A lack of diversity in student media sparks frustration, debates across the country

In her first newsroom, Jackie Alexander didn’t see many people who looked like her. Alexander, who is black, described a culture in which she felt like a token, like an outsider, like someone whose voice wasn’t heard. Sadly, Alexander said, about seven years later, not much has changed.

“It can be so demoralizing and frustrating to be in a room full of people who don’t look like you and don’t value your experience and your struggle,” she said. “It can be really uncomfortable in a newsroom if you’re the only person of color, if you identify differently. It’s hard being the spokesperson for an entire race.”

Alexander now serves as the media adviser at Clemson University, where she says a lack of racial diversity still pervades the pages of student publications, sometimes skewing the content in a misguided direction.

“That lack of representation in the newsroom leads to a lack of representation in the newspaper, unfortunately,” she said. “The content is very flat, it’s very one-sided, and our diverse students aren’t reading us because they don’t see themselves or their lives reflected in the newspaper. And if students attempt diverse stories, because there’s no one else in the room to say, ‘Hey, that looks off,’ it runs the risk of stereotypical or downright offensive content.”

For example, in the midst of a “See Your Stripes” campus-wide campaign encouraging students to embrace diversity at Clemson — whose mascot is an orange tiger — the Tiger News ran an infographic breaking down racial demographics on campus. The “white” category was depicted as orange, which Alexander said indicated to some students a bias toward whites as the “true orange” representatives on campus.

And, sometimes, it’s not the stories that are published that cause problems, Alexander said. It’s what student reporters don’t cover. Covering issues central to diverse communities can entice students of color to read and join the newspaper, she said.

“You have to be invested in the community,” Alexander said. “You have to show up, and you have to support [students of color]. You have to go to minority events, you’ve got to listen to their stories. As they see themselves represented, more students of color and students of diverse backgrounds will want to participate.”

The pervasive whiteness of student newspapers — and the complex question of how to remedy it — has sparked dialogues across the country, particularly after a September op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement in the Wesleyan University Argus newspaper spurred a rapid chain reaction among campus activists who complained that the newspaper lacked diverse perspectives and called for its defunding. Student government officials voted to form a group to examine the possibility of stripping the newspaper of half its funding.

The months-long debate made national news, sharply dividing journalistic onlookers trying to balance the desire for inclusiveness in publications with maintaining a free marketplace of ideas.

And in the last week, the complex relationship between the media and minority communities was thrust even further into the national spotlight, as a video of a confrontation between University of Missouri student protesters and a student photojournalist went viral. The protesters, part of the group Concerned Student 1950 that has been calling attention to racial issues on Missouri’s campus, had set up a media-free safe space on the campus quad and tried to prohibit a student photographer from taking pictures.

Free speech advocates were outraged at the video. But student activists said they were trying to prevent a mostly-white media from creating “twisted insincere narratives” about their movement. The students later took down the “no media” signs, with organizers saying that the press is “important to tell our story and experiences at Mizzou to the world.”

Still, some of the movement’s supporters expressed frustration that the media had become the center of the story, despite Concerned Student 1950’s successful campaign to get system President Tim Wolfe and university Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to resign from their positions. 

On Twitter, Alexander posted, “It’s time for media to have a real conversation about WHY marginalized communities don’t trust and want to speak to them. Until we examine and tackle why, interactions like this will continue to happen.”

‘Our world around us is changing’

Alexander said student media’s diversity problem won’t be solved simply by putting bodies in the newsroom. The culture has to change, too.

“We need to recognize that even though college is a great place for learning and developing information, for many of our students of color, it’s not a very safe place,” Alexander said. “I think journalists pride themselves on being plucky and no-nonsense, and we don’t subscribe to these ideas of power and privilege, but just like with the Internet and social media, we don’t realize that our world around us is changing to be more inclusive. If we don’t change, we’re going to be left behind.”

The whiteness of college newsrooms extends to the professional journalism world. Only 13 percent of journalists at daily newspapers nationwide belong to racial or ethnic minorities, according to the American Society of News Editors’ 2015 Newsroom Employment Census, a fairly stable figure compared to recent years. Twelve percent of newspapers surveyed reported that at least one of their top three editors is a minority journalist.

Clayton Gutzmore, student representative for the National Association of Black Journalists, said that poverty can create barriers to newsroom participation by students of color, who may not be able to afford to work for free or for low pay.

“NABJ is here to help the students who want to pursue journalism but don’t see the funding in it immediately,” he said, adding that the organization, along with others like it, offers scholarships to talented student journalists of color.

That has been one of the main demands by activists at Wesleyan, who want to use any money that is cut from the Argus’ budget to create work-study positions at the newspaper in hopes that it will open up the newsroom to low-income students of color who can’t afford to work for free.

Gutzmore also emphasized the importance of diverse newsroom leadership in student media.

“There needs to be more anchors,” he said — editors and leaders that inspire minority journalists to succeed. As the former editor-in-chief of the Observer student newspaper at Broward College, Gutzmore said he led black staff writers by example.

“When I was in charge, I saw more black students writing,” he said. “They had the courage to do that because they’d see me do it, so they’d want to emulate it. If we have diversity in our leadership, then more people can be attracted to come.”

A cycle of apologies

At The Daily Illini, the campus newspaper at the University of Illinois, the newsroom staff is fairly diverse, students say. But that didn’t stop the newspaper from publishing a cartoon (drawn by an outside artist) depicting a man climbing a fence on Halloween, proclaiming, “I’m going as an illegal immigrant!” The display struck many on campus as highly offensive — but not necessarily surprising. The newspaper issued an apology and held an open forum with campus diversity groups, including La Casa Cultural Latina.

Stacy Harwood, an associate professor of urban and regional planning at Illinois and co-author of a study on racial microaggressions on campus, said incidents like the cartoon controversy expose the growing fissure between white students and communities of color on campus.

“These things keep happening on campus, and students organize, they protest and they speak out, and I think, OK, the message was heard,” Harwood said. “And then it happens again and again. I feel this great sense of disappointment.”

The cartoon prompted criticism from La Carta Nuestra, a Latino student publication. Cristina Lucio, the publication’s editor-in-chief, said the Illini’s apology didn’t address the issue of racism.

“The fact that they did not point out what was really wrong with the cartoon was really problematic,” Lucio said. “It’s almost as if they’re apologizing that people noticed and that they got caught, rather than knowing that it’s racist.”

Illini staff reached out to La Carta Nuestra and other Latino groups on campus to discuss how to effectively cover the Latino community, but Lucio said the onus of tackling racism shouldn’t be placed on students of color.

“I just personally struggle with the idea of whether people of color should be the ones to educate white folks or privileged folks on things like this,” Lucio said.

Racially charged cartoons or illustrations have also caused outrage on other campuses. At SUNY Plattsburgh, student publication Cardinal Points drew ire on Oct. 23 for publishing a front page article on minority students’ admission rates with an illustration that offended many students with what they called stereotypical images of black poverty — a black student walking alongside boarded-up windows and a car on cinder blocks in a run-down neighborhood.

The illustration was slammed by publications such as The Daily Beast, which dubbed it “the most racist front page in America” and pointed out an offensive Instagram post allegedly written by the illustrator. Editors apologized for the front page, agreeing to comply with an administrative review of the publication, publish content focused on “social issues and justice” and provide staff with diversity training. Cardinal Points editors did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s repeated requests for comment.

The administrative involvement has worried some advocates for free speech and free press on college campuses. Campus debates about diverse media content have flared into conflicts about what is often deemed a culture of “political correctness” or “coddling minds” at universities.

In September, Louisiana State University Law Center completed a review of the current state of diversity at the law center, including its student newspaper The Civilian. The review noted that the Civilian had published comments that were considered sexist and racist and recommended the assignment of a faculty adviser.

Still, interim law school dean Bill Corbett emphasized the hands-off nature of the position.

“We don’t intend to have any editorial control over it,” Corbett said.

Editor-in-chief Mallory Richard noted that the magazine has covered several sensitive topics and doesn’t intend to shy away from controversial territory.

“I can say emphatically that throughout the entire year thus far there has been no attempt by the administration to assert any editorial control over The Civilian in any way, shape or form,” Richard said in a joint interview with Corbett.

The diversity task force was formed after a few racially charged incidents on campus, including an episode at an off-campus Halloween party in which a black law student said he was harassed with racial slurs by a white student.

The review also recommended that the publication adhere to “journalistic standards,” which Richard said referred to standard journalistic practices of ethics and style.

Brown University’s Daily Herald newspaper also came under fire for publishing an Oct. 5 op-ed that seemed to suggest the biological superiority of whites by conflating whiteness and agricultural advancements. The newspaper apologized for the piece, saying, “Our complacency has unfairly forced students of color to be our educators as well as our classmates.”

Editors went on to say that creating a safe environment for students of color trumped free speech concerns: “People of color calling attention to racism does not constitute an overbearing power structure that will limit free speech. The oppressed by definition cannot censor their oppressor.” Daily Herald editors and staff did not respond to the SPLC’s repeated requests for comment.

Ultimately, advocates say that the point of newsroom diversity is to add more voices to the campus conversation.

“It’s really important to have those connections with the communities we serve now, so that your first conversation isn’t after we screwed up,” Alexander said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at (202) 974-6317 or by email.

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