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Washington press corps diversity remains low, study finds

July 28, 2008

Only about 13 percent of the Washington daily newspaper press corps are journalists of color, according to a study on diversity by UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

There were slightly more journalists of color covering the nation’s capital in 2008 than there were four years earlier when UNITY conducted its first census of the racial makeup of the Washington press corps. But progress has been much slower than UNITY officials had hoped.

“With the nation growing increasingly more diverse, we need a press corps in Washington, D.C., that reflects what America looks like,” said Karen Lincoln Michel, UNITY president. “We represent a mere 13.1 percent of journalists pressing for answers from a federal government that serves a population nearly three times that size. UNITY considers the findings a call to action for media companies to reinvent their Washington news bureaus by staffing them with more journalists of color.”

Improvement is needed not just in overall numbers, but in the number of minority journalists in leadership positions and in the diversification of all news operations – big and small, she said.

The study, which was made possible by a generous grant from the McCormick Foundation of Chicago, showed that representation of journalists of color was lowest in top leadership positions. While there were three bureau chiefs of color in 2004 heading up major news operations in the nation’s capital, there was just one in 2008 – Dean Baquet of The New York Times.

Additionally, nearly 80 percent of the newspapers with their own staffs in Washington had no journalists of color working for them as reporters, editors, correspondents or bureau chiefs. Most of those were staffs of one or two people.

The release of the study coincides with UNITY 2008, the world’s largest gathering of journalists of color, which is being held this week in Chicago. The convention is the signature event of UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. – an alliance representing the combined 7,000 members of the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association.

The study also found:

•    Among individual newspapers, USA Today made the biggest four-year gain in the number of journalists of color on its Washington staff, going from less than 4 percent to 20 percent. But other large newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News, the New York Daily News and the Houston Chronicle, reported no minority journalists covering Washington.

•    Some Washington bureaus of the large newspaper chains, including Newhouse News Service and Gannett News Service, reported the most diverse staffs in Washington, but other chain bureaus, including Scripps Howard, Hearst, Media General and Copley, had among the least diverse newsrooms in Washington.

•    Retention of minority journalists continues to be a concern. More than half of the journalists of color identified in the 2004 study were no longer part of the Washington press corps in 2008.

•    Asian American journalists have made the most progress proportionately in the Washington press corps since 2004, going from 1.9 percent to 3.2 percent of the total. There was one Native American journalist covering Washington for daily newspapers in 2008.

•    Journalists of color surveyed said they believe readers are interested in Washington news, yet they describe the Washington press corps as being out of touch with audiences back home and they attribute that, at least in part, to the lack of diversity in the Washington press corps.

•    Of those surveyed, many expressed uncertainty about their long-terms prospects as journalists. Almost 70 percent said they either don’t plan to end up in journalism or they’re uncertain whether they will finish their professional careers as journalists.
Kristin Gilger, assistant dean of the Cronkite School, was the project's lead researcher and authored the report. She was assisted by Stephen Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Cronkite School, and two student researchers.

The new study follows up on one conducted by UNITY and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in 2004. That study, conducted by Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan when he was at the University of Maryland, was the first to focus on the makeup of the Washington press corps. It found that fewer than 10.5 percent of the reporters, correspondents, columnists, editors and bureau chiefs in the Washington daily newspaper press corps were journalists of color. The findings led to calls from UNITY leadership to improve diversity in these high-profile journalism jobs.

UNITY leaders said the need for change is no less now than it was four years ago.

Rafael Olmeda, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, said newspapers have to pay attention to not just hiring journalists of color, but to issues of career opportunities and advancement and job satisfaction. And Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, suggested that newspapers rotate staff members into their Washington bureaus as a way to add diversity.

The 2008 UNITY census shows “how much more work remains to be done in diversifying our newsrooms – particularly when it comes to covering the seat of power in this nation,” said Jeanne Mariani-Belding, president of the Asian American Journalists Association. “As an industry, we can do better.”  

The McCormick Foundation is a nonprofit organization committed to making life better for children, communities and the country. Through its charitable grant-making programs, Cantigny Park and Golf, Cantigny First Division Foundation and the McCormick Freedom Museum, the foundation positively impacts people’s lives and advances the ideals of a free, democratic society.

UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. is an alliance of four major national journalism organizations: Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Native American Journalists Association. Its mission is to advocate quality news coverage about people of color and improve ethnic diversity in the nation’s newsrooms.