Uncovering Race

An Interview with Amy Alexander

Daniella Gibbs Léger speaks with longtime journalist and author Amy Alexander, whose new book explores race coverage in the media.

SOURCE: Amy Alexander

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Daniella Gibbs Léger talks with Amy Alexander, author of Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention, about race in the media and the lack of diversity in America’s newsrooms.

Daniella Gibbs Léger: Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?

Amy Alexander: I started to think about this book about eight years ago, and in 2005 I decided that I wanted to turn columns that I had been writing on race in the media into a book.

I started writing a column on race and the media in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2000 for a website called The column ran for five years, initially under Africana for three years and then two more years under the auspice of America Online, which was interesting. I had a collection of many blogs, and I began to pull them down and look at them. At first I was doing a collection, but as I reread each column and began to think about what was happening in the media, by mid-2006 it was clear that the landscape was changing very fast.

The demographic projections over the past two census cycles also have shown that America is becoming ethnically diverse faster. I had been a journalist since the mid-1980s and experienced all manner of difficult situations in newsrooms around how to cover “nontraditional communities” in various cities where I worked.

So I decided to try a different tack and make the collection a narrative using my 25 years in journalism as the framework and look at the broader issue of race and how American news organizations are doing writing about race, ethnicity, and class—and how the changes in the news business have affected the ability to cover these new communities that are emerging by the second in the United States.

D: In your opinion, does the demographic makeup of a newsroom affect its coverage of demographics happening outside the newsroom? Do they need to match up? And give me some examples to back up your answer.

A: It does matter, and historically, it has mattered. But it’s become somewhat of a lessened dynamic. The urgency is less than it was during the mid-1950s through the late 1960s where we saw the fulcrum moment of the riots and urban upheaval disturbances that happened in major cities starting in the early 1960s to the early 1970s.

Many of the major news organizations responded slowly but they began to respond to what the participants of the Kerner Commission [National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders] described as the media’s complicity in creating unhappiness and general disillusion in many communities where blacks and Latinos were feeling like (a) they weren’t being represented and were disenfranchised and (b) that their issues weren’t being reflected in the media.

As a result, in the past 50 years you have seen major news organizations making efforts to bring people of color into the editorial ranks.

To drill down a little bit more, it’s hard to quantify in sheer numbers what the ideal percentage is in terms of diverse representation in newsrooms. With The Detroit Free Press, for example, the core community is predominately black. Well, should everyone on staff be black? No, but neither should the editorial team be completely white or Asian or any one thing. What is ideal is a reasonable mix of not only ethnicities all throughout editorial ranks but also individuals who are in positions of authority who come from backgrounds that are diverse as well.

In my time working in major newspapers, I have encountered a particular type of person of color who essentially may as well have been a white person from New Bedford [Massachusetts]. There is a conforming thing that happens sometimes that can be hard to get your arms around, but it creates a numbers game. You can have a managing editor who is black or Latino, but if that individual is not prepared to advocate for nontraditional viewpoints or understands what is going on with poor people, it defeats the purpose.

D: That’s the argument for having more than just that one “token person” because often they say, “I’m not going to put my neck on the line. I’m not going to have anyone else up here to back me up.”

A: In my time working for daily newspapers—you asked for examples—I can share an example that is the reverse example, but it makes the point. When I worked at The Miami Herald, one of the most ethnically, class-diverse newsrooms in the country, I was blessed with being assigned to an editor who was not only a woman and African American but had a very expansive sensibility and was open-minded, and that’s about as good as it gets.

I’ve had a number of male and white editors that also had that particular sensibility because that is the ideal personality and skill set for a gatekeeper editor—one who is assigning the stories and making resource-allocation decisions. You definitely want someone who is not locked in and rigid in their thinking. It inhibits their ability to absorb new ideas and new aspects of what’s going on.

D: How do issues of race and class play out in the coverage of stories pertaining to people of color?

A: There are a variety of ways you will see the positive effect of having a news organization that is ideologically diverse, class diverse, and ethnically diverse.

A recent example is the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. If you go back and review it, I notice a slow, dawning sensitivity in pointing out that the majority of people being left to drown were poor people of color. It showed the kind of reluctance of white or black journalists with middle-class backgrounds to drill down on that aspect.

Some people on web publications began to draw that out, and there was an overnight switch where journalists like Anderson Cooper and the writers at the big papers like The New York Times began to really take apart this dynamic of the federal government not serving this population. And that’s a tricky proposition for a journalist who is out covering a disaster live.

You really don’t want to get into suppositions, but we all saw that happen in real time. And finally someone actually said it: Jack Shafer, a former Slate columnist. He wrote a strong column on day number four or five following the hurricane. He laid it out and said, “Why isn’t anyone pointing out these poor black people are being abandoned? What is wrong with saying that a population that has been at risk for a long time is being ill-served here?”

So I think in general, there is more sensitivity in the legacy of the newsroom. I don’t work in big news rooms anymore, but I’m constantly having conversations with journalists all across the country who are white, black, or Latino who have been doing this for 25 to 30 years or are relatively new at it. There is a heightened awareness about a need for being more mindful about covering these issues—certainly more than there was when I entered the newsroom 25 years ago.

I had an editor in San Francisco at the Examiner newspaper say to me, as he informed me that my position was being eliminated, “Oh, don’t worry, Amy, you won’t have any problem finding a new job because you’re young, you’re black, and you’re a woman.”

And he just said it like, “Here’s a Christmas present. Don’t weep, your job is going away but you’ll be fine.”

This was 1989, but I tell that story in the book to illustrate that a lot of the coverage issues arise because some individuals still have a status quo mindset that even if you think of yourself as being open-minded and well-meaning and liberal sometimes people hit a wall of understanding, or maybe they’re so competitive within this trade that they are not willing to acknowledge that a person who is really different than they are can be as skilled and as deserving.

A lot of it is hard to get your arms around, but you know it when you see it.

D: By 2050 it’s projected that there will be no clear ethnic majority in this country, and I don’t hear a lot of talk about it [in the media]. Is it because there aren’t a lot of diverse voices making those decisions? Or is it because they don’t know it’s coming, or they don’t care that it’s coming? What are your thoughts?

A: I think that it’s not that journalists are not aware. Certainly at the larger and more established news organizations [they are].

I had a conversation with the new Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, David Leonhardt, and I asked him if he had a full-time demographics beat based in Washington. And he said we have a reporter and she gets to those stories when she can. He was not dismissive about it, but he said she mainly covers the Mid-Atlantic, that’s her first priority, and she does the demographics in her spare time. This is The New York Times!

I’m not saying bad stuff about David Leonhardt or the institution. But these projections come out of the various think tanks like clockwork, and there doesn’t seem to be a real sense of urgency at the traditional news organizations around putting pieces together or asking the big brains in sociology and economics to really look and make projections. It seems to me there is a way to do coverage that sets the stage for what is taking place in real time.

There are any number of ways to cover demographics and any numbers of contexts to position this changing landscape, but the newsroom demographics I think are related to this absence of comprehensive coverage of the changing demographics out in the real world.

The American Society of News Editors for more than 20 years has been conducting demographic surveys of news organizations. It used to be that they only surveyed newspapers, but now they are trying to expand that obviously.

For the past few years it has been a tough slog because so many traditional newspapers are struggling, people are in flux, and diversity issues fall off the table. The surveys aren’t being responded to with the same efficiency as they had been even 10 years ago.

Another wrinkle is that some of the new media outlets, including well-known and relatively large-scale online-only publications, including Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo, dis the ASNE. They won’t respond to these surveys.

So what people like Milton Coleman, who heads the ASNE, and Richard Prince, who writes an interesting column on race and the media, have been charting and discussing publically is this seemingly reluctance from some of these new media organizations to share their demographic numbers. And when staff numbers are made available it becomes apparent that, like most news organizations, they are pretty much all white and relatively young.

D: New media could pick up some of the slack in the coverage of demographic change, and maybe the issue is that they themselves are not reflecting the demographics.

A: And this speaks to the comfort factor that exists in any institutional setting—that people want to hire people they are familiar with who maybe went to the same school and they feel have something in common with them.

That’s not unique to the news business, old or new, but the new media landscape is rich terrain and very diverse, including ideologically. In some ways it is a golden time for audiences and practitioners, journalists like me and producers, who want to provide in-depth coverage of issues of particular importance to people of color, poor people, or gay people (or whatever your affiliation is).

Now anyone can be their own producer or news organization. The quality might be questionable, but you have publications like Color Lines, which is a high-level “news-like” organization. And publications that are highly political partisan—but by all other intents and purposes operate like a news organization—find out what’s going on and they report it, though a lot of these places have agendas.

Now there are so many more outlets exploring what is changing. There are many more Latinos living in the Carolinas, for example. A friend sent me an article written by an academic at UNC [University of North Carolina] that tells stories about how people are interacting differently in these small towns around the college triangle. It’s really fascinating.

But the larger footprint, the news organizations, are really not focusing on the changing demographics except for when the census bureau releases something.

I prefer to be optimistic, because I want the young journalists to be good. They tend to be really swift with all the new technology. They’re all multimedia experts by the time they fall out of the cradle, but my concern is that the fundamentals of journalism are also an important part of their arsenal because it has to be. Journalism is a process of verification, and if you don’t know how to make sure that the facts are right then it doesn’t matter how flashy your video is and how shiny your blog looks if the facts are in question.

Daniella Gibbs Leger is Vice President for New American Communities Initiatives.

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Daniella Gibbs Léger

Executive Vice President, Communications and Strategy