Diversity miseducation, II

Earlier I wrote about some of the troublingly counterproductive “diversity training” sessions I’ve been subjected to at several different newspapers in the past 20 years or so. Sometimes this nonsense is forced on media companies by misguided judges, but all too often it is because institutional journalism is mindlessly committed to the absurd proposition that newspapers and other media should “reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”

“Absurd,” because that phrase is code for “should have the same racial and ethnic percentages as their circulation area.”

Why should that be true of skin-color diversity, when it isn’t true of any other kind of diversity and nobody much cares about the other kinds? Gender, religion (constitutionally protected categories) matter, as well as professionally significant characteristics such as politics, age and education.

And why would anyone expect that it would be true, absent some pretty strenuous social engineering? The relevant demographic facts are the racial diversity not of the community, but of the applicant pool. Since almost everyone working as a journalist has a college degree — though strictly speaking that’s not necessary, any more than it is strictly necessary to graduate from college in order to become a fabulously wealthy CEO like Bill Gates — we should expect that in the absence of discrimination the proportion of minority journalists should be roughly the same as the proportion of minority college graduates, which is 10 percent or so. And it is.

The only way journalism could exceed that proportion is if either its intrinsic appeal or its desirable pay and benefits allowed it to poach applicants in that much sought-after pool from other career tracks. And you can forget the “desirable pay and benefits.” They’re okay, sure, but some way short of competitively “desirable.”

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, however, long ago hitched its wagon to the windmill of proportional community demographics and every year the sails of reality come along and knock it flat.

In its 2006 press release ASNE said,

Without the addition of 11 free dailies, newsroom employment would have slipped by 600 journalists. Thus, paid circulation newspapers have dropped about 2,800 journalists in the past five years as the industry has struggled economically.

Meanwhile the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms crept up from 13.42 to 13.87 percent.

Note those aren’t real numbers, precise to two decimal points; they’re “projections.” ASNE:

For the 2006 ASNE newsroom employment census, 928 of the 1,417 daily newspapers responded to the survey, representing 65.49 percent of all U.S. dailies. The census is based on employment data reported by daily newspapers.

The survey data are projected to reflect all daily newspapers in the country.

ASNE says they have procedures to ensure that minority employment at newspapers that don’t participate in the survey is comparable with minority employment at newspapers “in the same circulation category” that do not participate. I have no reason to doubt that this claim is broadly true, but the circulation categories are themselves rather broad, and there are probably some public-relations issues that play into whether a newspaper reports in a particular year. But when a third of the possible respondents are missing from the data, the distinction between 13.42 and 13.87 is meaningless, and the fact that it was meaningless in the same way last year — “Moreover, because the survey procedures remain constant each year, the ASNE census provides highly reliable year-to-year comparisons” — is really no help.

You need some numbers to anchor all this:

The addition of all free daily general interest newspapers added 11 new newspapers to the survey for a total of 1,417 daily newspapers. Including the free newspapers brings the estimated number of full-time journalists to 54,809. In last year’s census, the newsroom employment number was 54,134. In the 2001 survey, fulltime journalists totaled 56,393.

ASNE’s goal is parity by 2025, but it is falling ever further behind as the country’s minority population, now 33 percent according to the 2000 census, is growing faster than newsrooms can find warm bodies to hire. In a 2005 report they did for the Knight Foundation about employment at the end of 2004, Bill Dedman and Stephen K. Doig point out that even the small percentage gains in recent years result more from the fact that retirements, buyouts and layoffs disproportionately affect older journalists who came into the profession when it was almost entirely white.

ASNE berates itself for failing to meet its own benchmarks.

* The benchmark for percentage of minorities working in newsrooms by this year is 18.55. The actual percentage: 13.87.
* The goal for minority interns is 36.35 percent of the total pool. The actual number: 30.8 percent.
* The goal for minority supervisors is 16 percent. The actual number: 11.2 percent
* The target for the number of newspapers with no minority staffers was to reduce them to 275. The actual number: 377.
* The benchmark for the number of newspapers that have reached parity with their community is 348. The actual number: 145.

Given the demographics of the applicant pool, there is no way to reach these goals, targets and benchmarks except by preferential hiring and promotion policies. It isn’t that white people are being shut out of journalism; obviously, they aren’t, though they may have to accept jobs at smaller papers or wait longer to move up.

Indeed, Jerry Ceppos, then at the San Jose Mercury News and an enthusiastic advocate for this manner of discrimination, admitted as much to one of the journalism magazines some years back. It’s not that minorities are less well qualified than whites, he said, it’s just that on average they have several years less experience.

Why yes. And if they don’t do well competing with colleagues who have years more experience, they often blame the papers that hired them, and they leave for more congenial workplaces.

The target of reducing the number of newspapers with no minority staffers would be a good idea in principle, but the difficulty is that on average they are very small, and bigger papers have both more prestige and usually more money.

“No people of color work in 346 US newspapers, about one in four newsrooms,” Dedman and Doig say, of the newspapers that responded to the ASNE survey. But because so many papers did not respond, their analysis “suggests the likelihood that there are at least 182 more newspapers with all-white newsrooms, for a total of 528 out of 1,410 newspapers, or 37 percent. Together, those newspapers serve more than 5.3 million readers a day.

That is, the average circulation is under 10,000. Exactly eight are more than 30,000. With Gannett, for one, scarfing up more than its share of the available people — “The list is led by companies with well-known programs of rewarding managers — with bonuses — for recruitment of journalists of color,” Dedman and Doig say approvingly — who is left to be hired by, say, the Faribault Daily News?

The authors’ report “includes a separate Web page for each of 1,410 daily newspapers, showing its history of non-white employment from 1990-2005; a Diversity Index comparing the newsroom non-white employment with its circulation area’s population; a companywide Diversity Index; a role model, another newspaper of similar size and circumstance with a higher Diversity Index; and details on the race and ethnicity of the circulation area and the home county. In addition, for the 866 papers that file audited sales reports by ZIP Code, the report shows the racial and ethnic breakdown in each ZIP Code, the household income, and sales per household.”

It’s chilling.

Of course, ASNE is not alone in subscribing to this race-based nonsense. The National Conference of Editorial Writers, to which I belong, sponsors a training program it calls the Minority Writers Seminar, as part of the NCEW Foundation. It’s a 100% quota program — anybody welcome except non-Hispanic whites — held over a spring weekend at Vanderbilt University. They usually have to beat the bushes even to get enough people to fill the slots, but nonetheless they are extremely proud of this good thing they’re doing. And they raise a lot of money to keep doing it.

Nobody seems to notice (well, except for me, doing my usual skunk-at-the-garden-party act) that the clear message of such an activity is that white people can learn to be editorial writers on their own, but everybody else needs help from generous, public-spirited editorial writers, most of whom are white.

The mostly young journalists who show up at for this thing are oblivious to the profound condescension shown them by the organizers, and also to the possible risks to their careers from having it on their resumes. Being a minority journalist is not a disadvantage — to the contrary, in the current climate. Being a journalist who appears to need, or expect, special treatment — that’s a warning signal.

The fallacy at the root of this entire enterprise is that people can write about only themselves and people like them. Journalists of color ought to be in the forefront of those rejecting such a theory of racial essentialism. If they owe their jobs to a pernicious belief, they have no grounds to complain if they’re shunted aside to covering their “communities,” because that’s what they were hired to do.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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