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Diversity in the Newsroom

Diversity in the Newsroom
Five journalists discuss how they got started in the business and offer advice to aspiring reporters

‘A Series of Happy Accidents’

Joie Chen, Correspondent, CBS News

Instead of aiming for a career in broadcast journalism, CBS News correspondent Joie Chen set her sights on becoming a newspaper reporter, studying print journalism at Northwestern University. Not finding a newspaper job upon graduation, she returned to Northwestern to complete a master’s degree in journalism.

One of her advisers, noting the lack of Asian television news journalists, suggested Chen try the broadcast program. The Chicago native gave broadcasting a shot and eventually landed a producer/reporter job at a Charleston, S.C., television station.

As it turned out, Chen’s on-air reporting talent proved far stronger than her behind-the-scenes producing skills. And so, less than a decade after graduating from Northwestern, she found herself being beamed into millions of homes as an anchorwoman on CNN International.

American audiences came to know and recognize Chen after she moved from CNN International to CNN in 1994. The Emmy award-winning journalist was named a CBS News correspondent in the network’s Washington, D.C., bureau in March 2002.

Chen’s parents, both scientists, immigrated to the United States before she was born. Her father is Chinese and her mother is Japanese. Chen remembers not being allowed to watch cartoons as a youngster because her parents didn’t want her to pick up substandard English and slang. Instead, they had her watch Walter Cronkite, the renowned CBS News anchor, every night.

“I think my watching Walter Cronkite from a young age may have helped lay the groundwork for journalism with me,” she muses.

Chen says her Northwestern education has helped her take advantage of opportunities that she had neither anticipated nor deliberately sought.

“I have to say that my career has been a series of happy accidents,” she says. 

When she speaks before young Asian-Americans and other minority students, Chen advises them to learn about their ethnicity and be aware of their cultural history.

“Whether or not young people understand the culture and history of their ethnicity, I try to stress to them that it’s part of how they’re perceived by the larger society,” she says.

— By Ronald Roach

Raising His Profile

Russ Mitchell, Anchor, CBS News

This spring, Russ Mitchell was named anchor of the Sunday edition of “CBS Evening News.” He still retains his duties as co-anchor of the “Saturday Early Show,” serves as one of the rotating anchors of the Saturday edition of the “Evening News” and is a correspondent for the Sunday morning news show.

On top of that, he still finds time to volunteer and mentor high school journalists.

With all these jobs, it might be easy to overlook the fact that Mitchell was nominated for an Emmy Award last month. But it’s fair to say that he just might be one of the hardest working journalists in television news today.

A recent report says Black males, especially on network stations, remain nearly nonexistent. That makes Mitchell a rarity.

A 25-year-veteran who caught the journalism bug while in high school, Mitchell got his first job answering telephones at a TV station. He used that opportunity to learn from older journalists, and when he graduated from the University of Missouri, he landed his first job as a reporter trainee at a local news station in Kansas City.

Mitchell says he’s startled by statistics showing how many Blacks — especially Black males — have gotten out of the broadcast business because of frustration.

Chief among the challenges that many minority on-air journalists face is that there aren’t as many slots available for them as there are for White journalists, Mitchell says. “A television network or local station is not going to have 10 Black reporters,” he says. “The opportunities are limited for us.”

“One of the things I tell young people is that there are going to be obstacles thrown at them every step of the way,” Mitchell says. “People are going to tell you that you’re not good at this, and in some cases you’re going to hear that this is not a business you should go into. My advice to students is to develop thick skin; do what you want to do and keep your eye on the prize. If you do that, and you work really hard, with luck, you’ll be successful.”

— By Tracie Powell

Education: A Window into People’s Lives

Claudio Sanchez, Education Correspondent, National Public Radio

Perhaps you heard Claudio Sanchez’ National Public Radio report on the reaction of students at a Washington, D.C., high school to a speech in which the current President Bush told teenagers to “Say no to drugs.” One girl broke down crying, saying she felt helpless because her own mother would send her and her younger sister to sell drugs on a local corner.

The award-winning journalist is known for stories like that, stories on poor or immigrant families that often go under-reported in the mainstream media as they navigate the public education system.

“It was not so much a beat, but a window into families, to the lives of people through their children, a window to an institution [public education.] The more I delved into that I became fascinated with chronicling people’s experiences. Every story for me became eye-opening,” says Sanchez on why he’s covered the education beat for NPR since 1989.

When he graduated with a degree in print journalism from Northern Arizona University, there were no journalism jobs. The Nogales, Mexico, native worked as a teacher before joining a group of Hispanic reporters to form the Latin American News Service. The El Paso, Texas-based service covered Latin America and the U.S.-Mexico border for 120 radio stations in the United States and Canada.

After the news service died for lack of funding, NPR came calling. Sanchez accepted the education beat under one condition: that he also be allowed to cover immigration.

“Immigration has been a problem since its inception. But we report it like it’s a new problem or it will lead to our undoing,” he says. “My biggest complaint is that it’s like we’ve just discovered this problem. This doesn’t inform the reader because there’s no context to it; there’s no history. ”

Sanchez says the public is not as interested in education stories as it is the Iraq war and gas prices. As a result, media are missing out on important stories. A year from now, No Child Left Behind may not be big news, but there will still be young immigrants struggling to make it in this country, he says.

— By Toni Coleman

On-the-Job Training

Mark Trahant, Editorial Page Editor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

With the exception of a year as a visiting scholar at Vanderbilt University in 1995, Mark Trahant did not follow the traditional higher education route. In other words, he has no college degree. A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Fort Hall, Idaho, he says he just remembers wanting to be a writer. So Trahant started a community newspaper called the Sho-Ban News in 1975 and “fell in love with it. That was my education.”

What followed is a 30-year career in the newspaper industry, headlined by several achievements: a book on American Indian journalism called Pictures of Our Nobler Selves; an essay called “Who’s Your Daddy?” in Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes; and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for a series called “Fraud in Indian Country” on the U.S. government’s misappropriation of American Indian trust funds.

Trahant, 48, now an op-ed writer and editorial page editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is working on his second book, an examination of the history of American Indian leadership called Peace Chief. He says he has seen newsrooms gradually become more diverse over the past three decades.

“There have been substantial changes,” he says. “But they are more regional based, [in American Indian populated places] like Arizona
and Oklahoma.”

“This is the reason this narrative thread matters. One way or another, all segments of society will find a way to get their news. But how much
will we know about each other? Will our discourse be the same, at least on occasion? Or, will we just give up and go our own way?”

Trahant says there will always be great debate on whether a journalist should cover his or her own community or that of another community.
He tells students to write stories on “anything that interests you” and he heeds his own advice.

In Seattle, Trahant says he gets to write about the area’s “diverse and sophisticated” community — American Indian and others — as well as other political and economic trends around the world.

“I’m open to moving but right now my kids are in high school, and I like what I do,” says the columnist.

— By Shilpa Banerji

Outside the Box

Cynthia Tucker, Editorial Page Editor, Atlanta-Journal Constitution

Cynthia Tucker rubs both Atlanta’s Black establishment and Georgia conservatives the wrong way — which some journalists believe is probably a good thing. For 15 years, this Black female voice of the South’s largest newspaper has criticized Atlanta mayors for awarding city contracts to patrons under the guise of affirmative action. At the same time, she steadfastly rebuffs conservatives’ calls to eliminate affirmative action in college admissions.

Tucker was hired at The Atlanta Journal straight out of Alabama’s Auburn University in 1976. She covered county government, city hall and the Georgia General Assembly for the paper. After a stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer and six months touring Africa, she returned to the Journal. In 1991, Tucker became both the first Black and the first woman to hold the post of editorial page editor at the leading daily.

By all accounts, Tucker is a formidable journalist, and it’s a role she takes very seriously.

“As corny as it may sound, I really genuinely believe that a free press is vital to a functioning democracy,” she says. “I don’t know how else people would get the information they need to make informed choices about civic policy. The more complex the world becomes, the more I believe in what I do.”

Named this year’s Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, Tucker says she is concerned about the sagging subscription numbers for newspapers nationwide, but she says she remains optimistic about the future of print media and has advice for up-and-coming journalists.

“The best information, the best news sources are still print publications. That hasn’t changed,” she says. “Read a lot of good news publications, from Newsweek to The Economist, to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. They offer you the best information and they also teach you how to write well. If you read those publications consistently, you’ll see how those reporters write, how they gather information and master the subject. That’s what all good journalists do.”

— By Tracie Powell

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