Little Progress Seen in Diversity

Aug 1, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Sheree R. Curry

Special to TelevisionWeek

Minority faces were less prevalent in television newsrooms in 2004 than the previous year, and virtually no improvement has been made in that area in the past 10 to 15 years, according to a report by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Ball State University.

Journalists from organizations such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists cite unpaid internships and the slackening of equal employment opportunity guidelines as contributors to the problem.

“People made progress in the ’60s because of the Kerner Commission and EEO rules. But with [Federal Communications Commission] regulation, it has been very watered down and there is no incentive or pressure [on local stations] to make sure that news operations reflect the communities they serve,” said Joe Torres, NAHJ communications director.

The percentage of people of color in the newsrooms of local television stations (broadcasting in all languages) declined slightly, from 21.8 percent of employees in 2003 to 21.2 percent in 2004, according to the survey released July 11 by the RTNDA. Taking Spanish-language stations out of the mix, the decline was slightly smaller, to 19.5 percent compared with the previous year’s 19.8 percent.

The surveys analyze numbers from the previous year.

The declines occurred across ethnic minorities, with the exception of African Americans, who held steady in local TV newsrooms at 10.3 percent from 2003 to 2004.

Numbers for Native Americans were at 0.6 percent in 1995 but fell to 0.5 percent in the 2004 study and again to 0.3 percent with the 2005 study. Asian Americans made up only 1.9 percent of the total television news work force, down from 2.2 percent the previous year.

The percentage of Latino journalists working at local TV stations dropped slightly, from 8.9 percent in 2003 to 8.7 percent in 2004, despite a steady rise in the U.S. Hispanic population.

When it comes to news directors, the percentage of Latinos working at English-language TV stations increased from 2.4 percent in 2003 to 2.8 percent last year, while the total percentage of minority TV news directors is 12 percent, compared with 12.5 percent in the 2004 survey. Native American journalists made up just 1 percent of TV news directors in the 2005 study, down from 1.3 percent in last year’s survey but basically at the same level as 1995.

The percentage of Asian American news directors held steady at 1.3 percent, while African Americans bumped up to 3.9 percent from 3.2 percent in 2003.

The survey notes that the percentage of Caucasians in the newsroom increased slightly from 78.2 percent in 2003 to 78.8 percent, and for news directors it inched to 88 percent from 87.5 percent the previous year.

“The results of the study serve as evidence of a trend that diversity in newsrooms is falling to the bottom of the to-do list in many newsrooms,” said NABJ VP of Broadcast Barbara Ciara, who is also managing editor and anchor at New York Times-owned CBS affiliate WTKR-TV in Norfolk, Va.

“In the last 15 to 20 years, very little has changed,” said Bob Papper, professor of telecommunications at Ball State University and director of the annual RTNDA survey. “And if it is going to change in an appreciable way, the only way that is going to happen is by a significant commitment on the part of broadcast companies to make diversity in the newsroom a real priority-and make that clear.”

Mr. Papper suggested that since news organizations make ratings a priority by giving bonuses based upon those numbers, they can do the same for diversity. “If diversity can become a critical part of what managers have to do, then change [for the better] is likely to happen.”

Spokespeople from the top three networks have said that though the numbers in the survey are not surprising they are doing what they can on their end to increase diversity in newsrooms.

Broadcasters “have to be able to put on programming that is reflective of our community,” said Michael Jack, VP of diversity for NBC Universal and president and general manager of NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington. “That is what we [at NBC] have done and continue to do.”

Mr. Jack pointed to three initiatives that NBC uses to recruit, mentor and develop people of color for the newsroom.

One is its involvement in the Emma Bowen Foundation, which identifies minority high school juniors and seniors and mentors them through a six-year program intended to end with permanent jobs. NBC has about 40 students in the program now. “We are the single largest user of this program,” he said.

Another is a page program that places new college graduates and others into positions in various divisions with an eye toward grooming them for news positions.

The final initiative is the associates program. “It is an extremely competitive program. We have about 1,200 applications a year,” Mr. Jack said. The program takes candidates with some work experience and places them in a news-only program in one of NBC’s divisions.

Candidates are recruited from organizations representing journalists of color, through word of mouth and from historically black colleges, such as Howard University, where Mr. Jack sits on the John H. Johnson School of Communications Board of Visitors.

“It is tough to figure out what works and what doesn’t work in this industry, but I will tell you that we [at NBC] significantly over-index what those studies show. For all newsrooms [the study] shows just over 21 percent and we and Telemundo double those numbers. If you look just at non-Hispanics, then we are more than 25 percent better than those numbers,” Mr. Jack said, pointing out that out of the 14 owned-and-operated local NBC stations, four have general managers who are people of color, including himself in D.C. and GMs in Birmingham, Ala., Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles.

Ms. Ciara is a bit disheartened, however, that the top three network CEOs refuse to disclose their numbers of minority employees. “All you have to do is tune in to ‘NBC Nightly News’ and count the faces with one hand tied behind your back,” she said. “I don’t think you will see the diversity that reflects the melting pot of America.”

Calls to several ABC offices were made for this story, but no one willing to speak on the record was available by press time.

Linda Mason, senior VP of standards and special projects at CBS News, didn’t discuss numbers, but she did say that CBS offers internships to college students. “To accept this internship they have to live in New York and do it without pay,” which she said is a “double whammy” for students who need to save to pay for the next semester of school. “Some minority students, after paying all of that money for college, want better-paying jobs for the summer,” she said.

“Internships can wind up discriminating against minorities and those who are economically disadvantaged,” Mr. Papper said.

To ease the financial strain, NABJ and other associations give scholarships to students who accept internships. But it is not only nonpaid internships that can lock out people of color, it’s also the low-paying jobs post-college, some say.

“This is not a business that pays well starting out, and I think we miss out on a lot of talent and will keep doing that until we start paying more,” Mr. Papper said. “[But for now] broadcasters are not prepared to go the extra mile to compete in a marketplace where there are a lot more [career] options that pay better.”

“There has been complaint about the lack of Asian Americans-particularly men-who are reporters or TV anchors,” said Stanton Tang, national VP of broadcast for the Asian American Journalists Association and managing editor of the cable news operation of Landmark Communications-owned KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. He added that many Asians tend to choose higher-paying jobs in the sciences and technology. “We have been working on encouragin
g people to go into journalism,” he said. “It is a viable career choice.”

The RTNDA, which has been bringing newsrooms and predominantly ethnic high school journalism classes together to help encourage people at a younger age to consider journalism, has also created a diversity toolkit, available on its Web site, to help stations foster dialogue with and recruit and retain journalists of color. “It is a guide to help them initiate conversation in the newsroom,” RTNDA President Barbara Cochran said. “Diversity isn’t just the responsibility of people of color but [of] the entire newsroom.”

But Mr. Tang won’t let the community take all the responsibility for the lack of Asians behind and in front of the camera. He places some blame on advertising and viewership demands.

“Nielsen doesn’t report Asian American viewership in most areas; only for five select cities [New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Chicago]. There are other markets that should have Asian American breakouts, like Sacramento, [Calif.], Seattle and Honolulu. By having the demographic breakouts, it gives a certain economic power to the community. You can’t sell to a community if you don’t know if they are viewers,” he said.

But Mr. Tang added that news managers still “need to have a diverse population in their own newsrooms if they are going to cover a diverse population.”

For its part, CBS last year launched a training program that will place two journalists of color a year in local newsrooms. “We will finance the careers of one producer and one correspondent for two years at the largest affiliate that will take them,” Ms. Mason said. “They will be monitored from New York. We will look at their tapes and advise them.”

The first two candidates will be placed this fall, but they have yet to be selected. “We got between 80 and 100 applications for this,” Ms. Mason said, generated by an announcement made at the Unity conference of journalists of color organizations in August 2004 as well as on the CBS Web site and through word of mouth. “We need diversity at every level of the news division so that people see the world their way and share it with all of us.”

For NAHJ’s Mr. Torres, digital broadcast is another cause for concern with regard to the numbers of minorities in the newsroom. “As television stations soon become digitally broadcast, we are concerned that if they are having a hard time reflecting the community with one station, they may have a harder time reflecting in other stations as well,” he said. “It is a greater concern as we move forward with multichannel capacity.”