[This article originally appeared in the Spring 1979 issue of Nieman Reports.]

…It is the “unseen environment” of nonwhite America that is of paramount concern to me. At the National Conference on Minorities and the News, a number of academics, journalists and civil rights leaders voiced the same concern. The following is a remark by one of the keynote conference speakers, Vilma Martinez, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund:

“I start by asking myself, do I see myself portrayed? And I am vain enough to want to look in the mirror daily. And the answer is predominantly no, moving toward rarely, toward inaccurately, toward unsympathetically, too often.”

That is the heart of the matter of the “unseen environment” of nonwhite America. It is the question of portrayal—rather nonportrayal or misportrayal.

An observation: No established right to accurate group portrayal exists under the First Amendment or any other codified regime. There is, instead, an implied right of all the people to know what is going on—and to receive it straight. If some aspects of our national life, or significant portions of our community life, are misportrayed, this is a disservice to all readers and a violation of the spirit of the First Amendment as we journalists have tended to argue it. It is in that sense that the goal of an equal press is in the interest of preserving a free press. All who have an interest in the preservation of a free press have a concomitant interest, whether they recognize it or not, in seeing that our press represents and recognizes the diversity of American society. The beleaguered blessings of the First Amendment can be preserved only if they can be seen to belong fully to all Americans. Every assault on the credibility of the press is an assault on the preservability of the freedom of the press.

This is a serious matter because where nonwhite America—at least a fifth of the population—is concerned, there is every indication that the credibility of the press is in jeopardy. The reasons are not difficult to find:

  • Our communities are constantly misportrayed as more violent than they are. That is in part because the agencies that contact our communities most tend to be police and other such groups. Since such official sources are the journalist’s stock in trade, the nonwhite community suffers the resultant appearances of greater violence than is actually the case. The city of Washington, D.C., is a prime example of that point. It has become a metaphor for urban crime and pathology. When the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration of the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to document the incidence of urban crime victimization, it came up with the startling discovery that of 13 cities the size of Washington, 11 had greater rates of crime victimization. Among them were San Francisco and Minneapolis. Why, then, has Washington this reputation for violent crime, a reputation not shared by Minneapolis and San Francisco, even when their victimization rates were higher? One could search for that answer far and wide, but no better answer is available than that Washington is 75 percent black. In our national mind, black predominance and crime incidence are somehow wedded as a single thought. The fact that Washington is a city largely of middle-income families, government workers for the most part, is not a familiar fact. Only that Washington must be, as one demagogue called it, the “crime capital” of the nation.
  • Indolence is yet another element of the misportrayal of nonwhite communities. We are saddled and our children are saddled with the public picture of laziness and unwillingness to work. Dr. Robert Hill, in his remarkable book, “The Strengths of Black Families,” describes an interesting study that bears on this point. Black and white men were asked in the study whether they would prefer a job in a car wash or a welfare program that paid the same amount of money. Ninety percent of the black men and 91 percent of the whites said they would prefer the job.

To anyone who searches for the source of these stereotypes, one of Walter Lippmann’s observations is pertinent. He speaks of what it seems to take to gain the interest of the newspaper reader. “In order that he shall enter, he must find a familiar foothold in the story, and this is supplied to him by the use of stereotypes.”

If Lippmann is correct, our society is suffering from the effects of fallacies that are comfortable for the reader and comfortable for the journalist as well. It is easier to talk about nonwhites and welfare in the same breath without establishing how many of the people on welfare are nonwhite. In the same way, it is easier to discuss the cost of welfare in terms of how great a burden are the poor on the rest of society and never look at who actually lives on welfare. Would anyone dare to suggest that the middle class, mostly white, physicians who earn more than $100,000 a year treating patients on Medicaid are actually “living off welfare”? What about the thousands of welfare investigators, many of whom earn top civil service dollars? Are they not living off welfare? Which cost is greater, the money spent on the recipient or the money paid to middle class servants of our bloated welfare bureaucracy? Do we ever address those questions, or do we persist in the stereotypic notion that the nonwhite poor are sapping our national vitality?

Those are questions that lead into the interior of the “what” of portrayal, or misportrayal. The “what” of the matter is only properly understood if we also address the “who” of it—who prepares the news.

The Jay Harris report on nonwhite employment in the newspaper industry informs us that only four percent of the entire professional editorial workforce is not white. That amounts to 1,700 newsroom professionals out of 40,000. If one looks for managers and editors, those who make the decisions about what shall be covered and how, the numbers of nonwhites drop off the scale. Top nonwhite managers are something on the order of four-tenths of one percent of the newsroom workforce, which means the managerial ranks of newspapers are a purer white than Ivory Snow.

If anything accounts for the problems of misportrayal, the answer must begin with those statistics.

What is even more serious than the hiring discrimination is the misportrayal that necessarily results from the white middle class bias that is brought to the news by those who are employed as journalists. Not all journalists who are white engage in this misportrayal. Just too many. Sometimes it is nothing more than ignorance of the subject. Sometimes it is the result of too many college sociology courses about the pathology of poverty. Sometimes it is the result of simple lack of any sustained exposure to nonwhite people and their distinctive cultures. And, to be sure, sometimes it is the result of racial prejudice. Whatever the particular reason in any given case, there is, in my opinion, but one solution. That is the hiring and promotion of more nonwhite journalists.

We will approach a solution to the problems of nonportrayal and misportrayal when we reach the point where representatives of the “unseen environment” of nonwhite America become part of the “seen environment” of the American newsroom. I can think of no other remedy that is likely to work as well as the full desegregation of the American newsroom; because the fundamental underpinning of misportrayal in our news media is ignorance.…

Lippmann was writing more than half a century ago, yet that is what he could have meant when he spoke of the news working “against those who have no lawful or orderly method of asserting themselves.” Violence must not be the only way some Americans get to be heard. We need to build a stable society, and information about our common circumstance must be part of that process.

Here it is important to distinguish this criticism from those who would blame the news media for all our social ills. Many, many of our institutions have failed in their responsibility to cure the legacy of racism. The schools by and large have not been educating nonwhite children. The big industries have not been faithful to equal employment opportunity. The housing industry has not always been fair in dealing with nonwhite home buyers, nor have the banks been faithful to the principles of equal lending. The press did not invent those bad practices any more than the press invented slavery, stole Mexico, or murdered Indians.

All the same, it has that special responsibility to which Walter Leonard referred. It must help in the process by which we become aware that as a people we are of one society, and that we must, as Dr. King so often said, learn to live like brothers or die like fools.

There is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Today we have no choice. We do live in interesting times, and we must recognize that there is nothing simple about the challenges that face us as a society.

The state of newspaper desegregation is not as bleak as it was half a dozen years ago. Then, there were something less than 400 nonwhite journalists on daily newspapers. There was a sense in the field that editors wanted to do the right thing, but they “couldn’t find qualified” nonwhite journalists.

Now the problem is a little different. Small as that figure of four percent may be, it represents progress. It shows that this job can be accomplished. It shows the problem for what it is, one of supply and demand. There is no reason I know of that we can’t get to the figure of 20 percent nonwhite in this industry. If we had not reached the figure of four percent, we could wonder if there were a structural obstruction of some basic sort. But the fact that we have come as far as we have suggests we can go all the way.

It takes commitment. It takes resources and, most of all, it takes a willingness to understand things that may not at first come easily.

That is why these are interesting—and therefore frustrating—times. It is as if we were in the middle of a journey. We have passed that point of innocence when we could pretend this problem was not there. We have passed the point where any reasonable person could dare to maintain that it cannot be done. Yet, we have not reached the point of assurance that it will be done. We stand on the edge of change, at a place just short of the knowledge that this problem of segregated newsrooms is as sure to pass as the segregated lunch counter once passed.

At the Institute for Journalism Education, we have tried in our small way to help chart a course. We have already trained 115 nonwhite journalists and placed them in the newsroom. We have tried to fashion programs that will assist editors looking for experienced journalists to turn into editors and executives. We have begun to work on the problem of a news feature syndicate to bring the diverse viewpoints of nonwhite scholars and writers onto the opinion pages of the heartland. We have gone out to meet editors in their newsrooms to discuss the path from here to the place where this problem will be, like that of the once-famous lunch counter, a dim memory.

Will our newsrooms reach that point in our lifetime? This is not a job that any one individual or group can accomplish alone. It is too complex—too sophisticated, too interesting—to be left to any one segment of the news business. Yet our involvement in the Institute in this difficult question is an act of faith. I personally have faith in the ability of our institutions to overcome their past infirmities and faith that even in interesting times our society and our calling will not be diverted from the large purpose of becoming a model for all humanity. If journalism is to keep its faith with those ideals that gave us the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights, and all of the Constitution, then we must act with determination to purge the stigma of racism from our profession. Once that was simply an ideal, perhaps even a dream. From here on, it is no longer a matter of asking, what can we do? We do know what to do. Today it is merely a matter of applying all we know individually and collectively to the task.

This text is adapted from a presentation by Robert C. Maynard to the Panel on Coverage of the Whole Community: Coverage of Non-Elites. The proceedings were a part of the Sixty-first Annual Convention of the History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism held last August at the University of Washington, Seattle. Robert Maynard is Chairman, the Institute for Journalism Education, Washington, D.C., Nieman Fellow 1966, and a former editorial board member of The Washington Post.

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