Where Are All the Minority Journalists?

Homogeneity is a big problem in an industry whose ambition is to serve and inform an increasingly diverse public.

Mark Makela / Reuters

Landing an entry-level gig in a newsroom is no easy task. Positions that are truly open to the public are hard to come by, and when one pops up, competition is fierce. So what does it take to get a job in the industry right now? Applicants just need to be savvy, persistent—and it also helps a lot if they’re white.

While the media industry has changed drastically over the past decade or so, the demographic composition of newsrooms hasn’t. In 2014, all minority groups accounted for 22.4 percent of television journalists, 13 percent of radio journalists, and 13.34 percent of journalists at daily newspapers. Pretty pathetic, considering the fact that minorities make up 37.4 percent of the U.S. population. But walk into most major newsrooms in the U.S. and you’ll be overwhelmed by the whiteness and maleness of the editorial staff. Journalism certainly isn’t the only field that is notoriously and historically homogenous. But this is a big problem for an industry whose ambition is to serve and inform an increasingly diverse public.

In an analysis published in the Columbia Journalism Review, Alex T. Williams, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, addresses the question of why there are so few minorities in mainstream media. Williams debunks the notion that the cause is that there are few minorities who pursue journalism. Minorities made up 21.4 percent of graduates with degrees in journalism or communications between 2004 and 2014, but less than half of minority graduates found full-time jobs, while two-thirds of white graduates did.

The disparities were apparent across the industry. Minorities with specializations in either print or broadcast journalism were 17 percent less likely to find full-time jobs than their white classmates. Those who focused on public relations were 25 percent less likely to have been hired full time. Only those specializing in advertising had similar employment rates, with minorities trailing their classmates in this field by only 2 percent.

The problem stems from the way many publications hire. As Williams points out, newsrooms often value the types of internships and experiences that minorities are less likely to have. They’re less likely to have attended schools that have campus newspapers or are less likely to join them. They also may not have the financial support that enables some aspiring journalists to spend weeks, months, or years working unpaid internships. They may also not have access to the same types of networks that their white peers do, which can lead to important referrals and informal job support.

The lack of diversity isn’t just a problem for aspiring journalists; it’s ultimately bad for everyone, especially news companies and their audiences. In a 2013 article for The Atlantic, Riva Gold wrote, “Fewer minorities are getting the opportunity to work in news, and news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and—especially in cases where language ability is crucial— even to report on minority populations in their communities.”

That can lead to news coverage that is incomplete, tone-deaf, or biased. Those possibilities are especially troubling as the country’s complex and often ugly relationships among people of different races, cultures, ethnicities, and religions are pushed to the forefront of the American conscience.

Publications that fail to keep pace with changing demographics not only miss chances to connect with more of the population in a meaningful way at a time when growth is crucial to a publication’s solvency—but they also do their audience a disservice by failing to capture and relay the voices, concerns, and feelings of entire swaths of the American population.