'Informal hiring methods' in journalism verge on racism
By Ted Pease
The Kerner Commission's findings have been repeated so often that many of us can recite them by heart: "The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world," the 1968 report said, criticizing "a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America."
Eradicating that became a priority for the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1978, and how to do it - aside from education - seemed simple enough: get more minority writers, reporters and editors into America's newsrooms.
But this year, as ASNE's goal of achieving racial "parity" in the newsroom by 2000 falls far short, here comes more bad news on the diversity front: back in 1968, editors complained that, "We can't find qualified Negroes."
Today, more and more minority journalism school grads seem to be unwanted. That's one finding of a reseach team from the University of Georgia, whose analysis of hiring patterns of recent journalism school graduates shows that race is the greatest predictor of whether eager young journalists can land a newspaper job. White students are finding jobs easier to come by than minority grads with comparable credentials, the study says.
Lee B. Becker and his colleagues Edmund Lauf and Wilson Lowrey find "strong evidence that race and ethnicity are associated with lower levels of employment among journalism/mass communication graduates."
Becker heads the Cox Research Center at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and since 1987 has directed an annual journalism employment survey of new journalism school grads. The new analysis of how minority graduates fared looks at 10 years of the survey data.
Just as affirmative action efforts across the country are being scaled back because they're seen as no longer needed, things seem to be getting worse in terms of entry-level placement of minority journalists. "Minority status appears to be becoming . . . increasingly negative in its contribution to the hiring outcome," the researchers report.
The study finds an employment gap between whites and minority journalism graduates that is worsening. When factors like grades, internship experience, the quality of the journalism program and other variables are held constant, the study finds that although gender doesn't seem to affect whether a new graduate gets a job offer (actually, women do slightly better), race does.
The effect is worst among black graduates, the Becker team found. Hispanics also had a tougher time getting jobs than whites, while Asian-Americans seem least affected by the race factor.
Though couched in careful academic language, the Becker report's message seems clear: Intentional or not, racism still appears to be alive and well in entry-level hiring practices at U.S. newspapers.
That conclusion is borne out by ASNE's own hiring and retention figures.
About 4 percent of U.S. newsroom staff were minorities in 1978, when newspaper companies declared a more diverse workforce a top priority; today, that proportion is just below 12 percent.
Meanwhile, the Census Bureau projects the U.S. minority population to hit 28 percent by 2000. Communities where the nation's largest newspapers circulate, of course, already have "minority" populations approaching or above the 50 percent mark.
Becker and his colleagues point out that the hiring data underline the need for continuing affirmative action efforts to address embedded social inequities in the work place. "The evidence argues convincingly that policies designed to offset biases in the labor market have not been effective," they write. "A strengthening of those policies - rather than a weakening of them - seems to be in order."
It may not be racism, the researchers observe, although they say racism can't be ruled out from the data. The culprit may be "informal hiring methods," they say - hiring that results from social contacts and friendships, and the tendency for people to hire others who are like them.
Such practices may not be illegal, and may even be understandable, but they also represent an insidious and self-perpetuating barrier to changing the face and performance of American newspapers.
The study's findings aren't a surprise to Federico Subervi of the University of Texas-Austin, outgoing chair of the Commission on the Status of Minorities, part of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. But the findings do make Subervi angry.
"This study stands documents the still-pervasive negligence in the portrayals of ethnic minorities in the same media that fail to hire them," said Subervi, who also consults with the National Council of La Raza on media portrayals of the Latino community.
"If anyone still wants to make any more lame excuses to eliminate affirmative action, this study should throw them (the excuses and maybe some of the excusers) out the window," Subervi said.
Pease, head of the Department of Communication at Utah State University, is author of the 1991 newspaper diversity study, "The Newsroom Barometer."
Archived Months:September 1998