WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – ‘We must speak for ourselves’ was the rallying cry for journalists of color gathered in the new Washington Convention Center August 4-8, confronted with another year of bleak statistics showing their numbers in America’s newsrooms are stagnant.

They came together for the Unity Conference, an organization of members of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and the Native American Journalist Association (NAJA) that meets every four years.

The conference was four days of workshops, training sessions, a career fair and social events that brought journalists together to enhance their craft and network within the industry.


Unity conferees listened to Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, on August 5, as he told them that this was the “most important election of our generation” and encouraged them to give an accurate reporting.

The next day, President George Bush spoke. Knowing that diversity was on the minds of the attendees, the President used his administration as an example, telling the group, “I’ve got a diverse administration.”

He added, “Hopefully, that sets an example for people when it comes to hiring, including news organizations.”

It was commonplace at Unity to walk the halls of the new Washington Convention Center and see the likes of CNN‘s Fredericka Whitfield, USA Today‘s columnist DeWayne Wickham and ABC News‘ Carole Simpson. These veteran journalists and others at the convention, in the midst of declining numbers and dreary signs that things may change, continue to forge ahead and encourage others to join the industry.

“These numbers certainly should not serve to pit one racial or ethnic minority group against another,” said NAHJ President Juan Gonzalez to reporters. “There is not much here for any of our minority journalists groups to be very happy about. That’s why we will continue to work together to jointly face a media industry that resists change when it comes to diversifying its newsrooms.”

For many participants at the convention, diversity just means getting a job in major media. Many see their work in ethnic media as a launching pad for major media.

“Our mission is to get people in the mainstream newsroom,” explained Eva Martinez who writes for El Tecolate, a San Francisco publication. She told The Final Call, “We are the new face of American journalism. We are the pipeline connecting much needed talent and perspective.”

The conference offered an extensive job fair full of recruiters from news organizations. Eager job seekers came with resumes in hand and clips to share with any and all interested.

“Ask any of the young people why they’re here, they’ll tell you, ‘I’m looking for a job.’ We need more than just jobs. The hard part comes with having a unified vision among the groups,” Roberto Lovato, of the Pacific News Service, told The Final Call. “Our communities are getting blasted and we’re not responding properly.”

What could real unity do?
George Curry, NNPA editor-in-chief, likened the conference to “pre-Brown v. Board of Education, separate, but equal.”

He told The Final Call, “You have four separate-but-equal conventions here. So, it’s a farce, in a sense, when you say ‘this is Unity.’ This is dis-unity, because we really don’t have any basic interaction unless it’s social. Every panel should have somebody from a different group on it, so you can have different perspectives and you can force everybody to step outside of their own group.”

He continued, “Everybody likes it in terms of advertisers and exhibitors because you’ve got them all–you have one-stop shopping. But in terms of real interaction, with journalists learning from each other, and learning about each other’s issues that didn’t happen here, and never happens. This is my least favorite journalism convention.”

Although the groups came together physically for workshops, networking and social activities, The Final Call asked the question, “What could real unity do for journalists and communities of color?”

“Unity would result in a culture that negotiates with the corporate culture that’s grown beyond our ability to shape the mind of young journalists and shape the mind of the Unity Convention,” offered Mr. Lovato. “The unified thing is to clearly distinguish ourselves from mainstream media that too many people want to be a part of. We need a broader vision than just quotas. The content is not talked about here. Content shapes vision. We don’t define our otherness very well.”

While some at unity simply sought nearness to the very institutions and corporations that were keeping them out of the newsrooms, others did want more than a job.

“We are too focused on getting people of color into the newsroom,” insisted Marcelo Ballve of the New California Media (NCM), a nationwide association of over 700 ethnic media organizations representing the development of a more inclusive journalism. “Getting us there doesn’t address the content or the culture there. It doesn’t change the newsroom.”

The numbers in the newsroom
According to the 2004 Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA)/Ball State University annual survey, Black journalists comprised 10.3 percent of local television news staffs in 2003, up from 8.4 percent in 2002. However, the 2003 number is only .2 percent greater than in 1995. In local radio newsrooms, Black journalists rose to 7.3 percent in 2003, compared with 4.8 percent in 2002 and 5.7 percent in 1995.

But Herbert Lowe, NABJ president and a courts reporter at Newsday in New York, points out that even the survey’s author reports the radio numbers are no cause for celebration.

“Another year, another survey–it’s the same thing: The industry is not sufficiently hiring or retaining or promoting Black journalists. Sitting across tables and bemoaning the same excuses isn’t getting us anywhere. The industry must hire, retain and promote. Plain and simple,” Mr. Lowe said in a statement after the report was released.

“In fact, the actual number of minorities in radio news has fallen,” writes Bob Papper, a professor at Ball State, in the RTNDA magazine Communicator, “but since the numbers haven’t fallen as fast as the overall drop in the workforce, the percentage of remaining minorities has gone up.”

In the world of daily papers, the news was equally bleak. The yearly American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) census of minorities in the newsrooms painted another disturbing picture.

“The number of minorities in American newspapers continues to grow, which is a good thing,” said President Peter Bhatia, as he released the 2004 study in April. “But the increase is at a snail’s pace, and the overall total is still woefully low. As the economy improves and hiring increases, it is time for all of us in the industry to step up and move this number more quickly towards parity.”

ASNE Diversity Committee chair David Yarnold said at the press conference, “After all the numbers are digested, the question remains: Are editors encouraging growing numbers of people of color to help change the content of their newspapers to better reflect our changing communities?”

“We are dismayed and perplexed by the continued lack of significant progress in the overall hiring of Latinos last year,” said NAHJ head Mr. Gonzalez to reporters after the ASNE report was released. “Given all the attention newspaper chains are devoting to new publications geared to the Latino community, we expected a big increase in the numbers of Latinos now more than ever. What happened?”

Furthermore, NAHJ’s analysis of the ASNE newsroom census indicates that there was “virtual stagnation” for the nation’s more than 1,400 daily English-language papers when it comes to increasing the numbers of Latinos, Mr. Gonzalez noted. This follows a more positive trend in 2002, which saw an increase of 114 new Latino journalists.

NAHJ is also concerned that, for the second consecutive year, Black journalists saw an even more woeful increase in their numbers–only 19 new jobs in 2003–and that they were the only group to see a net decline in the number of newsroom supervisors, from 587 to 572.

A skewed view
Another report released during the convention describes the low numbers of minorities in the Washington Press Corps. Only 60 of the 574 journalists and three out of 36 bureau chiefs reporting on Washington for major newspapers were journalists of color.

“There is no justification for any media company to staff its bureau in Washington, D.C. without people of color,” said Unity President Ernest Sotomayer at a press conference during the convention.

“It’s dishonest journalism, because it’s a willful decision made to deliberately exclude diverse staff and that means the media company is satisfied with providing its readers or audiences with a skewed view of the news.”

Los Angeles Times White House Correspondent Ed Chen’s description of what it’s like working in the nation’s capital as a journalist of color aptly describes what it’s like for other journalists working in the entire industry.

“This is like an old southern town, like when John Kennedy came to the city. Very little has changed since then.”

(Askia Muhammad contributed to this report.)