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August 12, 2004

Guest Critic Juan Gonzalez, Unity Board Member: Our 2008 Convention Must Go Beyond Journalists of Color

The New York Daily News Columnist, Unity principal, and former head of the NAHJ: "As our alliance has moved from the fringes to the center stage of American journalism, I believe we have a responsibility not only to advocate for more hiring and promotion of journalists of color but to press for raising the general standards of our industry and profession." His agenda for Unity: "head in a more inclusive direction."

Special to PressThink

By Juan Gonzalez
New York Daily News

August 12, 2004

Terry Heaton’s recent remarks and the various critical commentaries that have surfaced about last week’s UNITY convention have prompted me to offer some thoughts to my white colleagues in the industry.

No doubt, creating a diverse newsroom is easier said than done. Many well-intentioned efforts have foundered over the years. Real diversity is not, as Heaton notes, simply a matter of reaching some numerical goal for different color faces in a newsroom. Genuine diversity involves changing the culture of newsrooms, of all who populate them – whether they are men or women, straight or gay, white, black, Asian, Hispanic or Native American.

It is no accident that the most frequently failed standards in accreditation reviews of journalism education programs at universities have been for years those standards for diversity in faculty and curriculum. Our journalism schools are routinely producing graduates, white and non-white, who are poorly trained in the importance of ethnic, racial and gender diversity (Read the excellent study by University of Texas journalism professor Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, “Diversity Disconnect.”). Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of white journalism graduates enter the industry and get promoted through management ranks, and then end up unconsciously implementing the abysmal diversity training they received in college.

That is precisely why the individual organizations of minority journalists like NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA and NAJA have arisen and grown during the past few decades. And that is why UNITY has developed into such a huge and powerful alliance within the industry. All of our organizations are a reaction to the industry’s past failures.

Sure, media executives and journalism foundations have expended lots of money, energy and effort toward integrating newsrooms. But much of that effort has been haphazard, poorly thought-out and misdirected. Moreover, the strategies were created and implemented by the very executives and managers who formerly presided over segregated newsrooms. That’s like asking a group of wife beaters to fashion a program to curb domestic violence. Maybe the analogy is a little extreme but the basic point is not. Any program aimed at eliminating the vestiges of racial and ethnic exclusion in American newsrooms will have a greater chance of success if it includes from its inception the ideas and thoughts of those who have been historically excluded.

The UNITY convention with its 8,200 registrants (and that is the final number) was the largest convention of journalists in U.S. history. It is no accident that such a large and historic gathering was organized by journalists of color instead of by the traditional organizations that have long dominated the industry – ASNE, NAA, RTNDA, SPJ, etc. Anyone who bothers to study the demographics of our nation will understand the enormous cultural and ethnic changes that are occurring. Already, nearly one-third of U.S. residents trace their ethnic origins to Africa, Asia and Latin America. By 2050, more than 50% of U.S. residents will be of non-European origin. Thus, the news media are merely reflecting broader social changes in our society.

That is not to say that UNITY is some exclusive club. It has always been open to participation by white journalists and executives, though I will be the first to admit there are significant numbers of members within each of the minority organizations who are not comfortable with inviting more white journalists, straight and gay, to attend our conventions. Those members, in my opinion, are wrong, and I have always told them.

As one of those who helped to found the UNITY concept, and as a board member of the alliance for the past two years, I have argued consistently for UNITY to head in a more inclusive direction. In other words, as our alliance has moved from the fringes to the center stage of American journalism, I believe we have a responsibility not only to advocate for more hiring and promotion of journalists of color but to press for raising the general standards of our industry and profession.

Many white journalists resent the fact that their non-white colleagues get to attend these conventions every year, often with the support of company management. All journalists deserve to get a few days out of every year for professional development and training, for exchanging viewpoints about best practices and ethical issues. But the failure of the industry to provide proper professional training to white journalists then turns into a source of friction and division within newsrooms.

More importantly, if white and non-white journalists have no opportunity to sit down together to discuss their views on coverage of race and ethnicity, we will never achieve a lasting change in newsroom culture. That’s why I believe the next UNITY, which is scheduled for 2008, must be far broader in its reach than just to journalists of color. That doesn’t mean, however, that minority journalists should suddenly discard a successful structure we have spent years building.

Rather, we should urge all the major professional associations in our industry ASNE, NAB, RTNDA, SPJ, IRE, etc. to schedule their 2008 conventions in the same city that UNITY designates for its next convention. That way all the journalists of our nation will have a chance to come together, exchange views and share some training. But to accomplish such a grandiose project, the traditional organizations in our industry will have to come to grips with demographic reality. They will have to accept that America is changing, and not just from a market standpoint. The news media are changing as well. And UNITY is a huge and growing part of our industry’s future.

After Matter: Notes, reaction and links…

Juan Gonzalez writes a column for the Daily News. He is Past President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and a Member of the Board of Directors of UNITY 2004.

Gonzalez refers to this study by Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte with Cristina Bodinger-de Uriarte and José Luis Benavides, Diversity Disconnects: From Class Room to News Room (2003). Here is the key passage in that report:

For more than thirty years, U.S. newsrooms have grappled with these issues. Basically,there are two paths toward a diverse newsroom: one is that of integration—a conscious effort to include individuals drawn from different racial and ethnic populations regardless of their intellectual preparation and perspectives.The other is to draw across demographic population groups with a conscious effort to include diverse intellectual world views. It is the contention of this report that one cannot be achieved without the other. Populations long excluded from educational equity and full participation in social-economic institutions may see a different nation. But the nation reported in mainstream media remains virtually unchanged. Much of this results from the way in which familiar mainstream perspectives are credentialed as accurate—so that different minority perspectives,often labeled as “opinion,” become suspect. Thus, integration does not insure intellectual diversity because prevailing consensus determines newsworthiness.

Emphasis added.

Gonzalez vs. ASNE: Gonzalez writes: “Our journalism schools are routinely producing graduates, white and non-white, who are poorly trained in the importance of ethnic, racial and gender diversity.” The American Society of Newspaper Editors recently released a study of editors conducted by its Education for Journalism Committee, “An Editors’ Agenda for Journalism Education.” (Inexplicably, it’s not online.) One of the few bright spots in the report was this:

Today’s journalism education graduates understand the importance of diversity more than graduates did five-years ago.

Strongly Disagree: 1%
Mostly Disagree: 13%
Stongly Agree: 20%
Mostly Agree: 65%

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

Last week’s convention of minority journalists was the largest ever— 7,000 strong. Kerry spoke: standing ovation. Bush spoke: no ovation. Traditionalists in the press said: unprofessional! Critics on the right cried foul. Unity, coalition of minority voices, didn’t know what to say. And group think appealed to all. Here’s my critique of that. Plus (scroll down) reactions from the press and the blogs.

PressThink (Aug. 9): Unity and the Ovation for John Kerry: Letters to the Debate, 1-3. Includes mine to Romenesko and two from journalists Linda Picone and Jeff Shaw.

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

PressThink (Aug. 11): Guest Critic: Former TV News Director Terry Heaton Says Diversity Falls Apart in the Workplace

Contra Costa Times editorial (Aug. 11): Bush against legacies.

The President wasn’t really expecting a grilling. But then again, what should he expect when facing an auditorium full of journalists? It was in such a setting when President Bush renounced the use of legacies in college admissions. It was a stunning statement considering legacy was the avenue that allowed Bush to get admitted into an Ivy-League school, Yale, which gives preferential treatment to applicants whose parents and grandparents are alumni.

Keith Woods at Poynter: “Look through the schedule of Unity 2004, and for every investigative reporting session that might help Latino journalists reach a new reporting plane, there was a session on covering Latinos that could help white journalists take coverage to a new high. For every ‘What it Takes to be a Publisher’ session that lifted the aspirations of Asian or Native American journalists, there was a ‘Covering Changing Communities’ workshop that might have helped white journalists do the kind of work that these organizations so want to see done in their local newspapers and television stations.”

Chris Boese, blogger, writer and researcher for CNN, in comments here:

In newsroom cultures, this attitude is indoctrinated by the traditional “old salts,” by a hard news bias that focuses on concentric circles around centers of power (rich white men in suits) and blindly fails to see that which does not occur in those centers of power (unless it involves a missing girl or woman, or someone bitten by a shark).

I am criticizing the indoctrinated methods with which the traditional news pegs are interpreted— literally how we define what is news.

People in different minority groups in newsrooms, in order to move up the ranks, in order to write in the monolithic depersonalized “newsroom voice,” basically must learn to “write white.”

Regardless of how diverse the newsroom may be, the value judgments made in traditional newsroom fashion (often dictated by copyeditors in authoritarian, right/wrong terms that deadlines often force people to adopt), lead newsrooms unconsciously to homogenize around news values that give white male suits more credibility and power and thus higher rank on the scale of news criteria…

“What’s really being asserted by some is that these journalists of color can’t cut it.”

Here is the text of a letter to USA Today (Aug. 13) from Bryan Monroe, Vice President of the National Association of Black Journalists:

The entire debate over whether or not the journalists and other attendees at last week’s UNITY convention appropriately expressed themselves during the Kerry and Bush speeches may be masking a deeper issue. Some have argued that the clapping or laughing was unprofessional and “beneath” the canons of ethical journalism.

But I submit that what’s really being asserted by some is that these journalists of color can’t cut it. “See, they don’t act like us, subscribe to our values, play by our rules, so they must not be qualified for full admission into our club.”

That assertion is flat wrong.

I don’t remember reading similar criticism when the crowd of mostly white editors and publishers gave the same president a standing ovation and a toast at the ASNE/NAA convention a few months ago in D.C. And did I miss the stories about mainly white audiences of journalists laughing and carousing during any number of White House correspondents’ dinners?

As a UNITY board member and vice president of NABJ, I was in the room for both speeches last week. I rose to my feet and applauded when both men entered the room and departed. I laughed at the funny lines, and rolled my eyes at the more ridiculous ones (“You can’t read a newspaper if you can’t read…” “Tribal sovereignty means that, it’s … sovereign.” Q: Do you support affirmative action? A: “I support colleges affirmatively taking action to get more minorities in their school.”)

I responded first as a citizen, then as a citizen employed as a journalist. I was not working as a journalist that day, so I felt no obligation to stoically sit there and simply take notes.

Some argue that, as journalists, we’re always on the clock and therefore need to check our thoughts at the door. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

What do you say to the sports reporters in the room, who rarely cover politics? Should they sit on their hands and never crack a smile during a presidential speech? Or, better yet, what do you say to a city hall reporter who attends a baseball game with his family? Should he not cheer when the home team scores a run or boo when the opposing pitcher throws a beanball at the batter?


Journalists are also human beings, mothers and fathers, Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Should we maintain an appearance of impartiality when working? Absolutely. Do we need to impose that on the rest of our lives? Perhaps not.

I think it’s been that extreme philosophy of detachment from the real world that has made our journalism so irrelevant to most “regular” people and branded us as disconnected, clueless elites.


Bryan Monroe
Vice President-Print, National Association of Black Journalists
Board member, UNITY: Journalists of Color Inc.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 12, 2004 12:34 PM