White as the driven snow

Anyone who's been in journalism for a while notices the same thing. It's . . . awfully white in here. Awfully white. Even though journalism as a whole skews remarkably liberal. Even at left-wing opinion magazines. The only newsrooms that I'm aware of that aren't really remarkably white are at places like Essence.

Why is that? Racism doesn't really seem like a very parsimonious explanation. Newsrooms are, as the Jayson Blair scandal showed, very eager to have minority reporters. Being human, and primates, and all, and also living in a society that had slavery for the first 60% of its history, one can't ever write racism out of the picture entirely. But this doesn't seem like a good explanation for why there are more black accountants than black reporters.

Over at The American Prospect, Dana Goldstein wrestles with the question:

Whitewashed. That's one way to describe college newsrooms, and most of the professional newsrooms I've worked in as well. Over at CampusProgress.org, Justin Elliott, who last year completed a term as executive editor of the excellent Brown Daily Herald, delves into the vicious cycle that contributes to homogeneity in journalism: Low-income and immigrant students can't afford to volunteer time at the paper when they could be working for pay, and their parents don't see journalism as an acceptable career path. The kids who do invest time at the paper are thus more likely to be upper-income and white, and they do a bad job of covering communities of color on campus because they aren't embedded in them socially.

Students of color learn to mistrust the school paper, and then even those students of color who would otherwise be interested in journalism decide not to get involved. The effects trickle right up the journalism career ladder, especially in the magazine world, which provides fewer paid internships for college students and lower-paid entry level jobs. The result is heavily white applicant pools for programs like TAP's writing fellowship and The New Republic's reporter-researcher gig.

This doesn't, I think, quite explain it. First of all, minority students at elite colleges aren't particularly poor. They aren't as likely to be wealthy as their classmates, but at schools like Brown and Penn (where I went) less than 10% of the student body is drawn from the bottom two income quintiles. Most minority students at very elite universities are middle class or better. They don't show up in the college newsrooms either.

But I do think that money probably plays a role: not income, but wealth. Minorities--and I think what everyone's really interested in is black and Latino reporters, even though Asians are just as woefully underrepresented in newsrooms--are much less wealthy than white Americans.

An upper middle class white kid who decides to become a journalist is consigning themselves to a lower standard of living than the one they grew up with; at one time I considered writing a book on downward mobility. But it's not the same decision that a kid whose parents are a janitor and a waitress makes. Even if their parents don't give them money, the upper-middle class kid know that if some financial disaster appears, their parents can step into alleviate it. Help with things like housing downpayments in expensive urban areas will be forthcoming. Eventually, a small inheritence will provide capital for needed projects. Meanwhile, an enhanced lifestyle is generally available through parental meals, vacation homes, theater tickets, and so forth.

A kid whose parents have no assets, on the other hand, is taking an enormous risk--or at least feels as if they are. And when they accept a low salary, they're really accepting a low salary, with all that it entails in terms of risk and lifestyle.