by Ray Suarez, Senior Correspondent - PBS
If the question is "Does diversity make a great newsroom?" the answer simply and apparently is "no." Simply taking the Epcot Center, Small World, one from Column A, two from Column B approach to personnel matters will not give you a great newsroom. But if you turn the question around slightly and ask, "Can you have a great newsroom without it?" I would say at least for the largest metropolitan areas of the country where a sizeable chunk of Americans live, the answer, just as clearly and categorically, is absolutely not.
We have come a long way since the 1960s when urban riots had city editors looking into their newsrooms only to see a sea of white guys in white shirt...Things have changed, they have gotten better, and it has been shown to the people who run this business that not thinking about these things when putting together your team, puts you at a fatal, competitive weakness...
However, communication means having the same set of meanings come out of people's mouths and enter people's ears and have everybody know that we're talking about the same thing...When we talk about diversity, that common understanding of what we're talking about is not always a part of the communicating process. Is it body count? Is it simply who you would list on an EEOC report? What do our listeners, what do our readers think diversity is? In television, in too many places, it's been understood as just putting one of those faces up. That satisfies a very basic definition of diversity.
Anybody who's been in this for awhile can tell you stories about particular new events, where either a strength or a weakness in this regard suddenly showed up at the morning meeting...The way that you tell how good your newsroom is is what you do the other 363 days a year when there is [no breaking news] no Monica Lewinsky around. There is no such thing as a Latino electric bill. There is no such thing as a black gas bill. And when you look at who speaks for the public when the issue is a utility rate hike, who do reporters go out and talk to?
If your default person, go out and talk to a person, is always the same kind of person, then you've got a problem... Who speaks when the issue is real estate taxes? When you say the word "homeowner," is the immediate response, "Oh, yes, let's go out and find a 50 year-old white person" because apparently they are more upset than any other people in society when real estate taxes go up?
Who's making the decisions about what to cover and how to cover it? And especially when we talk about life in the largest metros where there are, for instance, more black people in New York than there are people of any sort in most cities in America... Your orientation should point directly over there to East Flatbush in Brooklyn where the whole flavor of central Brooklyn has changed in the last 20 years, and somehow it has escaped the notice of the people who sit in midtown Manhattan and make news decisions.
If the first time a minority reporter touches a story, gets a hand in on its planning or execution, is when his or her butt is being run out the door by an assignment editor, that's too late in the process. Find people earlier in the discussion of how certain coverage is being done who can talk about emphasis, who can talk about orientation, who can remind people that when you're doing something as banal as a hot weather story... that all kinds of people get hot.