Kerner Report at 50: Francisco Vara-Orta (Summer 2006) weighs in on media diversity

Chipster Francisco Vara-Orta (second from left) partcipates in the Newseum Institute program “Fifty Years Later: The Kerner Report.”

Washington, D.C. — Francisco Vara-Orta (Summer 2006) drew attention to the drop-off in representation of journalists of color in newsrooms as they progress through their careers in remarks made during a panel discussion at the Newseum, 50 years after the publication of the Kerner Report.

On March 1, 1968, the “Kerner Commission” – officially the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which convened after rioting disrupted American cities the previous summer – reported to the nation that it had found “a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”

Vara-Orta was among six veteran reporters and younger journalists who shared their views of what has changed in newsroom practices and media coverage in the last half-century and what still needs to be done.

“There hasn’t been much progress, as we’ve noted, when you look at the numbers” of journalists of color in today’s newsrooms, Vara-Orta, a staff writer and data specialist for Education Week, said during the March 1, 2018, panel discussion. “Certainly, the data shows that we’re far behind in representation of our communities.”

Despite the push in high schools, colleges and membership organizations to support journalists of color, “there seems to be some kind of drop-off here, and we’re still trying to explore where that is coming from,” said Vara-Orta, who also is a vice president of the Education Writers Association (EWA) and former president of the San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists.

He cited an EWA study showing that 22 percent of full-time journalists who cover education are journalists of color, while more than half of students in the public school system are nonwhite.

“You can’t help but wonder why, maybe, that’s the case,” he said.

The numbers of practicing journalists plummeted after the Great Recession – in 2007, there were 7,400 minority staffers at newspapers; in 2015, there were 4,200, about the same number as in 1989, according to the American Society of News Editors. The percentage of journalists of color increased from about 12 percent to 17 percent, according to ASNE, although fewer than half the newsrooms it surveyed in 2015 responded to the survey.

Journalists of color, particularly women and first-generation professionals, tend to leave the field after three to five years, according to Vara-Orta. “They’re not getting the promotions, or they get pulled into other industries, or feel like they have to leave. That’s a bigger problem in the industry, but it seems to disproportionately affect journalists of color,” he said.

A lack of diversity in newsrooms is linked to the level of trust people have in the media, the panelists said. Fifty years ago, when newsrooms run by white men failed to report the deeper issues such as race and poverty that led to the civil unrest, newspapers by and for African Americans were robust. These days, many people who mistrust the news coverage of traditional publications, or question their credibility, have turned to social media for their news, the panelists said.

Vara-Orta noted a bright spot on the diversity horizon, provided in part by the policies and words of President Donald Trump: “With everything in the political climate, one of the upsides is that we’re talking about this more and we can’t be in denial anymore as an industry,” Vara-Orta said.

Several times throughout the discussion, the journalists singled out the Newseum Institute’s Chips Quinn Scholars Program, which is aimed at improving diversity and inclusiveness in the nation’s newsrooms, and its co-founder, John C. Quinn, for the program’s relevance and value for today’s newsrooms.

Many challenges remain to achieving a truly representative media, the panelists said. Among them: improving education systems to better prepare students of color in reading, writing and critical thinking skills; retaining journalists of color in newsrooms; placing more value within newsrooms on coverage of community issues; and remaining committed to the principles of diversity as technological and financial upheavals continue to roil the industry.

Moderators were Gene Policinski, president of the Newseum Institute and co-author of the nationally published column “Inside the First Amendment,” and Richard Prince, journalist and author of “Journal-isms,” an online nationally published journal about media and diversity.

Panelists also included:
• Lynne Adrine, director of the Washington Program for Broadcast and Digital Journalism for the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University,
• Thomas J. Hrach, associate professor in the department of journalism and strategic media at the University of Memphis and author of “The Riot Report and the News: How the Kerner Commission Changed Media Coverage of Black America,” and
• Tracy Jan, reporter for The Washington Post, covering the intersection of race and economy.

The program was presented by “Journal-isms,” the Chips Quinn Scholars Program and and the Journal-isms Roundtable.

 

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