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Defending diversity in the newsroom: how broadening staff demographics upholds journalistic values

For all its status as a hot button issue, Affirmative Action is a pretty simple – and sensible – concept.

Practiced the right way, such programs compel employers to widen the scope of candidates for job opportunities. The best initiatives have no hiring quotas or demands for certain types of people in certain jobs; they just count on employers to do the right thing, once they’re presented with a truly wide range of job candidates.

Which brings us to the latest study released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). The study examined diversity levels among sports journalism staffers at more than 320 websites and newspapers belonging to the Associated Press Sports Editors organization.

Requested by the APSE, the study gave disappointing grades for both racial diversity (C+) and gender diversity (F) in jobs such as sports editor, assistant sports editor, columnist and reporter.

According to their survey, white men and women were 87.4 percent of staffs at APSE member newspapers and web sites, while black people were 6.8 percent, Latinos were 3.3 percent, Asian Americans were 1.9 percent and other racial minorities were less than one percent.

The data confirms what anyone who has visited a press box during a sporting event already knows: the industry is dominated by white males, who hold more than 85 percent of every job listed above. When it comes to the top job, sports editor, 97 percent of those in the position are white males.

These disappointing numbers emerge as demographers announce dramatic diversity shifts in the 2010 Census. They refer to our current ten-year span a “pivot decade,” where non-whites are expected to form a majority of America’s children by 2015 and the minority population of every state has increased from levels in the year 2000.

Besides women, Hispanics may be the most underrepresented category in sports reporting. They comprise 16 percent of the population but just 3.3 percent of APSE jobs (and yes, census figures show Hispanics are biggest engine in the minority population boom). Similarly, African Americans were at 13 percent of the population and Asian Americans stood at 5 percent.

Time for some Affirmative Action in the sports department.

Consider the words of the study’s primary author, TIDES director Richard Lapchick: “My primary recommendation to the APSE is that it adopts a Ralph Wiley rule, named after the late African American writer,” Lapchick wrote in the report. “The Wiley Rule would be like the Rooney Rule in the NFL and would call for a diverse pool of candidates including men and women for each opening of these key positions.”

I know; we’re mired in a serious media recession. There are cutbacks everywhere. McClatchy Co. recently announced layoffs at several newspapers, including the Kansas City Star and Raleigh News & Observer, and competition for the jobs which remain is fierce.

But the biggest struggle for any business in a downturn is to uphold product quality. Staff diversity isn't solely, or even partially, a moral issue for journalism. Diversifying personnel maintains the quality of a product in a recession by ensuring it remains accurate, fair and fully informed. These are core values for journalism, as a craft and as a business, and those fall by the wayside if diversity fades due to economic issues.

When Ines Sainz gets catcalls in the locker room or the next Jenn Sterger comes forward with tales of a celebrity athlete’s advances, it may help coverage to have greater diversity in those editors and reports covering the story.

When Michael Vick’s involvement with dog fighting was discovered, reporters immediately questioned the influence of his upbringing. The reaction of black sports fans compared to the response of other demographics also emerged in the headlines. How much better could journalists decode such ideas with an editorial staff that reaches significantly beyond white males?

And at a time when consumers increasingly set the heartbeat of media, doesn’t it make sense to put some effort into creating editorial staffs more closely representing the population – one in which 35 percent of the people are racial or cultural minorities and over half the population is female?

This is an issue reaching beyond the sports world, of course.

The American Society of News Editors recorded a slow, steady decline in the number of minority journalists in newsrooms over the last three years, even though overall newsroom jobs rose slightly in 2010. Since 2001, the number of black journalists in the newsrooms surveyed dropped more than 30 percent.

Lapchick’s figures showed a decline in minorities and women as sports editors but a slight uptick in assistant sports editors and columnists, perhaps indicating that at least some folks may be shifted around.

It’s an enduring irony that, while we crank out story after story analyzing how changing Census figures may affect everything from the 2012 election to federal and state funding, journalists have offered much less thought on how those moving demographics impact our own industry.

Here’s hoping that’s another trend that turns around in 2011, before our audience leaves us behind for good.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
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