Journalist and author Issac J. Bailey penned a compelling essay for Nieman Reports late last year chronicling his experiences as a black journalist in an industry “with a horrific track record on racial diversity.” His essay didn’t just hang on the sense of isolation he and other journalists of color often feel in overwhelmingly white newsrooms; it was a more complicated take on how both his race and a nearly lifelong challenge with stuttering brought home an issue that only recently has come to the forefront: implicit bias and how it affects the telling of the news.
For Bailey, not unlike other journalists of color like me, implicit biases early in his career meant being skipped over by hiring managers who drew conclusions about his abilities based on his race and on predisposed assumptions about his speech impediment. But as he made his way past those hurdles and became established in his career, the full reach of those same biases came into sharp relief. Everything from the racial and ethnic makeup of newsrooms to the stories that lead the nation’s front pages and newscasts is inextricably tied to one thing―America’s long history of filtering the national discourse through a lens crafted overwhelmingly by white men and others who conform to historical social norms.
Like Bailey, in each newsroom I’ve worked in throughout my career, I’ve often been the only person of color sitting at the table where decisions about the most important stories of the day were made. And while I’ve seen dramatic improvements over the past 25 years in the number of white women in key decision-making positions (I had the privilege of working with the first woman to become executive editor of The New York Times), the percentage of people of color serving in similar roles has remained flat or risen just a few points.
A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that 77% of all newsroom employees across the U.S. are white, with non-Hispanic white men accounting for 48% of that total.
That bolsters the findings of a 2018 survey by the American Society of News Editors, which found that minorities made up just 18% of all newsroom managers. Among those minorities, only 3.1% were black women, followed closely by Hispanic women at 2.7%. Black men represented roughly 3.3% of all newsroom managers, with Hispanic men accounting for roughly 2.7%. Asian women and men both represented 2.3% of newsroom leadership, with other people of color, such as Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, below 1%.
The consequences of 82% of all newsroom leaders being non-Hispanic whites are enormous. You need look no further than the current presidential election cycle to see how a lack of diverse voices in leadership roles is shaping coverage that’s giving dramatically more attention to white men running for the Democratic presidential nomination than to Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, who for much of her campaign has run a consistent third in the polls and is strongly competing in fundraising. That same bias toward white men is even shortchanging white women such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, who have struggled to get daily coverage over the likes of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and cable and broadcast media’s latest darling, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Of even greater consequence is how little sustained coverage is afforded to underrepresented communities that are largely invisible to often well-meaning leaders from homogeneously white socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. A case in point: the devastating spring floods that inundated the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, leaving thousands of Native Americans cut off from critical supplies and putting historical burial and cultural sites at risk. Despite an initial round of coverage from national outlets—some quite accurately capturing the “humanitarian disaster”—very little coverage of the aftermath has since been afforded by major media. Even local and regional news outlets have been called out for overlooking the crisis on the reservation.
Consider, too, how the incredible toll that gun violence is taking in Chicago remains an afterthought to nightly news producers and front page editors. Thirty people were shot in Chicago in a single weekend this spring, a toll that would register as a national crisis were it to happen in a white, suburban neighborhood. But with black and brown people in the crosshairs (and white folks in the newsrooms), the shootings did not receive major coverage.
I’ve seen that kind of bias firsthand numerous times in my career. One story I like to tell to illustrate how it often plays out comes from my days as assistant city editor at the Hartford Courant, the largest daily newspaper in Connecticut.
A shooting occurred in an inner city neighborhood not far from downtown Hartford. It was the kind of shooting that typically would be afforded only two or three paragraphs in the police blotter because, as top editors at many of the nation’s newspapers believe, random shootings in the inner city happen so often that they do not merit more sustained coverage. On this particular day, however, the shooting did not stay neatly within the confines of a black and brown neighborhood. The gunman was chased by police onto the highway and into rush hour traffic, with an exchange of gunfire occurring right outside of the newspaper’s windows overlooking Interstate 84. With the lives of white suburban commuters now at risk in the crush of slow-moving cars, the Page One editor (a white woman with stellar credentials) decided with great urgency that the story had now vaulted to the front page. Because the lives of people who looked like her, and who lived lives similar to hers, were suddenly at risk, she felt the need to document just how closely they had come to losing their lives that day.
The newsroom had little interest in the many lower-income black and brown people who had also almost lost their lives when the shooting began in that inner city neighborhood. Their lives were just as valuable and newsworthy as the suburban commuters on that stretch of I-84. And that’s exactly the argument that I—the only black person participating in a spirited discussion among senior editors—made in getting the story moved from Page One to Page 23 atop the paper’s “Connecticut” section. No one was hurt or injured by the gunfire, so the people on the highway deserved to be treated exactly as those in the neighborhood. Had I not been there, however, white lives once again would have been valued higher than black or brown ones.
The point is this: Representation matters. At Prism, a new nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos, diverse voices from every background will be welcome at the table, not just the voice of one “token” person of color. Our executive director is a first-generation American, born to Chinese and Brazilian parents. The managing editor is African American. The deputy managing editor is second-generation Latinx and a lesbian. Our inaugural class of senior fellows is comprised of three African Americans and a Native American, and already we’re in the process of pulling together cohorts of Muslim American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander writers.
To help guide our work, our sounding boards will be as reflective as possible, from race, ethnicity, and religion to sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. It’s intentional work, and the type of work for which I’ve only seen lip service paid during my decades in the news business.
Prism is creating its own niche in the media landscape, repairing what traditional newsrooms have not and promoting diversity in a way that shifts the national conversation. Our goal is to inform, educate, and inspire an audience that’s every bit as reflective of the country as a whole. The tenor of conversations, the issues we prioritize, and the discussions inspired by the voices Prism elevates will be different and new—unadulterated by the lenses media has used for centuries. Our mission statement says that Prism will “elevate the stories, ideas, and solutions from leaders, thinkers, and activists whose voices are critical to a reflective democracy.” And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.