Diversity Rises Imperceptibly

Aug 14, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow gave a speech at a Radio-Television News Directors Association event held in his honor in 1958. The iconic newsman was grateful that his peers were honoring him, but he used the platform to criticize the network television establishment of the day and its emphasis on popular entertainment rather than news and public affairs programming. If Mr. Murrow were alive today, he might look at the results of the 2006 RTNDA/Ball State University study on diversity in the newsroom and wonder why so little progress has been made in the past five years.

There have been some slight changes in the annual survey numbers, which show incremental improvements in some minority categories. The percentage of minorities working in television news last year was the second-highest ever recorded in the survey (20.4 percent); the highest level was 24.6 percent in 2001.

“The fact that minorities overall increased in newsrooms is a positive trend,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the RTNDA. “We’ve been watching these numbers with concern over the past few years. As you know, the FCC regulations governing equal employment opportunities were rescinded a number of years ago and there were concerns about how this would affect trends. So it’s good to see that there is still some growth. It’s certainly in the interests of companies to employ diverse staffs.”

Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, however, was disappointed in the survey results. The findings show barely a 1 percent increase in minority journalists in TV newsrooms, with journalists of color representing 22.2 percent of the TV news work force. However, that increase represents primarily Hispanics and Asian Americans. There was a 0.8 percent decline in African American journalists. Considering African Americans make up nearly one-third of the U.S. population, it’s clear that they are underrepresented in media presence.

“While we would hope to see an increase across the board among all underrepresented groups, clearly the numbers show that’s not the case,” Mr. Monroe said in a press release. “As stations seek to diversify their news staffs, such progress should not come at the expense of African Americans. Fair and accurate coverage of African American communities must remain a priority.”

The RTNDA study will be a hot topic for discussion at the 31st National Association of Black Journalists Annual Convention and Career Fair, scheduled for Aug. 16-20 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.

Media consultant Lenora Billings-Harris understands why the NABJ might be concerned. “Given the impact of African American markets and Hispanic markets in general, not just in media, both of those markets separately were $1 trillion. What that says to me is that we have a market in this particular case-African Americans-where the population will have a $1 trillion impact on our overall market, then every industry needs to be paying attention to how they can best be in a position to take advantage.”

“Very clearly, organizations need to understand that they don’t need to do diversity work because it’s the right thing to do. They need to do diversity work because it’s a business imperative,” said Ms. Billings-Harris, who writes about diversity on her Web site, Lenoraspeaks.com.

Most experts agree that diversity need not be regulated, as with affirmative action. According to Ms. Cochran, “There are two things here: No. 1, it is the right thing to do to offer opportunity to everybody. That’s what our country is about. You certainly want a public service-oriented business like a TV station to reflect that. But No. 2, it makes business sense as well because as our society becomes more and more diverse-and there are trends every year in that direction-in order to accurately cover the communities they cover they need to be diversified also.”

For diversity to become more commonplace in newsrooms in the years ahead, it must become less of an issue. “When there’s more diversity, then everyone is seen as his or her own individual. It’s hard to single out one Latino when you have 10 on the staff,” Ms. Billings-Harris said. “I don’t think people wake up in the morning and say, ‘Tonight I’m not going to hire an African American employee’ or ‘I won’t hire a woman or a Latino.’ Maybe there are some people that still do that, but overall I don’t think people do that.

“What I find in my consulting practice as I work with executives on these issues is that they know they should be doing something but they don’t have any idea what. They are not able to step back and ask themselves the question, ‘What helped me get where I am? What were the things that happened to get me where I am?’ They’re not able to do it because they’re in the middle of it. It’s very difficult to look at yourself.”

Some media organizations have earned recognition for making diversity work. “Turner Broadcasting, for instance, was recently ranked No. 4 among the top diversity organizations by Diversity Inc. magazine,” Ms. Billings-Harris said. “They’re in the top 10 for African Americans and executive women. So when you work for a company where at the corporate level diversity is important, then that permeates throughout the entire organization. If you work for a company that does not yet have that as part of its culture, even if you as an individual news director want to look at the broadest pool, if the pressures are to hurry up and get a warm body in this position and the best, well, you can’t get the best fast. It’s just not possible. They may short-circuit their best interest in looking at a broader pool. They’ll end up going back to their usual sources and they’ll keep getting the same kind of people over and over again.”

The RTNDA is the world’s largest professional organization devoted exclusively to electronic journalism, representing local and network journalists in broadcasting, cable and other electronic media in more than 30 countries. It has conducted the diversity survey every year since 1990. Bob Papper, professor of telecommunications at Ball State University, analyzed the data and wrote the recently released report. The survey was conducted in the fourth quarter of 2005 among all 1,617 operating, nonsatellite television stations, with valid responses coming from 1,120 television stations (69.3 percent) and 181 radio news directors and general managers representing 602 radio stations.

“The RTNDA and news broadcasting in general are to be commended for the yearly, ongoing self-examinations that they conduct upon themselves,” said Richard Goedkoop, LaSalle University professor and author of “Inside Local TV News.” “Many other industries do not, and of those that do, rarely are the reports made public and placed on Web sites for all to read. Of course, television and radio news do hold an important agenda-setting function in our society, and role models are important for all of us.”

While this year’s results may seem modest, Ms. Cochran remains optimistic, especially considering the past. “The progress we’re seeing in the numbers is very slow, but nonetheless if you look at the study 10 years ago, we are slightly higher in terms of diversity. That’s a very positive thing,” she said. “We need to do more to keep pace with changes in the population, but at least we’re going forward.

“It seems to be that there’s no question that newsrooms will continue to get more diverse for economic reasons. TV newsrooms are going to want to attract those audiences and cover them well, and that means hiring a diverse staff.”