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Lawsuit Blasts Minority Journalism Program

Lawsuit Blasts Minority Journalism Program
As Exclusionary, Discriminatory

By Jamal Watson

Several colleges and universities that sponsor high school summer journalism workshops for minorities are considering loosening their admission requirements in the wake of a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against White students.

The Center for Individual Rights, a conservative public interest law firm, has filed suit against Virginia Commonwealth University, the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund and the Richmond Times Dispatch. CIR is alleging that the summer high school journalism workshop held each year at VCU is exclusionary and discriminates against White students.

“Racial  quotas do not further diversity in any way, shape or form,” says Dr. Terrence J. Pell, the organization’s president. “A segregated program says it’s okay to use special, separate rules for certain races. It’s a short step from that to the more malignant idea that some racial groups can’t compete on the same level as everyone else. No one thinks it is right for the state ever to say that.”

In early 2006, Emily Smith, a White, 15-year-old student at Monacan High School in Virginia, applied to VCU’s Urban Journalism Workshop, an intensive two-week summer camp for about a dozen students held each year. Pell says the teenager met all of the qualifications and was offered a spot in the program, only to have that offer withdrawn once program officials realized she was White. Officials at VCU have thus far declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Since 1984, VCU, with funding from Dow Jones, has had a strong track record of getting minority high school students interested in journalism careers, says Pam D. Lepley, a spokeswoman for the university.

“In the past, we have considered these to be successful programs,” she says, “and obviously we are engaged in them to bring minorities into a profession where they are under-represented.” Lepley says she is unsure if the program will continue.

Currently, Dow Jones sponsors 27 summer journalism workshops targeting  Asian American, American Indian, Black and Hispanic students.

Minorities currently comprise only 13.8 percent of the nation’s journalists, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that minorities constitute about a third of the U.S. population.

Wendell Hutson, the program director of YouthCommunications/Chicago, which has sponsored summer workshops for the past 30 years at Columbia College and Roosevelt University, says it would be “unfortunate” if such programs aimed at minorities were eliminated. But he notes that his workshop is “open to all students, regardless of
their race.”

A number of White students have applied and been accepted into his program, though most of the interest has come from Black students, he says.

“What has happened is that the assumption is that the program is for [under-represented] minorities only,” Hutson says. “If a Caucasian or Asian kid walked through the door, we would not say, ‘sorry, you can’t apply.’”

Some colleges have avoided possible lawsuits by advertising their workshop as a “multicultural” program, thereby suggesting that it is open to students of any race.

Dr. Christopher P. Campbell, author of Race Myth and the News and the director of the School of Mass Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi, says it’s often harder to attract minority students to the workshops if it’s not made clear that the program is explicitly designed for them.  

Campbell should know. While teaching at the University of Idaho, he started a minority workshop with funding from Scripps Howard, another newspaper foundation. A conservative Idaho weekly ran an editorial attacking the program as exclusive and racist. Afraid of a possible lawsuit, the university demanded that the word “multicultural” be added to the workshop’s name. Campbell says some minority students who had approached him about the program decided against applying and others ended up dropping out.

Campbell, who is considering starting a similar program at USM, knows that he will likely encounter the same criticism that he faced in Idaho and says he will probably leave the word “minority” out of all program literature.

In the midst of a vocal anti-affirmative action movement, Campbell says he is surprised that a lawsuit against these workshops did not come earlier, but adds that organizations and universities should fight to preserve them.

“These programs definitely demonstrate that this is the best way to get more minorities into journalism,” he says, adding that alumni have gone on to become reporters and editors in some of the most respected newsrooms in the nation.

Still, Pell of CIR remains adamant that the programs do a disservice to White students and should be eliminated.

“It is time to put an end to these discriminatory programs,” he says, adding that the programs should be open to Whites and the word “minority” dropped from its name.

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