Chicago mayor isn’t wrong about the diversity crisis in city’s newsrooms

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to grant one-on-one interviews to journalists of color conjures my own thoughts about the unbearable whiteness of Chicago news media. 

Her decision reminded me of spring 2019 when I hurriedly left a Manhattan classroom to board a plane to Chicago for the highly anticipated Chicago Headline Club annual Lisagor awards. The ceremony was being held at the elite Union League Club where the city’s best journalists would celebrate a year of doing the transformational work that is journalism — the only profession explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

Author Deborah Douglas stands under the sign of the newly renamed Ida B. Wells Drive in downtown Chicago. “I took it because for me, journalism is who I am and not where I work,” she said of the image. “For journalists of color who thrive, we reclaim our gift of storytelling day after day— inside and outside of newsrooms.” (Photo courtesy of Deborah Douglas)

As a former Chicago Sun-Times newsroom manager, it dawned on me that I would be seeing familiar faces for the first time in years. When I crossed the threshold, I was taken aback by the overwhelming number of white journalists in the room. Surely they couldn’t be all there is when it comes to journalistic excellence, I thought.

I took a visual census of Brown and Black  journalists (including those I have taught as journalism professor), as I considered years of downsizing and attrition at local outlets. I reflected on the ugly politics of credibility and representation those missing journalists of color likely navigated while still working in them. I know the stories or experienced them myself. It was like they, we, me were never there. We had been despresenced right out of Chicago’s news ecosystem.

The thought of us, the hope of us, at least on that night, was never a given.

That scene all came rushing back when Lightfoot, a Black lesbian, announced her decision in celebration of her two-year anniversary as mayor. Lightfoot shouldn’t have to do the work of diversifying local newsrooms. That’s journalism’s job. It’s one that we fail to do EVERY. SINGLE. OPPORTUNITY.

Instead, the idea of leveling the playing field for a blink in time turned explosive, and it singed the mayor on a local and national scale. Fox News got ahold of the story, and Tulsi Gabbard, former Democratic presidential hopeful, went into a tizzy. It was as if centering Black and Brown journalists this one time could possibly make up for the disparate impacts of not only our newsrooms, but more important, our communities.

Lightfoot might not be the right messenger for solving the crisis that exists at Chicago news outlets, but she ain’t wrong. The numbers don’t lie. Newsrooms are less diverse than society at large: A 2018 Pew Research Center study shows three-quarters of U.S. newsroom employees are white, compared with two-thirds of workers: “Almost half (48%) of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white men compared with about a third (34%) of workers overall.”

At the Chicago Tribune, 20.5% of its newsroom staff were journalists of color, according to a 2019 survey by the American Society of News Editors. The Chicago Sun-Times 28.5%. Comparatively, Chicago’s population breaks down like so: 28.8% Latino, 29.6% Black, 6.6% Asian, 0.3% Native American, 33% white, and 2.8% two or more races. In 2020, industry analyst Richard Prince wrote about the Chicago Tribune Guild’s concerns over the loss of two more journalists of color.

Nationally, a representation gap exists in electronic media, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association. People of color comprised 39.3% of the U.S. population in 2020 but only 26.6% of the TV news workforce. In 2020, the percentage of Latino and Black news directors was down in local news

I’ve been following newsroom parity numbers since I was a freshman studying journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School, when I had the keys to the Evanston Review, my first news industry job. Despite the influx of Black journalists following the revelations of the 1968 Kerner Commission report, the numbers never truly reflect the communities we serve.

Despite the burgeoning Latino population, newsrooms aren’t positioned to capture the nuance this diverse, multiethnic cohort deserves. These perspectives are necessary for a full, complete and true story of all of our lives, whatever our background.

Brown and Black journalists aren’t missing because we don’t want to tell the story that is Chicago. At an anecdotal level, Black and Brown journalists will recount all the ways they are minimized in traditional newsrooms. This includes being consigned to legwork while higher profile journalists who are white get the byline. It means lack of investment in professional development. Let’s not even talk about pay inequity.

Journalists working at outlets that serve Black and Brown communities, shouldn’t be marginalized or crowded out by traditional, majority-owned media, either. They are often under-resourced, and making it harder to get answers for the communities they serve perpetuates structural inequity. 

When a breakout Black and Brown journalist does emerge, they are amplified and regarded as “the one” and “the only,” as if there aren’t scores of talented people just like them waiting in the wings.

Chicago is not an outlier.

Several newsrooms, including New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Washington Post had racial reckonings over portrayals of communities of color after George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by a Minneapolis cop. His death a year ago May 25, ignited what may be the largest social justice movement in the U.S. history, according to the New York Times, and similar movements around the globe. 

How journalists of color are regarded goes right to industry practices. Take the debate over objectivity, the idea that journalists can put their personal biases aside while covering the news. In the case of journalists of color, their awareness of the nuances of communities that include their own is often held against them as lacking objectivity.

While objective truth, such as science, is a thing, nobody can truly be objective. We can try, and we must. However, acknowledging our biases is healthier for news coverage than denying the existence of implicit and explicit biases. We can better calibrate proportional, authentic stories when we’re working with the truth of ourselves.

Anyone who believes the current racial and ethnic composition of Chicago newsrooms is adequate to bear witness to all of Chicago is operating from a position of arrogance. And because our newsrooms look the way they do, newsroom leaders might as well own that fact. 

Now, the outrage over Lightfoot’s decision is just part of a rancid brand of false equivalency over what constitutes racism. It’s like comparing an attempted coup at the nation’s capital to a Black Lives Matter protest demanding the right to live, breath, drive and sleep. Those who weaponize an effort to spotlight the overwhelming homogeneity and potential lack of perspective in local media ranks are either ignorant or want everyone else to be.

Newsrooms don’t look like they do because white journalists are better storytellers. Many are, indeed, exquisite storytellers, as are many other journalists of color worth watching and reading. These outlets look like this because the people who make decisions on who is hired, advanced, supported and downsized think they are better than us. Many white allies who understand the stakes of newsroom parity often believe their own personal awareness of equity is enough for the job.

Rather than gnashing teeth over the mayor’s decision to do a thing, we might consider this: “If you want something to change, you’ve got to do something different,” said in one way or the other by everybody from Barack Obama, Dr. Phil, Thomas Jefferson and my mama’s voicemail message.

Whoever said it, I know one thing, I always listen to my mama, and maybe Chicago news media should, too, unless Chicago media doesn’t want to change. Then that’s another story.

Deborah D. Douglas is the author of Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events That Made the Movement and Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University. Read her latest at The Guardian.

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