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Panel: Sports coverage hurting from lack of diversity in newsrooms

William C. Rhoden (left) and Stephen A. Smith (photo: Amber McGowan)
Nationally renowned sports journalists and researchers claim a lack of diversification among management in the sports departments of America’s newsrooms is negatively affecting coverage and minority communities.

Panelists raised the issue, as well as others, Monday night during the National Sports Journalism Center forum, “From the Press Box to the Locker Room: The Diversity Divide,” at the IUPUI campus.

UPDATE: Associated Press story on symposium here.

“I’ve been doing this for pay for 32 years and it’s still demoralizing to look at where we are in the 21st century when it comes to diversity,” said panelist William C. Rhoden, a sports columnist for The New York Times.

Rhoden was joined by Stephen A. Smith, former ESPN and current MSNBC contributor; Kristin Huckshorn, senior news editor for ESPN in New York; Garry D. Howard, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors organization; and Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Center director Tim Franklin moderated the panel.

Lapchick cited his own research from 2006, which found 94 percent of Associated Press sports editors were men and 94 percent were white. He also found 93 percent of sports columnists were men and 88 percent were white.

“We just can’t have an understanding of the complexity of sports about the controversies that arise about African American athletes — or white athletes for that matter — unless these numbers change,” Lapchick said.

Panelists agreed those numbers won’t change unless sports departments start hiring more minorities.

 “Diversity lives in all of us,” Howard said. “You have to say, ‘How can I make my sports section more inclusive? How can I make it better?’”

Smith noted racism isn’t likely the driving force behind the lack of diversification in sports departments.

“A lot of times it’s fear. A lot of times it’s straight-up ignorance and all you care about is your little cocoon,” Smith said, adding white sports editors are caught up in figuring out how to keep their jobs.

Huckshorn said minorities who do make it to that management level often have to work extra hard to prove themselves – and their race or gender – to editors, relaying her story of rising through the ranks from IU alumna to The New York Times and, ultimately, ESPN.

”You always had to be better, and you knew if you failed, the next woman or next African-American or Hispanic that came along, they wouldn’t get the job,” Huckshorn said. “You felt this tremendous responsibility to succeed.”

That lack of diversity in the press box is leading to unbalanced coverage, according to panelists. Smith highlighted the case of former San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, who has been heavily criticized in the media for allegedly using steroids en route to becoming Major League Baseball’s home-run king.

Conversely, Smith noted, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire received little, if any, criticism regarding suspicions he also used steroids en route to setting the then-season high home-run mark in 1998.

“Barry Bonds, at the end of the day, did exactly what Mark McGwire did, but did it better,” Smith said. ”Society hated him for it, but loved Mark McGwire.”

That’s because black athletes are sometimes “guilty until proven innocent,” Rhoden said, adding such is not the case for white athletes.

Overall, Franklin said the panelists gave the packed auditorium of about 200 spectators plenty to talk and think about.
“These are problems that have been vexing and persistent for decades and they’re not going to be fixed overnight,” Franklin said, “but I think tonight we talked about some possible solutions to the problem.”

For those who missed the forum, the discussion will air Nov. 5 on the Big Ten Network.

The National Sports Journalism Center, which opened in January, is the nation’s most comprehensive institute for the study of sports media. The center includes undergraduate sports journalism courses on the IUPUI and Bloomington campuses this fall, internship opportunities for students and a speaker series. The center is the national headquarters of the Associated Press Sports Editors.

On Nov. 10th, the center will host a discussion with Fox sportscaster and six-time Emmy Award-winner Joe Buck. That event will be held at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, 114 E. Kirkwood Ave., in Bloomington.

— Kristofer Karol, for the NSJC
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