Americans were down to 9.9 percent from 11 percent. Whites fell from 79 percent to 75.4 percent.
Some observers say it’s not surprising that highly rated newscasts are also the ones that have a diverse ethnic makeup, reflecting the viewership. In New York, 37.4 percent of all station employees at WNBC-TV are minorities. A closer looks shows 20.7 percent are black, 4 percent are Asian and 12.8 percent are Hispanic. WNBC General Manager Dennis Swanson has long been a proponent of diversity, hiring Oprah Winfrey at WLS-TV, Chicago, when he ran that station.
“I think the important thing about diversity is we’re in a diverse market,” Mr. Swanson said. “This is a 60-40 market: 60 percent Caucasian, 40 percent non-Caucasian. If we’re going to attract the widest possible audience, our product has to be reflective of that. People aren’t going to watch our news, our public affairs or this TV station if we’re just trying to appeal to one particular set of demographics. We have an obligation first of all, and it’s common business sense.”
ABC-owned WLS has longtime anchor Linda Yu, an Asian American, while its late newscast is anchored by African American Dianne Burns. Ms. Burns and John Drury have been the top-rated team in the market for 16 years.
WLS General Manager Emily Barr said the station also has Karen Meyer, perhaps the only profoundly deaf reporter in the country. Ms. Meyer covers disability issues twice a week.
WLS’s minority on-air talent breakdown is 24 percent African American, 12 percent Latino and 6 percent Asian. Ms. Barr said there is not one all-white anchor team on the station’s newscasts.
“There’s always some acknowledgement from leaders from certain communities when you add someone of color to the staff,” Ms. Barr said. “More important is that viewers in general look to these people to get their news and information.”
The late news anchor team on NBC-owned WMAQ-TV is made up of longtime Chicago broadcaster Warner Saunders, an African American, and co-anchor Allison Rosati. The breakdown of on-air talent at WMAQ is 57 percent white, 39 percent African American, 10 percent Latino and 3 percent Asian. The total employee breakdown at WMAQ is 46 percent female, 19 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic and 5 per-cent Asian. In managerial ranks, 59 percent are female, 18 percent are African American, 10 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian.
WMAQ General Manager Larry Wert said having experienced reporters whom viewers trust is a benefit of diversity. A good example is Renee Ferguson, an African American investigative reporter at the station who recently did a series on rapes occurring at bus stops in predominantly black neighborhoods. She received many tips from black viewers who gave her information that helped link the rapes together.
“Imagine if we didn’t have a diverse group on our team to be confidants to all the various communities out there,” Mr. Wert said. “They called her, so you didn’t see these stories on Channel 7, Fox or Tribune. They were exclusive to us. In one sense it gives us exclusive news content, but in a more important sense, it’s resulted in social impact here in our community.”