Lagging Behind  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2004

Lagging Behind   

Fewer than 10.5 percent of the reporters and editors in daily newspaper Washington bureaus are minorities, a new Unity/University of Maryland survey finds. That’s a lower percentage than the much-maligned newspaper industry figure. Minority staffers give the D.C. press corps low marks for its coverage of race-related issues—and most hope to be out of the nation’s capital in five years.

By Christopher Callahan
Christopher Callahan is associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a senior editor of AJR.     

Related reading:
   » Diversity Charts
   » The Whitest Beat in Town?
   » Are the Numbers too High?
   » At the Helm
   » Rising Stars

When Jessica Lynch catapulted onto the media landscape as America's poster girl for the Iraq War, it was thanks in large part to editors, reporters, producers and commentators around the country who could see in the pretty, young, white Army private from a tiny town in rural West Virginia their daughter, niece, kid sister or next-door neighbor.

But William Douglas, a White House correspondent for Knight Ridder, took a very different approach to the story about Lynch's capture by Iraqi forces and subsequent rescue by U.S. troops. As America prepared to watch a made-for-TV movie re-creating Lynch's much-celebrated saga last November, Douglas, who is African American, wrote a feature comparing Lynch with Shoshana Johnson. Like Lynch, Douglas wrote, Johnson was a female soldier and a member of the 507th Maintenance Company who came under fire and suffered serious injuries. However Johnson, who is black, received little media fanfare. "Lynch," Douglas wrote, "got the full American celebrity treatment, while Johnson largely got ignored." The piece went on to describe how many African Americans felt Johnson was the victim of a racial double standard because "she didn't have the right 'face.'"

That's just the kind of story editors envision when they dream of newsrooms that reflect the nation's growing racial diversity – stories that are conceived and developed by journalists of all different backgrounds, viewpoints and perspectives. The Knight Ridder Washington bureau, with a national staff of editors and correspondents that is nearly 30 percent minority, comes close to the racial parity that the newspaper industry has explicitly sought since 1978.

But Knight Ridder is an anomaly in the nation's capital, and minority journalists such as Bill Douglas remain a relative rarity in Washington. A new study conducted jointly by Unity: Journalists of Color Inc. and the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the publisher of AJR, finds that fewer than 10.5 percent of the correspondents, columnists, editors and bureau chiefs in the Washington bureaus of U.S. daily newspapers are minorities. That's a smaller percentage than the much-maligned national industry figure of 12.5 percent reported this year by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The study identifies only three minority bureau chiefs (see "At the Helm," page 35). Some of the nation's biggest newspaper corporations – including Hearst, E.W. Scripps,

McClatchy, Copley and Belo – have at the most one minority correspondent or editor in their Washington bureaus. And perhaps most significant, the study finds that most of the nation's largest newspapers – the ones that help define coverage of Washington for the rest of the press corps here and abroad – have dramatically smaller percentages of minority journalists in Washington than in their newsrooms back home (see chart, page 33).

The census numbers, however, tell only part of the story. The Unity/Maryland research, which is being released at the Unity convention in Washington in August, also concludes that minority reporters and editors in the Washington press corps believe their colleagues – and their own bureaus – don't do a good job in covering race-related issues. Many feel the coverage is getting worse. The minority journalists surveyed are generally optimistic that increasing diversity would have a positive impact on coverage. But nearly half feel they personally have little or no influence over race-related stories by their bureaus, and they believe their colleagues outside the Beltway do a better job of covering those stories.

Only one-third are convinced they will retire as journalists. And, in perhaps the most ominous sign about the future of racial diversity in the Washington press corps, the study finds most hope to be out of Washington within five years. Thirty-nine of the 60 minority journalists, or 65 percent, responded to the survey.

To some, the reason for the lack of minority editors and correspondents in Washington is simple: Newspapers aren't trying hard enough. "Not enough places are committed," says Caesar Andrews of Gannett News Service, one of the three minority bureau chiefs for a daily newspaper company. "Not enough places, even when they show some commitment, sustain that commitment."

Indeed, the Unity/Maryland study shows that nearly six in 10 journalists of color now in the Washington press corps say they were never recruited or groomed for a Washington post. And only 17 percent say they were strongly recruited for the D.C. bureau.

Andrews and others say the lack of minority editors and correspondents in Washington can be traced back, in large part, to the paucity of minorities in the traditional beats that feed into Washington bureaus – city hall and the statehouse. "We haven't had the people in the pipeline ready to step into those top city hall bureaus covering the best of city government, which then often leads to the beat in the state capital, which then many times leads to that position in Washington," says Ernest Sotomayor, the Long Island editor of Newsday.com and president of Unity. "Until we have people in those top beats, we're not going to have them in Washington."

Alison Bethel, the Detroit News' Washington bureau chief, says the problem goes beyond a lack of training and development opportunities. She believes there is a perception problem on the part of many white editors when looking at minorities in their newsrooms. "There's a belief," Bethel says, "that for people of color [government coverage is] not something they are interested in." She believes editors are more apt to see minority reporters as city beat reporters or sportswriters.

Others believe minority journalists can be easily turned off by the way Washington is often covered. "Washington correspondence can be so institutional that many journalists of color don't want to do it," says Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor of the Washington Post and chairman of ASNE's diversity committee. "A lot of journalists of color are really good street reporters." In Washington, Coleman says, "you spend a lot of your time dealing with people who are professional public relations artists and professional politicians, and you're not dealing with real people."

Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times' bureau chief, says that perception is growing among journalists of all races, especially young journalists, and the result is Washington is no longer the highly sought-after beat it once was. "There are a lot of reporters who, for perfectly good reasons, would rather be writing features for a style section, would rather be doing first-class street reporting off a city desk, would rather be a foreign correspondent, would rather be a lot of other things than Washington correspondents," he says. "Foreign correspondents cover reality. Washington correspondents cover policy. Sometimes those two intersect, but rarely. We don't cover real people. We cover what bureaucrats say and think and what they say they think, but hardly anybody ever throws a punch. We cover words on paper and words on background. And not everybody wants to do that."

McManus says of some 1,000 editorial employees at the Times, he has had conversations with no more than a dozen about the Washington bureau. He says about 40 percent of his Washington correspondents have come from other news organizations, despite a strong preference to hire from inside.

The negative perceptions of the Washington beat are not only impeding recruitment, but retention too. Sam Fulwood III left his job as a Washington correspondent for the L.A. Times four years ago to become a metro columnist at Cleveland's Plain Dealer. "I left Washington because..I got frustrated by the story. I had been in Washington 10 years, and I felt that I was more of a stenographer to powerful people than I was a real reporter," Fulwood says. "I just hated having to go and hear people lie to me, and report that lie back as though it was the gospel and not be able to call [it] bullshit when someone was saying a lie."

While Fulwood's frustration about Washington coverage is not race-specific, there are other problems unique to minority journalists in the D.C. press corps that can affect retention. The biggest of those may lie in what kind of stories journalists of color can successfully produce. The essence of the desire for a diverse newsroom is to generate stories that would be difficult – if not impossible – to conceptualize and produce in a racially homogeneous environment. "Having a diverse newsroom means having a diversity of ideas, having a diversity of approaches and perceptions that prevent you from having blind spots and from providing a report out of Washington that is one-dimensional and lacks the richness that a more diverse bureau gives you," says Paul West, bureau chief at the Baltimore Sun.

But many minority journalists in the Washington press corps say their different approaches are often rejected by white editors. Nearly half of the minority journalists surveyed in the Unity/Maryland research say they have little or no influence on the coverage of race-related stories in their news bureaus, while just 11 percent say they believe they have a significant influence. "Editors by and large are white and they have a vision of what the story is," says Fulwood. "The minority journalist, unless [he] buys into that vision, [is] going to be one frustrated puppy."

Fulwood argues that most minority journalists in Washington do not even push for a different approach. "Almost nobody goes to Washington inside of five years within entering the newsroom," he says. "By the time you get to Washington, you've already accepted that what the industry wants is what you're going to do, that you're going to write the stories that your editor wants... Are you getting those alternative perspectives into the paper? Yes, but you're getting them at the margins."

The minority journalists in Washington think their own bureaus don't do a good job in covering race-related issues – less than 20 percent characterize the coverage as at least "good" while 63 percent say it's "fair" and 18 percent call it "poor." Seven in 10 think the Washington press corps does an inferior job of covering race issues when compared with journalists outside the Beltway. And, the study shows, 37 percent of the minority journalists believe coverage of race-related stories in Washington is on the decline.

"It's harder to get issues that concern minorities in many papers back home," says the Detroit News' Bethel, an African American who ran the paper's features desk before coming to Washington three-and-a-half years ago.

McManus of the L.A. Times notices the change too, especially when so much of the news out of Washington continues to be dominated by the fallout from September 11. "I am struck by the degree to which issues of race and poverty and justice have disappeared from nearly every front page," he says. "It was an uphill struggle" even before the terrorist attacks, McManus says, but now he questions whether most major media organizations have simply "walked away from race issues."

Developing sources also can pose a special challenge for journalists of color. "Official Washington is very white," says Fulwood. "A lot of black journalists wanted to do good work..but recognized that there is a good-old-boy network that exists in Washington and you have to be very creative to break ground," especially if you work for a smaller newspaper.

The lack of available mentors also concerns minority journalists in Washington. Eight of every 10 survey respondents say a mentor is important for a Washington correspondent or editor, but only 15 percent report having one.

All of which leads to minority journalists who are anything but sold on a long-term stay in Washington. Only 18 percent of the minority Washington journalists surveyed say they are very satisfied with their jobs, while 26 percent say they are at least somewhat dissatisfied and 56 percent describe themselves as "fairly" satisfied. Sixty percent say they plan to leave the press corps in the next five years, and 17 percent say they want to stay in Washington the rest of their career. In fact, only 36 percent say they are sure they want to stay in journalism of any kind throughout their professional lives.

The biggest losers stemming from a homogenous Washington press corps, some journalists say, is the American news consumer.

"It's easier for issues of color to get lost at the national level because most newspapers are primarily local, and local news tends to be closer to your readers and local news tends to get more feedback," the Post's Coleman says. "It's a little more difficult on national and international news, so if everyone sitting around the table [is white], then it's very easy for some of the issues that are important to communities of color on the national level to receive short shrift."


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