Minneapolis-St. Paul News Coverage of Minority Communities
Diversification of News Media Management and Workforce
“There’s an expression around the newsroom. News is what happens to your editors.”
The news that residents of the Twin Cities read, watch, and listen to reflects the background and experiences of the people who decide what is and what is not news. Therefore, participants at the fact-finding meeting stated that diversity is important in news media not because it achieves some politically correct outcome or an abstract ideal. It is important because it produces better, more democratic news coverage. If there is a diversity of people deciding what is news, the news will most likely be more representative of the diversity of the local area. As Lynda McDonnell, executive director of the Urban Journalism Workshop, stated, “One of the great values of having a more diverse workforce—whether it’s race, religion, where you live, if you’ve been in the military, or if you grew up on a farm—is that you simply have a breadth of perspective and experience to draw on that a lot of newsrooms don’t have right now. It tends to be kind of a tight little circle. And to do a really good, responsible job of covering the whole community, we can’t afford to have such a tight little circle.”
At the fact-finding meeting, discussions on what is news and who decides what is news turned to whether editorial and management staffs of local news media outlets, which are primarily if not exclusively white, can have the same sense for what is news as the communities of color they serve. Len Witt, former executive director of Minnesota Public Radio’s Civic Journalism Initiative and now the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair of Communications at Kennesaw State University, shared a personal example that put the issue in perspective:
About a year and a half ago, I was shocked to read that the “liberal, progressive” Minnesota had the worst racial disparity of black males to white males in the country when it came to imprisonment. If you’re a black man in Minnesota, your chance of being sent to prison is 25 times greater than if you are white. We had a news editor retreat, and I mentioned these figures. The rest of the people couldn’t believe it and challenged the numbers and said I had to be wrong. “What were my sources?” “Prove it,” they said, because they were not buying it. Then the very next person at the retreat said he had read that by the year 2020, a third of the world’s population would suffer from clinical depression. Everyone quickly agreed that that was a story that had to be done. No one challenged the numbers. So, why? What was going on? The answer was as white, middle-class Americans, they all knew someone who had suffered from mental illness. So, when you mentioned mental illness, yes, they felt it was a story. It was in their guts. It is visceral. On the other hand, as white, middle-class Minnesotans, they didn’t know anyone in their cohort who was in prison. It never came up on their personal radar screen. Why? Well, Minnesota does not imprison more black males than the rest of the nation, but it does imprison far fewer whites. For every 100,000 black citizens in this state, 1,463 black men are in prison. For every 100,000 white citizens in this state, there are 63 white males in prison—1,463 to 63. So if you’re black, this is a visceral issue. You feel it in your gut. If you are a white newsman or woman, you don’t. So to do right by the people who are left out, including minorities and the poor everywhere, we have to find ways to get their voices heard.
Professor Witt’s point is clear. Communities of color cannot expect to have the stories that are important to them covered if the editors and news directors do not deem those stories newsworthy. Professor Witt did not view this dynamic as the result of blatant or intentional discrimination on the part of the news media. On the contrary, most of the management personnel who gave testimony at the fact-finding meeting were rigorously trying to improve the coverage of nonwhite communities and attract people of color to work at their stations or paper. However, diversity in the editorial rooms and in management matters also. The results of the minority job searches and outreach efforts are crucial. It is important to see a person of color reporting the news, but it is also important to know that people of color are deciding on the news. Mark Anthony Rolo, executive director of the Native American Journalists Association, wrote about this matter:
Newsrooms feel pressed to heed calls for more diversity in personnel because they understand or at least are beginning to understand that in order to adequately report on communities of color they need people from those communities. Yet, if you poked your head into an editorial meeting of nearly every large daily newspaper in the country you might just understand a big part of the news shutout game. Most of the people sitting around those meeting tables are male and are white. The people who decide what gets into tomorrow’s newspaper, on tonight’s evening newscast are mostly male and are white. And while there may be a heavy dose of sympathy for the excluded, truth is, the majority of news content that will be decided on during those editorial meetings will reflect the worlds of those who will generate it, mostly male and white.
Newspaper Newsroom Diversity
Understanding that newsroom and management room diversity is important to overall news coverage, the Minnesota Advisory Committee attempted to track the improvement in diversity at Twin Cities news agencies since its first report. The two large, mainstream papers in the area showed improvement in the diversity of their employees. However, the diversity of the decisionmakers appears to still leave considerable room for improvement. As Howard Orenstein, senior policy advisor to St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, stated:
I haven’t done a thorough survey, but if you’re just talking about the [editors of the] major media outlets, it doesn’t look much different now than 10 years ago. As I just think in my mind of the people of color I know on the two editorial boards, it’s basically the same as it was 10 years ago, although one person has changed from the Pioneer Press to the Star Tribune. So that was, in my view, a loss. But I don’t think that that has significantly changed.
Despite stagnant diversification at the managerial level, the Twin Cities newspapers have had some success in diversifying their newsrooms. According to Dave Peters, senior editor of the Pioneer Press, the number of minorities employed at the paper has increased more than 25 percent since the 1993 report. This increase is reflected by the percentage of nonwhites in the newsroom increasing to 18 percent from 12 percent 10 years ago, as shown in Table 3. In addition, compared with the lack of any senior editors of color in the early 1990s, there are two out of 10 today. Furthermore, 10 percent of team leaders are minority journalists. Improvement is evident. However, as Maria Douglas Reeve, one of the minority senior editors at the Pioneer Press, stated during the fact-finding meeting, “There are two of us [in management positions]. At a paper that size, it is just not enough.”
The Star Tribune also has seen improvement in its newsroom diversity since the last report. Minority employment throughout the paper has doubled in 10 years—6.8 percent to 13.6 percent. Scott Gillespie, assistant managing editor for local news at the Star Tribune, informed the Minnesota Advisory Committee that 14.9 percent of the reporting staff, 11.1 percent of the copy-editing staff, and 18.5 percent of the photo staff are now people of color. These staffing numbers led the Boston Globe to rank the Star Tribune sixth among major newspapers throughout the county in its ratio of minority employment to circulation demographic. The Star Tribune had 89 percent parity according to this ratio. However, only two of the 33 supervisors in the newsroom are minority and no senior managers are people of color. Star Tribune reporter Duschesne Drew may have summarized the state of newsroom diversity in the Twin Cities when he told the Committee, “I argue that we’re probably doing a little better than some others, which is really a sign of how poorly our industry is doing.”
Source: American Society of Newspaper Editors, “2002 Minority Percentages by Newspaper,” Apr. 8, 2002, <http://www.asne.org/index.cfm?ID=3434>.
Television Newsroom Diversity
Testifying at the fact-finding meeting, Clarence Hightower of the Minneapolis Urban League stated, “It seems to me that we have at least made progress with television media, in terms of getting people of color on television, news anchor, those types of things. [However], I question what kind of progress we’re making in terms of having people of color represented in other areas of the media. I don’t see a black news publisher. I don’t see a black station manager. I don’t see black folks or people of color making progress in other areas of media, other than we’ve got some faces on TV.”
In researching television newsroom diversity, Commission regional staff struggled to find the quantitative figures to assess Mr. Hightower’s perception of the Twin Cities television media. It was difficult because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) no longer publishes reports on minority and female employment trends in the broadcast and cable industries—in fact, although data had been entered up until January 31, 2001, the last report, reflecting 1997 data, was published in 1998. In addition, local television stations were unable to provide the information directly to the Minnesota Advisory Committee, when requested.
KSTP-TV news director Scott Libin was the only news director in the Twin Cities region to provide all information requested to the Committee. Brendan Henehan, executive producer for content at Twin Cities Public Television, also presented thorough employee diversification information at the fact-finding meeting, but his station does not produce a local news program, so the station is not comparable. Another station, WCCO, sent a representative to the fact-finding meeting, but Dennis Douda, although very frank and helpful in his assessment of local television news, did not present employment diversity information at that time. Regional staff’s later written request for the information was not answered. Two stations with local news programs are currently undergoing a duopoly acquisition: Fox-29 and KMSP. News Corporation now owns both stations and, according to human resources director Nicki Mills, the company’s policies on diversity had not been defined as of March 2003. KARE 11 news director Tom Lindner cancelled a scheduled interview with regional staff, was unavailable for the fact-finding meeting, and did not respond to a written request for information.
The difficulties in acquiring data on employee diversity may indicate further problems. More accurately, the “window dressing” finding that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights made in its early reports on news media appears to still prevail, at least in the Twin Cities. According to Professor Sherrie Mazingo of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, no news directors or managers currently at television stations in the Twin Cities are people of color. Scott Libin of KSTP disappointedly reported that, despite strong recruitment efforts, his station has no “top level” management who are people of color. In addition, one person of color who was an assignment editor left the station shortly after the fact-finding meeting. However, the station has added another African American male reporter since then. The station now has four reporters of color, and one—Harris Faulkner—has been promoted into the station’s main 6 and 10 p.m. anchor job. This fluctuation between taking steps forward and a step backward seems to be common in the industry.
Although it is difficult to assess the actual demographic information of the other television news staffs, estimates can be made based on the presence of on-air reporters and other unofficial sources. For example, KARE 11 appears to have no people of color among its main news team of Paul Magers, Diana Pierce, Ken Barlow, and Randy Saver. Fox 9 seems to have one person of color on its news team out of 15 reporters. Fox 29 has no people of color as part of its main news team at 10 p.m. Based on unofficial information from its Web site, WCCO has approximately six reporters of color on staff. WCCO news anchor Dennis Douda told the Minnesota Advisory Committee, “In the newsroom that I’m in now, we have just lost our one African American reporter to a large market. So, we have an Asian main anchor. My co-anchor, Amelia Santaniello, her mother is Japanese. We have just hired a reporter who’s of Asian descent. Beyond that, though, I don’t know that we reflect the community at large.” Twin Cities Public Television, which provides a vital educational service to the area, has people of color working in 13 percent of its officer and manager positions.
Struggle for Diversity Beyond Race
Some people in the local communities contend that news coverage of their communities may not improve substantively even if more people of color were employed as news reporters, editors, and directors. Murali Balaji, a reporter for the Pioneer Press and president of the Asian American Journalists Association in Minnesota, stressed that to achieve true diversity, news agencies must diversify beyond color. There needs to be a diversification of ideas:
I must emphasize that with [diversity of staff] must come a diversity of ideas. You know, one of the common misconceptions, I believe, is that communities of color all have the same voice and all think alike. There is a misconception that there is one voice for the black community or one voice for the Asian American community, which is actually so diverse that, in many definitions, people of East Indian descent, like myself, don’t even qualify as Asian Americans. Also, the Native American community and the Latino community do not have a monolithic ethnic composition. You can’t have a monolithic philosophical composition. You have to bring in a diversity of ideas. Unfortunately, we in the news business tend to recycle approaches and perspectives. What we need is an influx of new ideas. It is a matter of going out and seeking those new ideas, and I don’t think we do a good enough job of doing that.
Although racial and ethnic diversity in the newsroom is a major step in improving coverage of communities of color, it should not be seen as a panacea. The goal for local newspapers and news stations is to improve the coverage of communities of color, not merely to increase the number of faces of color in the newsrooms. In order to improve coverage, people with new ideas of what is news and how to do news are needed. This point was made clear by numerous presenters at the fact-finding meeting, foremost among them was Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak:
I don’t believe having an African American face on the news will necessarily represent all that is going on in the community. I believe there’s a grassroots component of all of this that is important. And so I don’t think we can simply assume when we look around a newsroom and see that the faces are diverse that the experiences have to be diverse. That’s a very different issue. What that means to me is that the challenge for media shouldn’t necessarily be about saying what color the person’s skin is or what ethnicity they are, as much as how well are they connected to and part of the diverse communities within the city. So, I don’t think we can simply stop at asking what a person’s surname is or what color their skin is.
Having people of color writing and presenting the news is a positive step in many regards. However, the people of color who have reached the position of working for a network news station or a large urban paper like the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press may not have any more contact with or knowledge of the local communities of color as white, male reporters. One of the reasons for this is that many of the reporters of color in the Twin Cities are not originally from the area. In the competitive industry of news media, reporters are constantly changing job locations looking for opportunities in the larger and more personally profitable regions of the country. Because reporters of color are in such high demand, there is great movement among this group. For example, Star Tribune reporter Duschesne Drew briefly described how he came to Minneapolis: “I moved here as an intern in the summer of 1993 while I was a graduate student at Northwestern University. I could have found Minnesota on a map before moving here, but I don’t think I could have told you a whole lot more about the state. I think, like a lot of people of color in this business, we came from someplace else. We’ve adopted Minnesota as our home.”
With many of the people of color who work in the local news media being from other parts of the country, it is unfair to expect them to have significant contact with the local communities. For one, the people of color who work in the news media are professional people who generally earn higher incomes than many of the people who live in the communities of color in the Twin Cities. As Duschesne Drew stated, “You can’t expect [the reporters of color] to suspend their middle-class privileges to live in poorer communities.” This class difference may actually create underlying conflict between these reporters and the communities of color they often are expected to cover. People in the community may view these reporters who are not from the local area and who are of a professional class as out of touch with what is happening in the community.
Second, the reporters of color oftentimes do not want to be pigeonholed into covering “minority” issues exclusively. Although race issues may be important to them, they may be more interested in covering other news events. This desire is not always well received by community members, who often expect reporters of color to represent the communities’ many interests. Mark Anthony Rolo of the Native American Journalists Association, discussed the feelings of some community members:
That is a problem: assimilation. It seems that a lot of people of color who succeed in newsrooms, we call them sellouts because they often assimilate and, in order to advance, they play that game. They don’t want to be seen as representatives of their community. They don’t want to be seen as sources, who people can go to and say, “Hey, who can I talk to?” or “Tell me more about this issue.” They are reporters of color who just absolutely refuse to be labeled that way. So it’s a problem on our side as well.
Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the
Wrong Things (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 201.
Mark Anthony Rolo, ed., The American Indian and the Media, second
edition (the National Conference for Community and Justice, 2000), pp.
Lewis Pulley, Federal Communications Commission, Media Bureau, interview,
Mar. 10, 2003.
Scott Libin was replaced as news director of KSTP in early 2003. Cheryl
Johnson, “KSTP’s House-Cleaning Follows Nelson’s Jump to 11,” Star
Tribune, Mar. 2, 2003.
Nicki Mills, interview, Mar. 7, 2003.
 Sherrie Mazingo, interview, Apr. 29, 2003.