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Journalists Lack Understanding of Minority History

Part II of the Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte interview. A key quote:

Any contemporary journalist should emerge from college with a hefty understanding of minority history in this country. But the required courses are often as white as the newspapers.

Leonard Witt: Hi Dr. de Uriarte. Thanks for coming back to Part II of our IM Interview. You did an excellent job of outlining some of the problems. Let’s now talk about what newsrooms and individual journalists can do so solve the problems. You mentioned censorship by omission, meaning the journalists just ignore certain populations. How would you fix that?

Mercedes de Uriarte: The fastest solution is probably to assign regular “beat” coverage of areas not usually covered. In the 1980s the LA Times had a marketing map of Los Angeles that showed display advertisers areas where the Times did regular coverage and where they had compiled extensive demographic data. Each section was color coded. In the center was a large blank area…the minority concentration section of the city. When I read newspapers that don’t have regular coverage of all its communities I see that map in my mind’s eye. But beat assignments are not enough.

Any contemporary journalist should emerge from college with a hefty understanding of minority history in this country. But the required courses are often as white as the newspapers. So aspiring journalists, like professional journalists, have to invest in their own intellectual growth. They should be learning about these things on their own. Otherwise what we get is a domestic version of parachute coverage. A little stand-up in front of some symbolic site and a little surface treatment. That’s why the research for Diversity Disconnects did the extensive survey interviews seeking to determine the intellectual foundation on which news stories about minorities are built. No news story begins on the day it is assigned, just like no revolution begins with the first sign of violence. There are historical context of build-ups and backdrops of other events leading up to the point that something becomes “newsworthy.”

Newsrooms could do more top down on this as well. I once spent several years working with a local newspaper whose editor wanted content change. We began with regular noon seminars for the decision makers. I always thought that was a wise executive editor. The intent was to lower the tensions between minority journalists proposing stories and editors dismissing them as evidence of bias because they were unfamiliar with any of the history related to the event that provided context. But as corporate America turns newspapers into products instead of civic investment, coverage tends to become more aimed to please the most affluent consumer base.

In my experience growing up in Mexico and my subsequent experience covering stories in Spanish-language nations, most mainstream/corporate foreign correspondents needed translators. Sometimes it seems that many reporters covering minority communities are equally culturally illiterate.

There are significant differences in the responses that minority journalists and their white counterparts, especially editors, make on surveys of newsroom environments, a reality they both share. So it is not surprising that they often see minority areas, events, issues differently. If I were looking to make change in my newsroom, I’d take those gaps seriously and wonder what lenses were at play and what they implied in terms of content.

Witt: So where do we start to fix the cultural ignorance? I did an interview with Davis Buzz Merritt in which he said change in newsrooms is generational. Today’s student in 20 years will be tomorrow’s newsroom leader. However, if we wait 20 years there might be no newsrooms. How do we jumpstart this now?

de Uriarte: I think we have to admit that the diversity industry has not been as effective as necessary to make change. I think we are going to have to provide incentives and reward journalists who take action to acquire additional eduction on these populations. This can have many options besides taking a formal class. But I think that there has to be a signal that this is professional, important and rewardable. I think editors and other decision makers have to be willing to make this investment in themselves to model its importance. In the end, it is democracy that the press is empowered to protect, not selected sections of the population’s preferences. Even a book club or a documentary circle where individuals agreed to read/see something and come together to critique it could be useful.

In 20 years, the nation will no longer have a white majority. So content is definitely something that we can wait for time to change. Moreover, if you read what is going on in J schools and department that is documented in Diversity Disconnects after we reviewed 300 syllabi that had been given to the accreditation teams to prove that they were meeting the standards to educate for diversity, you find that there is a real absence of educational vigor in this regard as well. Some syllabi did no more than state. “Course encourages diversity in student assignments…”

Witt: Given that, do you think the minority populations are just going to fragment away from the mainstream media, ignore it and produce their own media? Is it too late for the mainstream media to engage with populations it has for so long ignored or covered poorly?

de Uriarte: I hope that does not happen. I am not sure how one maintains a democracy of fragments. But I also think that targeted media gives mainstream media an excuse to continue to fail its obligations. The protection and the power that the press enjoys obliges it, as well, to serve the nation. As the Hutchins Commission said, “Free expression is therefore unique among liberties: it promotes and protects all the rest…Civilized society is a working system of ideas. It lives and changes by the consumption of ideas.”

Too much of mainstream news is predictable and repetitive. The familiar squeezes out space for the rest–for the less known. But as that Commission also said, “An idea should not be stifled by the circumstances of its birth.”

To improve the press, journalists should be interacting with a lot of ideas, especially those that are fresh, new and come from different directions.

Witt: I find it interesting that critics like you and Dori Maynard, who one would think would be marching off to form alternative media, are saying you want the mainstream media to survive.

de Uriarte: Most people who read newspapers rely solely on mainstream papers. So while I strongly support alternative press and require students in my classes read it, I expect (I think we should demand) mainstream to improve itself and the press to take pride in its ability to do so.

Witt: I know you have to run, but you imply a lot of the problems here are a result of a deficiency in journalism education programs, where do we start making fixes there?

de Uriarte: Oh, Leonard…what a task! Frankly, I think that j education (jed) has done the least to make the kinds of changes in curriculum, student body and faculty that would lead to a quality change in j education that would impact press content.

For one thing j education is a house divided mostly dominated by the academics (PhDs) whose primary interest is not in teaching practical skills. This is well documented in Betty Medsger’s study Winds of Change. Hiring, tenuring and promoting too often comes to require duplicating what the PhDs do rather than excelling in the professional field. I say this with a PhD and a significant track record on both sides of the house, but I think this division too often weakens the professional side of jed and in the end, leads to undermining democracy itself.

This nation needs a strong, courageous, independent, inclusive press to protect democracy. And that should me the first concern of j education.

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