At White House, implications of a mostly white press

Reporters raise their hands to be called on by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during a news briefing in April. (Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti)

The New York Times hired its seventh reporter to cover the White House last month, giving the newspaper one of the largest contingents of correspondents on the beat. Aside from being top-flight journalists, the crew shares a common trait: All seven are white.

That’s not exactly unusual around the White House press briefing room these days. The press corps that covers the president has long been overwhelmingly composed of white reporters. The White House reporting staffs of the largest and most prominent outlets, particularly newspapers and newswires, tend to be the least racially diverse of all.

Does it matter?

Does racial background affect how a reporter covers a story? Or is it just one factor that determines how a journalist sees the world, the way age, gender, education, religious affiliation, regional and economic background, ideological leanings, or military service might?

News organizations have declared their intention to diversify their staffs since at least the late 1960s, after the Kerner Commission report on the causes of the urban riots of that decade attributed some of America’s racial divide to a highly segregated media. Newsroom recruiters often say the underlying goal of greater diversity isn’t simply numeric, but journalistic: People from different backgrounds see the world differently and can offer these perspectives to readers and viewers.

The result of these efforts has been mixed, however. The number of women in journalism is gradually approaching parity with that of men and has more than doubled as a percentage of all professional reporters over the past two decades. But overall, newsrooms have only slowly become less white, lagging far behind changes in the general population.

Minority journalists accounted for 16.6 percent of the workforce in 2017, compared with 11.3 percent in 1997, according to surveys by the American Society of News Editors. By contrast, the U.S. population as a whole is 39 percent minority, including white Hispanics and Latinos, according to the Census Bureau.

As the Times’ hiring showed, the White House beat – arguably the beat with the highest profile – may be among the most resistant to change.

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) doesn’t take a census of its 600 regular and associate members, said its president, Olivier Knox, so there’s no official accounting of racial diversity. Still, there’s a telling statistic about the WHCA: In its 104-year history, the WHCA has had only two nonwhite presidents, and only five nonwhite correspondents have served on its board, according to George Condon, a White House correspondent for the National Journal who is writing a history of the organization.

The number of minority journalists at the White House, particularly African Americans, has waxed and waned, rising during the Clinton and Obama presidencies and falling during the George W. Bush and Trump administrations, said April Ryan, a correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks who has covered the White House for 21 years.

“We’ve made some strides, but there’s a long way to go,” she said. Ryan, who is also a CNN contributor, reflects, “Sometimes you think, ‘It would be nice to have a press room that looks like America, that brings the texture of America’ ” to reporting on the presidency.

Asked about the Times’ minority hiring record, spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the newspaper has given priority to the recruitment of journalists “of diverse backgrounds” for all the beats it covers. She noted that 60 percent of the paper’s new newsroom hires last year were female or minority journalists.

But she also said, “At the White House currently, our lineup includes gender but not racial diversity, and that is something we’re aware of and focused on getting right.”

Some of the leading print and text news organizations covering the White House and presidency have reporting staffs that look a lot like that of the Times.

Politico will have seven reporters on the beat when its latest hire comes aboard this month; none is a minority. Reuters and USA Today also have no minority reporters on their teams covering President Donald Trump. The Wall Street Journal has one non-white reporter among its five correspondents. The Associated Press has six reporters on the beat, one of whom is an African American.

Spokesmen for Politico and AP declined to comment beyond confirming their staff totals; the Wall Street Journal didn’t return a request for comment. Reuters spokeswoman Heather Carpenter said, “We continue to be committed to growing diversity in our newsrooms around the world.”

Other news outlets have somewhat more diverse rosters. The Washington Post’s six-person team includes two nonwhite reporters; Bloomberg’s eight-member White House reporting staff also has two.

The six leading television networks field a generally more diverse group of correspondents. Although white males are the lead White House reporters for ABC, CBS and Fox News, all of the networks employ women and nonwhite journalists in prominent reporting positions.

“We believe diversity matters and makes journalism better, whether at the White House or any other coverage area,” said Ken Strickland, NBC News’ Washington bureau chief. “And that’s why you see it in our White House team,” which includes two African-American reporters.

Those who advocate on behalf of minority journalists say the relative lack of diversity in the White House press room is a high-visibility symptom of a larger problem: Minority journalists and perspectives are often underrepresented in many areas of news reporting.

“The lack of diversity in the White House press corps is unsettling,” said Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists. “News organizations should have staff that reflect the communities they serve. . . . A White House press team without ethnic diversity is a complete missed opportunity.”

The limited number of minority reporters means that issues of concern to minority communities – such as Trump’s controversial initiatives to change the nation’s immigration system – are reported by people who probably don’t have much personal connection to the issue, said Yvonne Leow, who heads the Asian American Journalists Association.

At the same time, news organizations as well as readers and viewers don’t know what stories aren’t being told as a result of the composition of their staffs, said Hugo Balta, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Hispanics and Latinos don’t want to hear only about immigration restructuring, the prism through which mainstream reporting about Latinos is typically filtered, he said. The topic is important, “but to a community that is mostly U.S.-born, it’s not the only area of interest or concern when it comes to government or motivation to vote.”

Balta says a lack of diversity among news managers perpetuates the status quo – and “we see the quality of coverage and representation suffer.”



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