During a White House press conference on February 16, April Ryan, an African American reporter for the American Urban Radio Networks, asked US President Donald Trump whether he is going to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), an organisation that represents African American members of the US Congress.
Trump responded to Ryan by asking if she would like to “set up the meeting” with the CBC. “Are they friends of yours?” he asked.
After the back and forth between the journalist and the president, many websites sought to highlight how Trump’s comments might reveal racism or “how he views people of colour”. The exchange also highlighted another issue in the room that day, the absence of people of colour among the journalists.
The elephant in the room
In photos and video from the press conference, few other black faces are visible. This is a largely ignored, but well-known, elephant in the room. “White House press corps of largely white faces”, wrote Paul Farhi at The Washington Post in 2013.
He wondered why US President Barack Obama was trying to discuss complex issues of race in the United States when the “people poised to convey his remarks to the world were overwhelmingly one race – white.”
A study by the American Society of News Editors found that in 2015 only 12.7 percent of employees at US daily newspapers were minorities. More than 88 percent of reporters and supervisors were white while 83 percent of videographers were.
Overall blacks and Hispanics were represented about equally at slightly over four percent for each group.
Distressingly, the data revealed that minority interns made up more than 34 percent of many large circulation newspapers, but internships were not leading to jobs for them.
According to Farhi, only seven of 53 correspondents who report on the White House were African or Asian American in 2013. In the Trump press conference, it didn’t seem to be that different.
While other American industries, such as banking and universities, now have slick websites that showcase diversity, the White House Correspondent’s Association’s website has an image of reporters raising their hands to ask questions. Almost all of the 29 clearly visible faces are white (and mostly male), although there is one black man at the very back holding a camera and two women of colour.
It’s not the WHCA’s fault that it is so monochrome. In an America, where minorities account for 38 percent of the total population, according to the US Census Bureau, few of them find their way into the newsroom and even fewer find their way to prestigious beats (PDF).
In a globalised world, many media appear less than globalised in their staff and local newsrooms, and they often don't reflect their own societies.
The Columbia Journalism Review noted that “newsrooms have addressed the issue in fits and starts over recent decades, but those efforts have stagnated in the past 10 years.” Their study showed that even in cities such as New York, where Hispanics, blacks and Asians collectively account for 65 percent of the population, The New York Times, was more than 75 percent white.
Nothing could be starker. Veteran journalist Howard French called this the “enduring whiteness of the American media”, when he looked back at decades in the profession.
He recalled the 1988 presidential campaign where Jesse Jackson, an African American candidate, was routinely referred to as “street smart” and “flamboyant”.
These were code words for “othering” the black candidate, just as media referred to Barack Obama as “articulate“. He was president of the Harvard Law Review, of course, he is articulate, does anyone comment on Hilary Clinton being “articulate”?
Detached from changing realities
Lack of diversity starts with hiring. Many industries increasingly stress the importance of diversity. A PricewaterhouseCoopers ad in Britain notes that they seek to “offer great opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds”. Whereas, a recent job posting from a major newspaper seeking a Middle East correspondent thought that having Arab-language skills was only one of several necessary skills. Diversity wasn’t mentioned.
Having journalists with different life experiences and backgrounds would seem essential to a newsroom. Journalists sometimes pretend they are neutral observers above the fray. But everyone brings their bias and baggage with them. The world of elite journalism often looks like a nepotistic fraternity more than the mosaic of the world it covers. This colours coverage.
Kevin Carter took a famous 1993 photo of a starving Sudanese child about to be preyed upon by a vulture. He was later criticised for not intervening to help the child. Journalists tend to shield themselves from such criticism by saying it is their job to be detached and not become part of the story. Would there be the same emotional detachment if the starving child was white? Would media write about refugees in Europe differently if more journalists were Syrian or Afghan?
How much is the concept of “detachment”, a function of the fact that journalists in many countries often come from a relatively homogenous background?
Eva Tapiero, a French freelance journalist, told me that the lack of diversity harms coverage. “Especially because we are getting used to not being challenged at work. If everyone has the same schooling background and asks the same questions, I think it becomes harder to think outside the box.”
When major media tends to draw on the same schools or social circles, reproducing the last generation’s preconceptions, the barriers to entry for outsiders are even higher.
In a globalised world, many media appear less than globalised in their staff and local newsrooms, and they often don’t reflect their own societies. For instance, journalist and editor Siddharth Varadarajan noted that in India many newsrooms lack “caste diversity”.
While UNESCO calls for gender equality in journalism, noting that “media are a mirror of society, as they should be, they certainly need to reflect better the fact that gender equality is a fundamental human right”, there doesn’t seem to be an equally consistent call for other types of diversity to mirror society (PDF).
Journalists and their management should take this into consideration. Instead of hiring minority reporters to cover minority communities or hiring local stringers in foreign countries, but rarely bringing foreign and diverse voices into the headquarters, they should make a better effort to increase diversity.
This also applies to columnists in opinion sections. While online-only media has increased the diversity of bloggers and op/ed writers, much old media have not.
It’s time to acknowledge the problem and press for change. Readers and journalists have nothing to lose and they stand to gain a plethora of new perspectives and ideas for covering stories that have gone underreported.
Seth J Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based commentator on Middle East politics and has lectured in American studies at Al-Quds University. He has just returned from fieldwork in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.