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The Racial Politics of College Newspapers

Why college newsrooms are often neither diverse nor racially sensitive.

When the Kansas State
Collegian
failed to send a reporter to cover the Big 12 Conference on Black
Student Government in 2004, the school’s Black Student Union
didn’t take the snub lightly—after all, the event had
attracted 1,000 participants to K-State’s campus. The
controversy soon escalated. Meetings were held between minority
groups and the white editors of the Collegian, who apologized
repeatedly for their misstep. Complaints about a pattern of poor
coverage persisted and eventually the administration reassigned the
paper’s longtime faculty advisor. That action led to a free
press lawsuit against K-State that is still pending.

“The staff can be all white, for all I care,” Natalie
Rolfe, the Black Student Union president, said at the time,
“but they need to be diverse in their minds.”

Was
she right? Can a college paper composed entirely or mostly of white
reporters and editors ever adequately cover communities of color on
campus? Today that’s a very real question for student dailies
across the country.

It is a persisting state of affairs:
College papers are the province of mostly well-off white and Asian
students. African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented
compared to the student body or absent altogether. Incidents like
the one at K-State—every paper has its own stories of
editorial blunders and community protest—occur with a
regularity that should no longer be surprising.

Why do these
editorial mistakes follow from the lack of diversity on staff?
Because in campus journalism, where there are few press releases,
word of mouth is everything. Thus when the campus paper is run by
students from a certain demographic, coverage tends to mirror the
concerns and perspectives of that demographic.

Right now, top
editors at college newspapers everywhere are gearing up for the
annual fall recruiting push. Before the grind of putting out a daily
paper consumes their schedules and wreaks havoc on their social
lives, this is the moment when they may pause, consider the
monolithic racial makeup of the staff and wonder, what is to be
done? There are lessons to be learned from several papers around the
country that have begun to deal with racial and socio-economic
disparities. But it’s far from clear whether these new efforts
will work. History seems to be against them.

Consider the
case of the Brown Daily
Herald
—certainly not unique—where I was an
executive editor last year. The Herald holds the distinction
of having had the first black editor-in-chief in the Ivy League, Wallace Terry,
back in 1958. Even more remarkable is that Terry was just one of
three black students in his class of 1,500. He went on to a
celebrated career as a Vietnam correspondent for Time. Today,
Brown’s student body is typically 7 percent black and 7 percent
Latino. Yet a full half-century after Terry broke the Ivy League
color barrier, the Herald has scarcely a handful of Black and Latino
staffers out of a staff of over 100. That’s an appalling rate
of progress, by any measure. Why has so little changed?

John
Davisson, editor-in-chief of the Columbia
Spectator—another top college paper that struggles with
inadequate diversity—offers one explanation, a kind of
maddening loop. “It’s tough to attract writers if they
don’t feel like the Spec is a publication that speaks to
them. But it’s difficult to make the Spectator speak to
them if they aren’t willing to write for the
Spectator.”

And there’s often
long-term—sometimes it seems almost ancient—bad blood
between newspapers and minority groups on campus. The Herald,
for example, has had its very own David Horowitz incident. In 2001,
the Herald printed an anti-reparations advertisement by
Horowitz, which triggered demands from outraged students that, when
not met, culminated in the student activists stealing 4,000 copies
of the Herald and replacing it with fliers critical of the
paper.

Then there’s the not insignificant financial
commitment of putting in volunteer hours at the campus newspaper
(though a few papers do pay). The more hours you’re in the
newsroom the fewer you have to spare for a paying job.

Davisson thinks getting students from low-income families in the
door is the easy part. The real challenge is making it possible for
these students to rise within the organization. “Right now the
system doesn’t make that very easy,” Davisson says, noting
that Spectator editors have had to resign in recent years for
financial reasons.

Beyond the university gate it’s
hardly a secret that a career in journalism is more a “noble
calling” and less a reasonably paid profession. In this
unfortunate trend Patsy Iwasaki of the University of Hawaii,
Diversity Committee Chair for College Media
Advisers
, sees yet another disincentive. “[M]inority
students realize that only a few positions in media provide the
large financial rewards and job status after graduation. Many
students feel the pressure from their parents (especially if they
are recent immigrants) to go for the standard fields such as
business, law, medicine, engineering, etc.,” she writes in an
e-mail. “Becoming a journalist might seem like becoming an
actor to many recent immigrant parents.”

No one
consistently tracks staffing demographics at college newspapers. But
five of six editors-in-chief of sizable college dailies I spoke to
for this story told me black and Latino students are
underrepresented on their staffs. The other, at the University of
California-Berkeley, said there were too few blacks and Latinos in
the student body for them to be underrepresented at the href=“http://www.dailycal.org”>Daily Californian
(thanks to Ward
Connerly
). The disparities are particularly glaring at the
Harvard Crimson‘s annual conference for Ivy
League editors, where non-white faces are hard to find.

An
old survey by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, despite an
uneven methodology and data on only one minority group, turned up
some stark numbers. At the 20 or so highest-ranked universities,
just 2.6 percent of student newspaper editors were black in 2003, up
from 1.3 percent in 1995—but down from 3.8 percent in 1998.
There were only nine black editors out of 350 total in the 2003
survey. Progress has been uneven or, worse, going backwards.

Of course racial diversity is only one objective that college
newspapers must pursue. But in college newsrooms
today—particularly on campuses that are often more
self-segregated than we’d like to admit—boosting racial
and socio-economic diversity is an essentially pragmatic goal. With
minority perspectives in the newsroom, particularly in upper
editorial positions, fewer stories will be missed and fewer will be
misconstrued. Papers will be able not only to patch up areas of
shoddy coverage, but also to increase readership in whole segments
of the student population.

Gerrick Lewis, a junior at Ohio State, believes he is the first
African-American editor-in-chief of the Lantern,
OSU’s student newspaper. He’s also the only black student
currently on the paper’s staff. Lewis knows firsthand the
outsized influence a small number of editors have on what makes the
paper every day, and how stories are played.

“We’ve dropped the ball on so many things, it’s
almost embarrassing,” he says. “That’s changing now,
of course, because now that I’m in this position I have my
friends who I need to answer to. They say, ‘Gerrick, why
aren’t you covering this or that?’” This year, for
example, Lewis plans to send a reporter to the school’s special
graduation ceremony for black students. He doesn’t think the
Lantern has ever covered the event, and he only knows about
it because his brother participated.

But several editors told
me that attracting and retaining black and Latino students has
proved stubbornly difficult. Last year Lewis started a chapter of
the National Association of Black Journalists, but the response has
been lackluster. “I have personally e-mailed every black
journalist at this school and I attracted three or four people to
this meeting.” Lewis thinks the problem may be a general lack
of interest in extracurriculars. “It’s been really hard
for me to try to explain the low turnout,” he says.

Several newspapers, including the Brown Daily Herald, have
created scholarships to offset the financial burdens of campus
journalism. A committee of Herald alums has distributed
$11,000 in scholarships in the past five semesters, thanks to a
single donor. The fund has helped socio-economic diversity, but
there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in minority staffers.
And raising even small sums is hard work. Daily Californian
Editor-in-Chief Stephen Chen says a new “DailyCal
diversity scholarship” has been supported for two years by
proceeds from a special comedy fest. This year the paper is running
a charity auction, hoping to raise enough for two or three
scholarships of $500 to $1,000 each.

Richard Just, who was
editor-in-chief of the Daily Princetonian in 2001, runs the
Princeton Summer Journalism Program, probably
the most ambitious program of its kind in the country. After
grappling with the familiar racial disparities in staffing and
coverage, Just and three Princetonian colleagues resolved to
increase the pool of potential minority and low-income student
journalists. The result is a 10-day, all-expenses-paid journalism
camp for high school students from under-resourced high schools that
has met at Princeton for the past six summers. About 20 participants
a year hear from a star-studded cast of professional journalists
(this year’s camp included New Yorker and Washington
Post
reporters) and produce their own paper (pdf).

The program was originally limited to black and Latino students
but is now open to any student with a combined parental income of
under $45,000. The program also has a strong college counseling
component—“once they graduate, we’re going to spend
six months helping them with the college application process,
editing their essays etc.” says Just, now deputy editor of
The New Republic. All the work has paid off, with graduates
attending a range of top universities and snagging internships at
the Philadelphia Daily News and the Today Show.

With a $40,000 annual price tag, Just says he is desperately
looking for a big donor to shore up the program’s future. This
year organizers had to whittle down a strong applicant pool of 878
to just 22 students. “If we can ever find money to expand we
could make a medium-size dent rather than a small dent in the
problem,” he says.

Lacking surplus cash or deep-pocketed
alums, there are cost-free alternatives. At the Red and Black
at the University of Georgia, editor-in-chief Juanita Cousins has
assigned a reporter to a new “diversity beat.” Cousins,
the paper’s second black editor-in-chief, says that means
covering not just racial minorities on campus, but also gay students
and handicapped students.

But if a “diversity
beat” seems like an uncomplicated way to increase minority
coverage, think again. Last year David Graham, now editor-in-chief
of the Chronicle at
Duke, was assigned to the diversity beat, a slot the paper created
three years ago. Even as Graham produced interesting work on racial
clustering in campus housing and
disparities in
study abroad at Duke, a black friend of his would frequently
complain about Chronicle coverage.

“The
Chronicle just doesn’t understand the black Duke,”
Graham recalls her saying. “‘There’s this whole other
world out there and you guys are just failing to pick up on
it.’ That was something I took pretty personally. That’s a
serious problem.”

So Graham did what any good reporter
would: he asked who represented the black Duke. Armed with a list of
10 or 15 names, he began making inquiries. But an old problem reared
its head. “People would refuse to talk and often what they said
was: We just don’t really trust the Chronicle,” he
says. While Graham says he’s making it a priority to maintain
good source relations with minority groups this year, he’s at a
loss as to an overarching plan to improve minority staffing and
coverage. “I’m still kind of stung by this idea that
there’s a black Duke we’re missing.”

At the
Columbia Spectator editor Davisson says a candid assessment of race at the newspaper—published in a campus magazine, complete with
striking pie charts, in 2006—was “a wakeup call.”
The paper has increased involvement with Columbia’s Office of
Multicultural Affairs, and Davisson says he plans to make a
recruiting appeal to students of color. But with the fraught issues
involved, even this isn’t simple. “We run the risk of
tokenization and that’s something we very much want to
avoid,” he says.

Back at Kansas State, the current
editor-in-chief of the Collegian, Alex Peak, was not
around when the controversy flared up in 2004. Aware of the history,
though, she says she developed good contacts with the Black Student
Union when she was campus editor. Now, she wants to give every group
on campus the opportunity for coverage.

If racial disparities
persist, though, student dailies will be destined to miss story
after story. And the next big racial incident on campus will be
right around the corner.

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