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August 11, 2004

Guest Critic: Former TV News Director Terry Heaton Says Diversity Falls Apart in the Workplace

A television news director with 28 years in the biz--now a writer--tells PressThink: "I can recall instances where coverage actually was influenced and reporters with the courage to step forward actually did. The vast majority of times, however, efforts to involve minorities in 'their' stories erupted into arguments about type-casting." Critique of the diversity project from an ex-newsroom boss.

Special to PressThink

By Terry Heaton
DONATA Communications

August 11, 2004

I spent 28 years in TV news management positions, including news director at six local stations. I really tried hard to work the diversity concept during my career, because I was so supportive of what it meant. I wanted our views and our programs to genuinely reflect the communities we served, and I think that’s the wish of most news directors. In reality, however, the reflection we most often settle for is simply the color of skin, the shape of the eyes, or some other differentiating factor that shows up on TV. That’s superficial.

If groups such as Unity really want to accomplish something, they would do well to examine what actually happens in newsrooms after minorities are hired, because it’s in the newsroom where the premise of the editorial diversity experiment often fails. I’ve had numerous black reporters either refuse to do “community” stories or get resentful when asked to cover any story involving blacks. The same is true with many gays, Asians, and Jews.

The drumbeat for bringing diverse thoughts and stories to the newsroom, where they’ll influence the overall editorial judgment of the station, is barely audible. In theory, it makes sense: bring under-represented groups in, and they will represent. In practice, I’ve found, it’s just another occasion for divisiveness in the newsroom. I’ve actually turned to minority reporters during discussion of an issue pertaining to their race, only to be told, “Why are you looking at me?”

The fear of being branded a “token” interferes with the mission of diversity, because the only response offered is the theoretical “anybody should be able to cover ‘those’ stories.” And anybody should. But I thought diversity efforts in journalism were supposed to acknowledge the special contribution minority journalists could make to some stories. Is asking a black reporter to cover a dispute involving the black community really an attempt to “ghettoize?”

I don’t wish to broad brush the entire movement, because I can recall instances where coverage actually was influenced and reporters with the courage to step forward actually did. The vast majority of times, however, efforts to involve minorities in “their” stories erupted into arguments about type-casting. Stories are commonplace in the industry about black reporters who actually refuse to go into the black community. Do we really expect them to offer their beliefs and ideas in the editorial process?

Moreover, like everybody else in the business these days, many minorities are more concerned with labels that might interfere with their journey to the big bucks of the anchor desk than anything remotely resembling activism or journalism.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Terry Heaton, who blogs here, is a PressThink reader. He was news director at the following stations:

WAAY-TV, Huntsville, Alabama (1996-1998)
WRIC-TV, Richmond, Virginia (1994-1996)
WCTI-TV, New Bern, North Carolina (1991-1994)
KGMB-TV, Honolulu, Hawaii (1989-1991)
WDEF-TV, Chattanooga, Tennessee (1988-1989)
KTLA-TV, Tyler, Texas (1985-1986)

More on this debate: A PressThink exclusive… Ernest Sotomayor, President of UNITY writes a guest column: The President of Unity Says Don’t Blame Us for the “Liberal Media” Charge. (Aug. 10)

For the background see PressThink (Aug. 8): “The Crowd’s Reaction Made Some Unity Delegates Uncomfortable.”

Richard Prince at the Maynard Institute has a first class round up of reactions to the Unity events. Prince continues to collect reactions here.

Vanessa Williams, column in the Washiongton Post: “Nearly 40 years [after the Kerner Commission] the news media for the most part continue to cover black people in America through a narrow prism of extremes. I call it the first and the worst approach, focusing on black people who soar to unprecedented heights (Obama was the first black Harvard Law Review president) or sink to unspeakable lows (see the suspects on your local television station almost any weeknight at 11).”

Tim Porter at First Draft has an extended reply to Terry Heaton and to this comment from PressThink reader (and NYU J-student) Andres Martinez:

Heaton deserves some credit for raising an controversial issue, but he too easily dismisses in statements like this one the concerns minority reporters have with being typecast : “Stories are commonplace in the industry about black reporters who actually refuse to go into the black community.”

Inherent in that thinking is the belief that, in this instance, being black is a skill, like speaking Spanish or understanding financial statements, and therefore better prepares a black reporter for talking with other black citizens. It fails to account for the diversity among blacks themselves. What makes a Columbia or Missouri or Berkeley educated, middle-class African American reporter more equipped to communicate with a member of the black under-class than his white counterpart other than his skin color?

… Young people are treated like incoming cattle to the slaughterhouse at most newspapers. They receive no training, are given little feedback, have no career path and are taught that the best way to get ahead is do things the way the boss did them back in the day. Is it any surprise that “lack of professional challenge and limited opportunities for advancement” are the top reasons minority journalists are leaving newspapers almost as fast as they can be hired.

Reader Cody Williams emails:

On the issue of diversity in the workplace Heaton completely misses the point.

No, Blacks don’t want to be ‘ghettoized’ in the news room. No, blacks don’t want to be viewed as only the experts on all things black, minority or urban.

That’s not diversity. We, all people, Blacks included, bring to the table a unique perspective on all issues, and should be recognized for that. Diversity means recognizing the talents of the individual because of who they are, not because of what they are: Black.

So, you can send me to Washington to cover the ‘big story’ understanding that I’ll bring a different set of eyes, a different confluence of experiences, a different insight, to the story than someone white would. It may, or may not, be a better story, but it will be a different story, a diverse story, a yet untold story.

Do you get that?

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 11, 2004 5:06 PM