By Jon Funabiki
The scar on Russell Contreras’s cheek comes from his high school days, when he tried to help a white classmate escape a pummeling. His school in Houston, Texas, had been integrated in the 1970s, and one unfortunate byproduct was a campus ritual called “white day”—the day that black and Hispanic kids would randomly pick on white classmates and punch them.
Contreras, now a journalist with the Associated Press in Albuquerque, recalls that he saw that his classmate was about to be targeted. So he grabbed the friend around the collar, pretended to punch him about the head, and tried to drag him away from his attackers. But that only led to many fists flying in all directions, and he got slugged by somebody wearing a big ring that gashed his face.
Thus, for all its good intentions, school desegregation in Houston had backfired in a sad way. While the campus was integrated, there hadn’t been enough attention paid to how the students learned the larger life lesson of how to live, study and work together.
Contreras told his story to a group of journalists, professional leaders and educators who gathered in Washington, D.C., to brainstorm ways to promote greater diversity in the news media, and the parallels with the story about his school were obvious. One objective is to promote greater integration of America’s newsrooms. But the larger goal is to provide better news coverage of our diverse communities, and that takes journalists who have different perspectives, who can work together and who can establish strong connections with those communities.
Contreras is president of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity, an organization that has been prodding newspapers, television and radio stations and other outlets to take diversity to heart. The UNITY movement has drawn support from a richly diverse range of professionals. The meeting room at The Washington Post included white, Latino, black, Asian, Native American and gay and lesbian participants.
UNITY worries that news companies have shunted diversity to the back seat of the bus as they have struggled with the recession, the need to invent new revenue streams and the adoption of new technologies during the past decade. Data point: The number of black journalists working at newspapers declined 40 percent between 1997 and 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.
This has occurred even as the population of the United States has grown ever more diverse, pushing many cities and some states into the “majority-minority” category. Meanwhile, matters of race, economic class, religion and related issues have become even more pronounced in our headlines, as evidenced by the police shooting stories coming out of Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C.
The participants called on editors to put a higher priority on recruiting more diverse job candidates. They accused some editors of having a “super syndrome” complex that required minority applicants to have resumes that far outshine those of white candidates. Some of the newer digital media companies received special criticism for, as one person politely put it, “not being mature in the diversity space.” Still others noted that some gay journalists are still afraid to be open about sexual orientation in their newsrooms.
Many talked about the need to help news organizations reframe the way they cover complex stories. I gave as an example Renaissance Journalism’s Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, which is helping education reporters across the country. By applying an “equity lens” to education reporting, the reporters are shining light on the systemic and structural issues that shortchange the educational experiences of poor and minority students.
By the end of the day, the ideas put forth by the participants filled dozens of flip-chart. Contreras promised that UNITY’s board of directors will look consider the ideas as it fashions new strategies for the future.
UNITY’s own future as an organization also is at stake as well, Contreras and Interim Executive Director Eloiza Altoro acknowledged. The organization was founded more than 20 years ago by the nation’s four largest groups representing journalists of color: The Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Native American Journalists Association. Disclosure: As a journalist and educator, I’ve been involved in UNITY activities since 1994 when I conducted a San Francisco State University study on news media stereotyping. Later, as a program officer with the Ford Foundation, I was able to steer grants towards UNITY programs as part of an initiative on news media and diversity.
UNITY’s major undertaking was a joint national convention that was held every four years. The conventions put a spotlight on diversity and media issues, drawing 6,000-8,000 participants each time. Because of the buzz, U.S. presidential candidates—including then-Sen. Barrack Obama—included the conventions as a campaign stop.
Major shifts in the coalition took place starting in 2011 when the black journalists group, and later, the Hispanic journalists group dropped out of the coalition. The main disagreement had to do with how the partners split convention revenues, which help sustain the individual associations. The remaining two association members—the Asian and Native Americans—then invited NLGJA: The Association of LGBT Journalists to join the coalition. What once was called UNITY: Journalists of Color is now known as UNITY: Journalists for Diversity.
Since then, UNITY has stumbled trying to establish its core activities and reason for being. In one major step, they replaced the large national conventions with regional conferences. The first will be held May 2 at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, to put a special emphasis on Native American communities.
It should be noted that NABJ’s and NAHJ’s falling out with UNITY occurred at the organizational level, not the people level. Today, many African American and Hispanic journalists remain active in UNITY activities and participated in the brainstorming meeting. Contreras is a past president of NAHJ. Bob Butler, a KCBS San Francisco reporter and current president of NABJ, was among the meeting attendees.
Jokes about there being “disunity within UNITY” fail to recognize the strong roots and passion that drive the journalists. By working together, they have built cross-cultural relationships—the ingredients that apparently were missing in Contreras’s high school—that have kept the UNITY movement alive for more than two decades.
Jon Funabiki is the founder and executive director of Renaissance Journalism. He is a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University.