Kenny Irby was about 12 when he first saw the photo that made him want to become a news photographer. It was a shot of one of Irby's Washington, D.C. neighbors being led away in handcuffs during his arrest.
“All of the pictures that I saw in Washington Post and Washington Star showed black men in handcuffs or just their mug shots or with basketballs or footballs in their hands,” said Irby, a journalism and diversity professor at the Poynter Institute. “There were no images of black men as providers, preachers, fathers or husbands.”
Now with about 20 years of journalism education experience under his belt, Irby has seen another diversity problem in the media: A serious lack of black and minority journalists in newsrooms across the nation.
“I’m about to turn 54 and I wonder, how much progress have we really made?” Irby said. “Yes, we’ve made some progress, but for me, I still think it’s miniscule.”
The Pew Research Center recently issued its annual state of the media report and found that the percentage of black journalists has changed little over the last five years — hovering just below 5 percent of all journalism jobs since 2009. But that progress is a pittance considering it’s been 46 years since the Kerner Commission Report first suggested the American news media correct what the commission called its sensationalized and inaccurate depictions of African-Americans and the absence of newsroom diversity.
Following the race riots of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner commission to analyze race relations in the U.S. The commission's report concluded that America was becoming "two nations: one white and one black" and that a lack of diversity in institutions like law enforcement and the media played a part in racial tensions.
In keeping with the commission’s findings, the federal government invested in recruitment programs designed to get African-American students interested and involved in journalism — programs Irby says he's a product of, like the Capital City program for D.C. area black youth. But with racial tensions again flaring across the U.S. in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore and the new coverage again coming under fire as imbalanced, Irby says it's clear more change is needed.
“Here we are, 40 plus years since the Kerner report, and it’s déjà vu,” Irby said. “It appears that journalists themselves are not studying that history and not putting those lessons into practice.”
A struggling industry
Irby and Howard University journalism department chair Yanick Rice-Lamb agree that the economic downturn of the news industry has also played a part in the number of people of color in newsrooms.
“Everything’s getting smaller and that has affected African-American journalists across the board,” Rice-Lamb said.
As Riva Gold reported in the Atlantic in 2013, minority employees often hold lower ranking positions, making them more likely to be laid off than if they were in management. Minority employees are also “disproportionately more inclined” to take a buyout rather than wait to be laid off.
The timing of the peak of newsroom diversity supports those theories. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, newsroom diversity at flagship publications like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post all reached their peak in the early 2000s, just at the beginning of the rise of new media and just before the recession began in 2007.
The industry is also dealing with the disruptive innovation of the Internet, Irby pointed out, which means that media companies are more focused on financial survival than diversity.
“The focus on values versus craft have gone out the window,” Irby said. “The success of a news organization has to be predicated not solely on its financial gain but on its moral value.”
Gregory Howard, a writer for sports website Deadspin who often writes about race issues, says the cycle can have a chain reaction because a lack of diversity in newsrooms can contribute to fewer black people becoming journalists, which can lead to a lack of meaningful stories about people of color that don't coincide with protesting, violence or crime.
“I never looked at being a doctor as a career path because I don’t know a lot of doctors — it’s the same thing,” Howard said. “So you don’t have black people in the position to tell stories about black people and the only people telling stories are people who aren’t generally aware of the plight of minorities in the United States.”
Howard University new media professor Ingrid Sturgis says the lack of black journalists has a lot to do with how disillusioned young people can be about the goals of journalism.
“They see TMZ or some other entertainment program bringing negative attention to something and they say, ‘See what the media does?’” Sturgis said. “People don’t know what that distinction is (between entertainment media and journalism), so we need to give them an idea of what a journalist does as opposed to what they see on TV.”
Sturgis says that journalists have also failed to make the job seem appealing to younger generations. She said more education in middle and high school about journalism's role in society would be crucial.
“We’ve done a bad job marketing our role. We need to tell people why we do what we do and how important it is,” Sturgis said. “Many people don’t understand our connection to democracy.”
Howard said corporate leadership in media also has to change.
“The key would be to gain more people of color in positions of power. Most editors are straight white males and they’re looking for people they like that they have something in common with,” Howard said. “That’s not always outright racist. It’s harder to see yourself in people who don’t look like you.”
A new audience
While the media industry has struggled with the recession and keeping up with technology's new role in getting information, the business stands to lose a lot if it ignores diversity — namely, a future audience that could bring new advertising opportunities with it.
"As America diversifies its population and its demographics, it seems like it would be a no-brainer that the growing rainbow of American culture requires a different strategy for a different audience," Irby said. "Otherwise, (media companies) are dying a slow death."
The consequences for a lack of diversity in media don't just impact the number of minority journalists, it also impacts the cultural tone of this country, Howard says — leading to a narrative that not only misinforms, but performs a disservice to people of color.
"If the only time I witness journalism is when white people and camera crews come to my neighborhood to talk about black-on-black crime and not when black people are, say, protesting neighborhood violence — why would I ever want to be about that?" Howard said. "I think what it does is it silences black people and people of color."
News accounts can also further racist stereotypes in subtle ways, Howard said. For example, news accounts can sometimes encourage the idea that poverty is part and parcel of being black in America — that poverty is something black Americans choose rather than a nuanced problem of inequality and access.
Reporting charged viewpoints without then digging into facts or a bigger context, Howard said, deepens racial divides — whether the subject is poverty, education or other social issues.
"If the people telling the stories aren't aware of the history of inequality that exists to this day, it would seem a reasonable conclusion that there's something about people of color that make them different from us," Howard said. "So then (the assumption) becomes something like, 'There's gotta be something within people of color to explain why they don't have better education.' That's sad."
To correct the problem, Irby says the answer is the same as it was when the Kerner Commission Report was published more than 40 years ago: A commitment to diversity in journalism.
"We can figure out how to do journalism well while doing what’s best for society — if we focus on what's most important and making diversity a moral value," Irby said. "Economic turmoil is a poor excuse that American media makes for not responding to its diversity problem as aggressively as it has."
Email: [email protected]