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Diversity in the TV Newsroom

Aug 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In the recent film “A Day Without a Mexican,” Californians got a glimpse of what life would be like if a particular one-third of the state’s population disappeared.

At TV stations across the country, the premise is useful because it illustrates the richness that a diversity of voices has brought to local and national broadcasters. Without a mix of people, stations would often miss aspects of stories or even entire news opportunities, local stations said.

Broadcasters from ethnically diverse markets such as Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles point to the presence of minorities in the newsroom as the source of many of their important news stories. But the leading organization representing journalists of color said more work needs to be done to bring more minorities to stations.

The Unity 2004 Convention kicks off Aug. 4 in Washington and is being billed as this year’s largest gathering of journalists of color in the world. More than 7,000 students, journalists, media executives and others are expected to attend the four-day event. The Unity Convention draws from the four associations serving journalists of color: the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Native American Journalists Association.

Unity issued a statement in mid-July claiming that television news entities were falling short of their obligations to accurately represent the diversity of the country. Minorities account for nearly 22 percent of the TV work force, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s 2004 survey with Ball State University. While that’s technically an increase from 18.3 percent last year, RTNDA said the percentage has stayed near 20 percent for the past 10 years with little change.

“Overall, African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans are in essentially the same place as they were a decade ago,” the report said.

That needs to change, said Barbara Cochran, president of RTNDA. “As the American population gets more diverse, broadcast stations are going to need to make even greater efforts to make sure their staffs are as diverse,” she said.

Insider Views

Despite the somewhat grim report, many stations report that the progress that has been made has provided for better news coverage.

For instance, Viacom-owned CBS station KPIX-TV in San Francisco has relied on Latino reporter Manny Ramos to cover the recent spate of murders in the city’s Bayview district. Most of the homicide victims were African American. The fact that Mr. Ramos is not white has helped him gain better access to community members to talk about what’s happened, said Lisa White, assistant news director at KPIX. “The community in the Bayview may not have talked to him if he were white,” she said.

KPIX has sought a mix of viewpoints behind the scenes and on-air. The station’s managing editor, Lori Waldon, is African American and she pushed for the station to turn to people of color for its on-air consultants, Ms. White said. Now, the station’s chief political consultant is Iranian and a retired judge who comments on the Scott Peterson trial is a black woman, she said. “I think that’s a powerful message to viewers that here is a person who is seen as an expert who’s talking about stuff that is not about race, and that’s even more important,” Ms. White said.

Jose Rios has been the news director at Fox-owned KTTV in Los Angeles for more than a decade, and his Latino heritage has at times informed news decisions there.

KTTV aired a special in May about the team of Mexican boys that became in 1957 the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League World Series. The documentary was nominated for a 2004 Imagen Foundation award, given for positive portrayals of Latinos in the media.

“That [special] wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t in this position,” Mr. Rios said. “I had to give that the go-ahead. I don’t think most other people would have.”

That’s the goal of diversity-to bring a multitude of voices to the newsroom and, as a result, cover topics that might not otherwise be thought of but are important to viewers.

In Miami the growth of the Latino population has outpaced Anglo growth for more than a decade.

Shannon High-Bassalik, news director at Viacom-owned CBS station WFOR-TV, said seven of her 10 managers are Latino. In addition, one of the station’s two main anchors, Maggie Rodriguez, is Cuban American.

But more is needed than just Latino representation, even in Miami. Ms. High-Bassalik said that after 9/11 she began relying more on an Iranian, Shirin Faridi, who has since become a special projects producer.

“She gathered resources and people to talk to and people in the [Muslim] community that we might not have known about. She was able to connect us to the voices out there,” Ms. High-Bassalik said. That includes an exclusive interview with the brother-in-law of a University of South Florida professor accused of terrorist activities after 9/11.

Being in Miami requires a more global perspective to news that’s reflective of the community. WFOR plans to send a crew to Caracas, Venezuela, to cover the referendum to recall President Hugo Chavez later this month. “The whole of South America cares what happens to Chavez … so that is a huge story for us and isn’t for the rest of the country,” Ms. High-Bassalik said.

Found in Translation

Also in Miami, Sunbeam-owned Fox station WSVN-TV has realized the benefits of employing a diverse workforce on simple matters of translation. One of the station’s engineers is Haitian and was able to translate a sound bite in Creole for the news, said Alice Jacobs, VP news.

The station’s Cuban American news director, Tom Gonzalez, keyed in on a trend when he found that his mother didn’t plan to vote for President George Bush in the upcoming election. Cubans traditionally vote Republican, but Mr. Gonzalez’ tip led to a story on how Cuban Americans are becoming increasingly unhappy with the Bush administration, Ms. Jacobs said.

Diversity can be a natural evolution, said Paula Madison, a black woman who is president and general manager of NBC-owned KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and who served as news director of WNBC-TV in New York. While at WNBC, she said, she hired a reporter from Queens to cover Queens, a reporter from Brooklyn to cover Brooklyn, a reporter from the Bronx to cover the Bronx and so on. “It’s not just about diversity of race, but diversity of experience,” she said. “If you go for diversity of experience, you get racial diversity, you get geographic diversity.”

Larry Wert, president and general manager of NBC-owned WMAQ-TV in Chicago, said sister station Telemundo’s WSNS-TV helped snag a big coup during the May sweeps when a Telemundo reporter learned of unsanitary conditions at a local food processing plant. Most of the employees at the plant were Hispanic and some approached the station about the activities. “We [at WMAQ] just wouldn’t have been plugged in,” he said.

Also in Chicago, news talent agent Marc Watts said he recently helped his client Rafael Romo make the in-town move from Univision station WBGO-TV to Viacom-owned CBS station WBBM-TV. “When I see things like that, it gives me some hope that things are changing,” he said.

“As an agent, an agent of color, will we ever see numbers proportionate to what we are in the community?” he said. “Probably not. So if we can at least [make] some gain, there is some hope, some attempt to diversify their newsrooms more and more every year.”