An Unfettered Press

Minorities in Journalism

By Lolita Rhodes


"We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us...." -- from Freedom's Journal, the first black American newspaper, published by John Russworm. New York City, 1827.

John Russworm's observation may seem like yesterday's news. But for minority journalists, it is as timely now as when it was written in 1827.

"We need to be here to tell our story. We tell our story best," says Gregory Lewis, who covers the African American community for the San Francisco Examiner in California. "We need to be there in the meetings where decisions are made on how things are covered."

America prides itself on being a melting pot. But the distinct cultures and personalities of its people remain intact. Minorities in America may embrace American values, but they hold on to their own uniqueness. And minority journalists make sure that uniqueness, that perspective, is included in the media's coverage of minorities.

There are some 53,700 journalists in the United States, reports the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Of that number, 5,600 (a little over 10 percent) are minorities. A further breakdown reveals that 2,890 are African American, 1,587 are Hispanic, 983 are Asian, and 177 are American Indian.

The number of minority journalists has almost doubled since 1984, when they claimed only 2,900 positions in newsrooms, according to the National Association of Minority Media Executives. These journalists come from a variety of backgrounds. Some left the world of academics, others always knew they wanted to be journalists, and some, like Gregory Lewis, stumbled into journalism by accident.

Lewis, a North Carolina native, grew up reading five newspapers, and he was not satisfied with their coverage of black people. "My community was always obscured and distorted," says Lewis.

In the 1970s, when he was a student at Marshall College in West Virginia, Lewis had dreams of being a lawyer. But a story in the local newspaper about an organization he headed, Black United Students, changed his future.

The day the story appeared in the newspaper, a piece on black militants ran next to it. Lewis's picture, which was included with the story on Black United Students, looked instead as if it was part of the story on black militants. His group's agenda leaned toward urging the college to hire black professors, to make changes in the curriculum, and to make the campus a better place for black students.

Some members of the community responded angrily, and Lewis even received death threats. Although he thought the story on Black United Students was well-written, he questioned the newspaper's placement of it, and he met with the editor to express his displeasure. To his surprise, they talked freely and at length about all kinds of issues, including coverage of the black community. The editor even went so far as to offer Lewis a summer internship. But Lewis had other plans.

He later encountered another editor from the newspaper who again talked to him about working and set up an interview.

Ironically, the night before the interview, the building Lewis lived in burned. The next day he went to the interview and ended up being a source for the paper's story on the fire.

The reporter listened raptly and said: "If you can tell a story that well, you can write."

Lewis has been in journalism ever since, a craft he says he loves. Today, he still champions the rights and issues of African Americans, although he says he has mellowed with time.

"I'm more into teaching peace now," he says. Along with that, he tries to bring an awareness to the people who read his pieces. The revolution quietly continues on.

"I hope I bring a more realistic and accurate picture of what it's like to be black and live in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, to be black and live in California," says Lewis.

Often the role of the minority journalist is that of watchdog, making sure that stories about people of color are handled sensitively. Sometimes minority journalists serve as interpreters of their culture.

One black editor shared a story of how her white colleagues wanted to edit out some rap music slang in a story about rap because it was not clear to them. They totally missed the nuances of the phrases.

Lewis has had similar experiences. Once the word "griot" (which refers to an African storyteller, the keeper of knowledge in a village) was edited out of a story he wrote about African storytellers. His editors deleted the word because they were unfamiliar with it.

Diversity in the newsroom enables television stations and newspapers to be on the cutting edge, to report on trends while they are still happening. For example, Lewis, who is president of the Bay Area chapter of Black Journalists, wrote one of the early stories chronicling the rise in popularity of black activist Malcolm X and the accompanying Afrocentric paraphernalia. He remembers seeing children reading Malcolm X's autobiography, of seeing the medallions they wore, and saying, "This is a story." He was right.

Minority journalists also bring to the business their bicultural nature, which is much like that of many of the audience for whom they write.

"I am a journalist who happens to be Hispanic, but that means I have a great deal of responsibility in that I represent the Hispanic community," says Diane Alverio, a reporter for WFSB-TV in Hartford, Connecticut. She also serves as president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which boasts some 2,000 members.

"I bring to this newsroom a very critical frame of reference. A different perspective, a different view of these communities," Alverio says. "I do educational stories. I really feel I have a deeper understanding of what the parents and children go through because I have lived through it. I come from the same background as them."

For Alverio and other Hispanic children, being Hispanic in Connecticut often meant speaking one language at home and another at school. It meant operating with different value systems in the two places. For example, the overnight camping trips that are common for white schoolchildren might not find approval in a Hispanic home.

About 20 percent of Connecticut's population is Hispanic, Alverio says. But newsrooms do not always reflect that. Alverio works constantly to bring about change. "I'm the unofficial 'equal employment opportunity' officer here," Alverio notes.

It is not simply that management is opposed to hiring more people of color, she says. "The intent is there, but it just does not happen."

Managers such as Peter Neumann, Karla Garrett Harshaw, and Ray Marcano say they would like to see more minorities working in the newsroom.

Says Neumann, news director at WEAR, a television station in Pensacola, Florida: "The worst thing we could do is have a newsroom full of people exactly like me." Neumann is white.

"They [minorities] bring a better variety and perspective on stories, and they make us as a newsroom function better. I hope to live to see the day when there are no 'minorities,' and we just look at people as people."

Echoes Ray Marcano, news manager for sports at the Dayton Daily News in Ohio: "I think it's important for newsrooms to be diverse....newspapers have to be able to reflect things that go on in the whole community."

Harshaw, editor of the Springfield News-Sun in Ohio, is one of the few black women editors of a major daily newspaper. As a minority manager, she sees her role as making sure that all people's views, perspectives, and cultures are represented in her paper.

"It's important that we give a voice to the voiceless as a credo of journalism," Harshaw says. Religious groups and community activists, as well as people of color, need a forum.

"In addition to that, I like to think that being here helps sensitize others in the industry to issues of diversity," Harshaw says. "I think to some extent you have to become a part of the system. It's not just good enough to criticize. You also have to become a part of the solution."

Minorities in the newsroom also strengthen ties with the community at large by being a contact, a kindred spirit who understands the issues that matter to them. It also leads to better and more complete coverage.

"Many of the groups that get a lot of coverage know someone on the inside, and they are very comfortable lobbying for coverage. Often, minorities do not feel they have the same sort of access," says Harshaw. "I think that learning there is a minority on the staff or one in management makes them feel they have more access to the paper. They feel more comfortable interacting with us as an institution."

Regarding an oft-heard comment in black, Hispanic, and Asian communities that a newspaper is not covering the community fairly or effectively, Harshaw offers her perspective: "I think the lack of coverage of minorities in a community is an act of omission rather than an act of commission. Because we are not more diverse, I think there is an ignorance about these communities. Frequently, we do little to get out and establish sources, to understand what is important to those people."

Doing a thorough job of covering the black community is one thing on which Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs prides herself.

"I'm aware by being black that there is always another version...that the official version is not always the right one," Scruggs says. "There is always another viewpoint."

It's up to her and other minority journalists to present that viewpoint to readers, she adds.

Scruggs believes journalism is her calling. "I feel I was divinely guided into journalism. I feel that my mission as a journalist is to tell the truth and to challenge the reader and myself.

"As a layperson, I am very knowledgeable about black cultural history," Scruggs points out. "That's a research interest of mine. What I bring [to the newsroom] is a depth of knowledge because of my interest in the Civil Rights era...because I lived through it."

When she was a reporter at a newspaper in Mississippi, Scruggs wrote about black cultural history and southern history. Her six-part series on the demographics of the blues, on how it went from being a black music form to one embraced largely by whites, was especially well-received, she recalls. It was the first time the paper had taken a look at how the music was marketed and who the up-and-coming musicians were, she says.

Stories about people of color are not always so well-received, Scruggs cautions. Often, it is difficult to even get them into print.

Steven Chin, who covers Asian American affairs for the San Francisco Examiner, sometimes runs into the same problem, but he sees it as a challenge. Chin believes one of his roles is to serve as an educator.

"You are constantly educating people. That's what diversity is all about. Some people might look upon that as negative, but it's important that newspaper newsrooms create a culture that creates that kind of dynamic.

"One of the reasons I got into the business," Chin adds, "was to help provide a more well-rounded view of Asian Americans in the media. I never imagined having a full-time beat doing it. But I consider myself fortunate having the opportunity to do it."

Before coming to the Examiner, Chin was a community historian, working on an oral history project. "The experience of studying history, of working in the community, and of just being a Chinese American allows me to come in with a certain framework, a perspective and an understanding of America's racial dynamic and how it plays out with Asian Americans." Chin's Asian American beat, which was created almost four years ago, is still relatively new. At the time it was established, it was the only such beat in the country, although others soon followed, and beats that specifically cover minorities are a staple in most of today's newsrooms. Often, minority reporters are assigned to cover them. But is this always the way to go?

"I feel that any good and sensitive reporter can do an adequate job covering a beat," Chin says. But there may be some elements that are harder to grasp in certain stories, he adds, unless one has experience in "living the issues of race in America."

Ridding the media of such stereotypes is a daily part of life for WDTN television anchorperson and reporter Marsha Bonhart.

"I bring a certain amount of sensitivity," says Bonhart, who lives in Dayton, Ohio. "I like to think I make them think. I hope I serve as a conscience."

Although their numbers appear to be on the upswing, minority journalists still see the need to increase their presence in the newsroom, to increase sensitivity to their issues, and to make sure their voices are heard and that they have an opportunity to "plead their own cause."

The Examiner's Gregory Lewis says he looks forward to the day when his son and daughter can "practice the craft of journalism and not have to deal with the 'isms.' Racism. Ageism. Sexism."


Lolita M. Rhodes is an editor with the Journal Newspapers in suburban Washington.


The American Press

Constitutional Protection

The Right To Know

Editing the Washington Post

The Small-Town Newspaper

The Business Side of a Newspaper

Rights and Responsibilities

Libel Law in the United States

Targeting an Audience

The Electronic Media

The Sweet Sound of Conflict

The Business of Radio Broadcasting

On the Air in Springville

The High-Tech Trib

Electronic Newspapers

The Center for Foreign Journalists

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