By Drew Kerr
University of Iowa
It could be as simple as using the word “church” instead of “house of worship.” Or using the phrase “Islamic terrorists” instead of “Al Qaeda terrorists.” Or using the term “Jihad” as a blanket term to describe terrorists’ acts.
“You stop and think, ‘Is worship an inclusive term?’” said Marcia Nelson, a freelance religion writer and the moderator for a Sunday panel, “Holy and Hip: Faith in Popular Culture Today.”
“We, as journalists, should be paying attention to the words we use and how we use them.”
But while covering Islam — a 1,400-year-old faith group that consists of more than one billion diverse people today — has risen to new significance in the current context, it is hardly the only diversity issue looming in newsrooms across the county.
From putting more minorities on the beat to covering the immigration debate accurately and fairly to seeking a variety of sources — in business, entertainment and every other imaginable coverage area — SPJ continues to seek a press that accurately mirrors the audience it serves.
“It’s a problem we’ve been working on for 30 years and, despite dramatic demographic changes in the country, the newsroom remains mostly white,” said Sally Lehrman, SPJ’s national diversity chairwoman and an independent journalist from Montara, Calif.
Lehrman, who helped SPJ create online diversity resources, traces the emphasis on newsroom diversity to the 1968 Kerner Report, commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson to delve into the angst behind urban riots.
“A lot of blame was put on the media because minorities felt out of the civil debate,” Lehrman said. “People said, ‘They don’t know me. They don’t know what I think.’ Out of that came the movement to diversify.”
But just how successful have newsrooms been?
Minorities account for just 14 percent of a media work force of 54,800 this year, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors — a 10 percent increase since the organization began its census in 1978 but still well below the percentage of minorities living in the United States.
“Being a black man in the business, it’s just a reality of the newsroom,” said Curtis Lawrence, a journalism professor at Columbia College in Chicago who moderated a Friday panel discussion on the relevance of black-owned media in the 21st century.
Lawrence, who was a print reporter prior to becoming a teacher, said focusing efforts on the recruitment and retention of minorities in the newsroom wasn’t just something that should be done to make for rosy statistics.
“The business should not look at this as some frill or charitable act,” Lawrence said. “This is just good journalism practice.”
Hermene Hartman, the publisher and CEO of the Hartman Publishing Group, said the lack of an authentic voice in the mainstream press necessitates ethnic media publications, such as the century-old, black-owned Chicago Defender.
“In black media the voice is pure,” Hartman said. “White media is afraid to say ‘racism,’ but we call it like it is. We are the advocates.”
Dori Maynard is the president and CEO of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, a non-profit media-training corporation that aims to expand opportunities for minority journalists. She says newsrooms miss out on the insight from minority reporters when they aren’t brought into the organizations.
“Just like we (reporters) go to experts on the military to learn about military issues, we should also go to minorities on minority issues,” she said.