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Sins of omission.

THERE'S A consensus rapidly evolving into conventional wisdom that 1992 was the year that the news media lost out to entertainment. It was the year that Larry King, Phil Donahue, Arsenio, and MTV teamed up with Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and even George Bush to score with the public and outmaneuver the press.

Their electronic end runs, replayed endlessly throughout the presidential campaign, emphasized how tenuous is the traditional media's connection to the citizen readers they purport to serve.

Now, the hand-wringing and self-critiques have begun as analysts examine how the old-line media were upstaged and how their cherished role as the electorate's information sifter-interpreter was usurped by forces, some traditionalists sneer, not worthy of bearing the name journalist.

It should be noted, however, that this is an age when the news media's franchise is under broad assault from widespread economic, cultural, demographic, and technological forces, many beyond our control. Newspaper readership is sliding and reader loyalty is waning. Faced with an ever growing number of information options and an establishment media that's sometimes seen as insular, stale, and unresponsive, many potential new newspaper readers already are turning elsewhere for news or tuning out entirely. The public isn't sure the press will provide answers to the questions they want asked.

But there are still some things the media can do.

In pondering how best to prepare for the unforeseeable (including the next non-party presidential candidate who is willing to plunk down tens of millions to purchase media to advance his ambitions) the news media mustn't forget issues already within their legitimate purview that haven't been given the attention they merit.

At the top of the list, place diversity, the catchall term for clumsy and incomplete attempts to bring "out" groups -- American racial and ethnic minorities, women, and increasingly gays, lesbians, and the disabled -- where they belong, in the circle of those we cover and quote and for whom we gather and report the news. Promoting diversity still is the best means of connecting with tomorrow's customers, citizens, and news gatherers, the best way for the media to equip themselves to portray a turbulent, pluralistic society and all its constituent parts. It's still the best way to foster crucial citizen communication in an increasingly fragmented culture and to celebrate and protect the democratic principles -- including free speech, free press, and participatory government -- that make it possible for journalists to practice their craft, and for the public to complain about the job they do.

Just as some political leaders have been accused this year of being out of touch with profound changes in the American family, news industry leaders sometimes seem equally oblivious to the changes in the population and the work force. I'm convinced that, absent more diversity of personnel, content, and coverage, there's danger that our newspapers will become elitist, niche publications. That is a dire prospect, even if an economic formula exists to make it possible to do so profitably. Excluding millions of Americans from the pages of our publications, from the newsrooms where those pages are prepared, from the decision-making councils that shape their content and even from the audiences that read them leaves the media vulnerable.

Unresponsive media, unreflective of the society, lose the backing of the American citizenry, a vital ingredient in the never-ending struggle to maintain a free press. This year should be the last when media managers offer excuses for not making their news operations reflect the real America. That means much more than employing more of the "outs." It means an inclusive management strategy, more aggressive reporting in more communities and more outreach. By stalling, the mainstream press that is so concerned about being bypassed by candidates in the 1992 presidential campaign risks becoming permanently irrelevant to large segments of what should be their audience who can fill their information needs more easily elsewhere.

For the American media, 1992 provided some of the bluntest and most pronounced reminders of their shortcomings. A great city erupted in flaming rage. Newspapers, magazines, and television -- even the local outlets that should have been better prepared -- scrambled to cover a story, whole communities of people and long-festering issues too long ignored.

It's been a quarter-century since U.S. cities burned after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kerner Commission held a mirror up to the American news media, showing the media, and U.S. society, their flaws. This time, the paroxysm of urban outrage, primarily in Los Angeles, was set off by the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.

So much of Kerner's media critique is germane in 1992: "The commission's major concern with the news media is not in riot reporting as such, but in the failure to report adequately on race relations and ghetto problems and to bring more Negroes into journalism.... Tokenism -- the hiring of one Negro reporter, or even two or three -- is no longer enough. Negro reporters are essential, but so are Negro editors, writers, and commentators." The commission also observed, "If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom, and sympathy on the problems of the cities and the problems of the black man -- for the two are increasingly intertwined -- they must employ, promote, and listen to Negro journalists."

After an extensive review of the L.A. riot coverage, the National Association of Black Journalists' Print Task Force issued its own assessment of how the media are doing. Concluding that the issues haven't changed much, the NABJ Task Force said: "Inside many newsrooms, the unrest spurred thoughtful, if sometimes heated, discussions about the need to have more African-American journalists in decision-making positions and more reporters with the backgrounds necessary to cover underlying tensions in minority neighborhoods."

In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors set a goal that has since become a standard for the industry: By the year 2000, newspaper newsroom demographics should match those of society.

The idea is laudable, proper, widely applauded, and unlikely to be achieved.

Some 51% of daily newspapers still have no minorities on their newsroom staffs. Nationwide, while Census Bureau data show about 25% of the U.S. population is African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, or Native American, just 9% of the newspaper newsroom work force is, ASNE surveys show. In supervisory roles, 93.7% of newsroom managers are white. (Newspaper Association of America figures show that minority employees are 18% of the total newspaper-industry work force, 9% of its managers, and 10% of its news and editorial employees.)

Further, employment objectives are limited in scope and don't address the need to alter newspaper content, a much tougher problem. As media scholar Ted Pease wrote: "Part of the assumption is that simply hiring more nonwhite personnel for the newsroom would somehow change the newspaper industry's philosophy, institutional mindset, social agenda, and performance. What's been missing in the quick fix is a commitment generally by newspapers to change fundamentally the way they look at and cover the society."

Despite the slow progress in the employment arena, at times it appears that so much energy was devoted to identifying, hiring, and training minority candidates that there is none left to consider how to hold on to them, how to remove obstacles to their advancement, and how to enhance their ability to inject their unique perspectives and ideas into the decision making.

Twenty years ago, a minority newsroom diversity problem was likely to be a whispering campaign, questioning how the lone black reporter in the newsroom had gotten his or her job. Today, the problem is more likely to be an active sabotage campaign mounted by an alliance of disgruntled whites against a newsroom's lone black editor or the highest-ranking woman.

As the news work force slowly evolves, so do the problems that typically accompany demographic change. Sophisticated, perceptive leadership is required to recognize white anxieties raised by diversity issues, and the persistence of stereotypes that creep into media portrayals of people of color and other minorities. The task is making sure these biases aren't allowed to interfere with the objective, ensuring that the talents brought into the system are being used to maximum effect.

For women, minorities, and the other "outs" in the news media in 1992, the glass ceiling is still low and largely impermeable. Advancement issues, including job assignments, promotions, opportunities for professional development and consistent professional feedback, are proving to be among the most incendiary of the '90s. But the issue for America is not simply one of employment equity, but of social discourse, whether in the context of race relations, the women's movement, or a presidential campaign. "Beyond the moral rightness of expanding the diversity of voices in our nation's newspapers," Pease wrote, "what's at stake is the democratic ideal on which the nation was founded: Thomas Jefferson's vision of a nation of many newspaper voices and everyone able to read them."

In a climate of economic retrenchment and the resulting resistance among newsroom "ins" to the newly arrived "outs," new ideas, perceptions, and community contacts are rarely put to use to improve the content. As the Rodney King aftermath demonstrated, too seldom are our news media in touch and responsive to the burgeoning diverse segments of the society, either in South Central Los Angeles or anywhere else in America.

For all industries -- including the media -- struggling to come to terms with a stubborn recession, economic arguments are hard to ignore. For the media, turning a blind eye to diversity and gender issues could be a costly mistake in a nation where, census projections show, 87% of population growth between now and 2010 will be in minority communities, and where women already make up 51% of the population and 45% of the work force. In economic terms alone -- leaving aside for a moment democratic ideals and the lessons of public media bashing of 1992 -- failure to recognize America's changing demographics is foolish. Even suicidal.

A 1991 newspaper industry report, citing research showing that minorities are extremely loyal newspaper readers once they get the newspaper habit, points out that "minority spending power" will approach $650 billion in the country by the end of the century. "This is where much of the action will be for newspapers searching for potential subscribers, advertisers, and consumers," the report concludes.

Newspapers and the other traditional news media are being buffeted by challenges to their hegemony from all sides, but there are some things that can be done. The vigorous pursuit of diversity, not just in employment and coverage, but in worldview and perspective, is one with assured dividends, both economic and philosophical. It holds one of the best prospects for engaging citizens who have turned away from the mainstream press -- whether in election years or not -- for recruiting new ones and for holding advertisers.

"No industry can increase revenues without changing as customers' needs change," points out a report by the Task Force on Minorities in the Newspaper Business. "The newspaper industry has, in a sense, two kinds of customers -- readers and advertisers. In the changing racial and ethnic climate of the 1990s, no newspaper can expect to increase either the circulation or ad revenue without a well-thought-out strategy for dealing with minority hiring" and community outreach.

All this means looking inward as well as reaching out. Work places with the worst problems are those led by the timid. Leadership and insight are required and a shrewd marketing sense doesn't hurt. As a newspaper industry report suggests, "The clarity of the message from top management that the ethnic mixture of the staff will change and that news coverage will expand to include all sectors of the community is key to the success of changing the face of the newspaper."

One lesson for the news media from the past year, whether in the context of the recent election-by-talk-show or history repeating itself in Los Angeles, is that the traditional news media have lost touch with the society they purport to cover. Part of the reason for that might be that, as the vice president suggested, the media are elite. Those elites, of course, are The New York Timeses, Washington Posts, CBSes (even USA Todays) of the world, not the Larry Kings, Rush Limbaughs, and MTVs, which the public seems to find less biased and more believable.

Part of the solution for the news media should be to employ a work force and produce a product that are more reflective of America, more honest, more fair, more consistent with what we think, where we live, who we are. The Hutchins Commission said in 1947 that the press should be more representative of the constituent groups in society, that news must be presented in a context that gives it meaning. The Kerner Commission concluded in 1968 that had failed to serve society, white or black.

Failure may mean for the mainline media a loss of their traditional franchise and the end of a mass medium to carry the national debate. We've talked about this for decades. Let's get on with it.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:In Search of Diversity; diversity in the news media
Author:Williams, Betty Anne
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Wheels are beginning to turn.
Next Article:White House a nice place to visit, but ....

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