There aren’t many black student journalists at Yale. We’re talking single digits. During my four years at the News, students of color on the editorial board have been few and far between. It’s the same for the Herald. I’ve never seen another black person in any of the journalism or writing seminars that I’ve taken. Since the Yale Journalism Initiative was launched in 2006, the number of black graduates of the program can be counted on one hand.
None of this is surprising, considering the lack of black reporters — as well as Latino, Asian and American Indian reporters — in newsrooms around the country. In 2009, only 13.26 percent of reporters and editors at newspapers around the country were racial minorities of any kind, according to the American Society of News Editors.
I’d like to think that everyone at Yale, and everyone in America’s journalism industry, recognizes this lack of newsroom diversity as a problem. But I’m not sure they do, mostly because no one ever talks about it. In English 467, “Journalism,” newsroom diversity is not a topic for discussion. It’s rarely discussed at the News, unless we’re glancing bemusedly at the wall of photos of overwhelmingly white men from the last 132 years of editorial boards. And for all of the dozens of talks on “the future of journalism” sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship, I have never seen an advertisement for a talk about the ways in which diversity will play into that future.
But homogeneity in race (and gender, and sexual orientation) is detrimental to the journalism industry. A lack of newsroom diversity leads to a lack of diversity in news coverage. Without a multicultural staff, newspapers and magazines deliver stories that are unrepresentative, unfair, uninteresting and — ultimately — inaccurate.
Ben Bradlee, longtime executive editor of The Washington Post, understood this. (You probably know him as the crotchety old newspaper editor in “All the President’s Men.”) “To be blunt about it, I didn’t know anything about blacks, or the black experience,” Bradlee said in his 1995 memoir, “A Good Life.” He recalled that ten days into his tenure as deputy managing editor in 1965, deadly race riots broke out in Los Angeles. It took one whole week before the editors decided to send a reporter to L.A. to cover the story. “The delay was inexcusable for a newspaper which aspired to be judged as great,” Bradlee said.
These gross oversights are natural when almost all editorial decisions are coming from the same (that is, the white, heterosexual male) perspective.
But why don’t blacks want to enter the journalism industry? Simply put, it’s because the culture of journalism requires reporters of color to check their racial identity at the door.
A good reporter is ostensibly without bias, completely detached from the story. But we all know that’s not true — those unavoidable personal biases, or attempts to compensate for those biases, invariably affect the way you report a story, the people you talk to and the questions you ask. So the only way to appear neutral to colleagues is to take up the accepted straight, white male point of view. If you want editors to think you’re a “good” reporter, you silence the parts of your own identity that make your reporting style and your news judgment different from anyone else’s.
In 1991, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen said the same thing about her initial unwillingness to discuss issues of women’s rights or gender equality in her writing: “Our tendency was to try to blend in, to be ‘another one of the boys.’”
So it ends up that readers of newspapers and magazines, around the country and at Yale, miss out on some of the most interesting, nuanced and surprising stories because most reporters and editors simply don’t see them. If you haven’t checked out the Black Student Alliance at Yale’s new Tumblr, “Blackness at Yale,” you should — mostly because each post addresses ideas and experiences that you won’t find in any campus publication. The challenges of finding a screw date for black women, the self-segregation of many of Yale’s black communities, the ways in which black hair is controversial at Yale — these are all fascinating article ideas for any undergraduate publication.
But these stories never see the light of day, because so few of our campus journalists know to look for them.
Martine Powers is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and a former associate managing editor for the News.