More Than Skin Deep: The Need - and Benefits - of Newsroom Diversity

By RJI on February 16, 2009 0 Comments

by Tom Avila

Tom Avila is a contributing writer to Metro Weekly news magazine and a staffer for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).

A friend and I were discussing an incredibly uncomfortable interview moment I recently had. I was asked what experience I had with minority LGBT youth. My first reaction, I told my friend, was to respond that I had been one.

“But were you really?” he asked. “I mean, did anyone really think of you as being Hispanic when you were growing up?”

“Actually," I told him, "it was the fact that no one saw me as being Hispanic that created issues.”

I once got into a back-and-forth with a well-meaning Spanish teacher (who was actually a French teacher dropped into the role because, really, both languages assign gender to inanimate objects … what’s the big deal) on the subject of “masa,” the corn flour used to make tortillas.

Our class was starting a cooking segment, and the teacher was saying how difficult it would be to get the flour we needed. (Keep in mind, we’re talking northern New England in the early 1980s. Whole Foods was not spoken yet, and there were no bodegas nearby.)
I said that we had it at home and that I could bring it in.

“No,” she said to me. “This is special flour that Mexican people use.” I told her that I knew what it was and that we always had it in our house. To that point in my life, I don’t believe a store-bought tortilla had ever entered our kitchen. She advised that I check with my parents because, again, this was a special kind of flour.

I brought a 5-pound bag to class the next day.

Another less-amusing incident took place on a career day at my junior high. Our school’s principal was leading a session on careers with the Department of Immigration and Naturalization (I have no idea why I was there … ninth grade was a confusing year); he was talking about his own experiences working in immigration.

About five minutes into the session, he began to talk about “wetbacks.”
I froze. I looked around. He said it again. And again, trying to explain the origin of the word and what it meant and why it was used. But even while he kept using it, he never mentioned that it was an offensive slur.

In my middle school as in my hometown, the major community of color was Native American, and the main ethnic community comprised the descendants of French Canadians, so no one else really registered what was occurring. (Plus, for the most part, the majority of my classmates hated me – as is often the case, I was the last one to pick up on the fact that I was gay.)

But the principal knew me, and he knew my father, a fellow principal at one of the small system’s elementary schools. He knew that I was sitting there in the front row, but it never occurred to him that there was a “wetback” in the audience. For the first time ever, I walked out of a class.

I look very much like my not-Mexican mother. I am a diluted third-generation in whose home Spanish was not spoken unless my grandfather was visiting – and then only by me and my grandfather. My appearance once inspired a now-former colleague to turn to a mutual friend to ask whether I was “really ethnic or just had a Latin name.” I am a “funny, you don’t look” individual.

I thought about this the other day while listening to a discussion between writer Jill Nelson and NPR’s Michel Martin on her show Tell Me More. Nelson had written a piece for the Huffington Post titled “The Audacity of Whiteness: Framing Barack Obama,” a “look at the unbearably white media” and the inability of nonjournalists of color to report on President Obama with the same level of cultural understanding as black journalists or journalists of color.

“The total miss by the mainstream media of Joseph Lowery’s opening reading of the last stanza of the Negro National Anthem in his benediction [at Obama’s inauguration] was appalling,” Nelson told Martin.

After citing the names of several (though admittedly not an overwhelming number) of journalists of color covering the White House, Martin asked what an acceptable number would be. What would it take to fix this?

Nelson responded, “Every major news organization should have black people and other people of color on their White House coverage staff. If a newspaper sends seven people, why would it be a problem that two at least would be of color?”

“Because,” Martin quickly interjected, “they’re sending one … one-and-a-half.”

Indeed, a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that just 23 of the nation’s 1,400 newspapers actually have their own bureaus in Washington, D.C. The number of local television and radio stations with access to bureau-based news feeds is just 92.

I believe the industry’s job-ocalypse is the next obstacle to overcome in our discussion of diversity. It complicates the manner with which we should be explaining the vital contribution diversity makes to our newsrooms. With all due respect to Nelson, the argument of why diversity is critically necessary in our shrinking newsrooms will not be won by pointing to the failure of journalists to identify a stanza from the Negro National Anthem, which you may know by the title “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” not when individuals are losing their jobs and homes and health care.

We have fallen into an unfortunate pattern of equating the discussion of race with the discussion of diversity. They are not the same discussion.

Make no mistake: I am not attempting to make the laughable post-race argument. After more than two centuries, we are still counting off “firsts” for individuals of color in this country. We are not to the back-patting stage yet.

But as much as we are not post-race, we are more not post-difference. By tying our definition of diversity to race and ethnicity, we are necessarily tying ourselves to definitions of what individuals should sound like, look like and what they should represent. I think of that individual – who, I will note, was a journalist of color – asking if I was “really ethnic.”

In my mind and in my experiences, I am. I am a Latino. In the minds and expectations of others, I most certainly am not. (As an aside, it has always been interesting to me that I have never been told that “I don’t look Mexican” by other Latinos. Instead, the question of whether I speak Spanish is the means by which we establish where our cultural differences might rest.)

What the race-based conversation misses is the true purpose of the diversity movement in newsrooms. It’s not simply a tally that can be counted up based on a set of definitions derived from a U.S. Census form, but a true and honest diversity. One that creates newsrooms that accurately represent the communities upon which we report and, by extension, empowers those communities with the information they need to aid in the direction of this democracy.

We are most certainly not post-race, and to push either this argument or an agenda that demands a denial of hemorrhaging news jobs in favor of percentages will not better serve the citizen.

Perhaps, instead of seeing Obama’s rise to leader of this country as some sort of false finish line, we take the opportunity to determine what diversity can and should mean right now.

What if we begin to think of diversity in terms of difference? What if our definition of diversity was to expand to encompass not simply who we were when we were born, or confirm what others believe our identity should signify (like assuming that every African-American journalist would recognize the Negro National Anthem and dismissing that the words of this hymn would not be known by another), but an opportunity to reassert why diverse newsrooms matter?

What are the unassailable and unarguable benefits to a fully diverse newsroom?

- A broader understanding of the communities upon which we report.
- A greater sensitivity to the costs of economic, legislative and cultural events.
- An ability to broaden both access and sources.
- A knowledge of how events of the past may affect decisions concerning the future.

And note that the very nature of these ideas means that the picture of a diverse newsroom will vary from place to place and may necessarily require the consideration of factors like faith, family and personal history as well as race, national origin and ethnicity.

Is a wholesale reconsideration of diversity an easy idea to contemplate? Absolutely not. But consider what is at stake. The decisions that are being made right now in news organizations across the country are shaping the future of our entire democracy. We’re discussing the way citizens understand legislation, determine how or if to vote, how to shore up or salvage the financial future of their families.

We’re determining the direction of an industry founded on the idea that the citizens of this country require access to information in a fashion that is free and fair and accurate. If we are not prepared to thoughtfully and purposefully engage in this difficult and volatile discussion, than we have already lost a good deal more than jobs.

Tom Avila periodically drags the soapbox out from under his desk to write columns for CCJ that are his own opinion and not those of his employer. This time around, he stood on the 5-pound bag of masa harina he keeps in his kitchen.