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Looking for Black Journalists

Looking for Black Journalists
In the Wrong Places

If an individual isn’t careful, he or she might be lured into believing that Blacks have finally arrived in significant numbers in the media. There’s that gorgeous, velvet-voiced sister anchoring the local 6 o’clock news. A brother, usually without a mustache, provides the sports scores. At the national level, Mark Whitaker is the No. 1 editor at Newsweek magazine. Another brother, Gerald M. Boyd, recently became the No. 2 editor at the august New York Times.
Individual accomplishments aside, we remain severely underrepresented in the media. Even though much progress has been accomplished in recent years, the people delivering and, more important, determining what is considered news do not reflect the communities they cover. In daily newspapers, for example, 11.6 percent of the journalists are people of color, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). Mid-range Census Bureau figures place the number of people of color at 28.4 percent of the U.S. population.
And even when African American journalists are hired, many do not stay.
A survey by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) found that 67 percent of African American journalists did not believe their newsroom managers were even committed to retaining and promoting Black journalists.
Still, Blacks must be hired before they can ever have a chance to be promoted. And their presence is needed not only to help Blacks, but also to help Whites give a more balanced picture of society. In one respect, the media are not unlike the large corporations they cover — they make feeble excuses for failing to hire African Americans in significant numbers. One reason they can’t “find” enough African Americans is that they are looking in the wrong places.
By merely descending on the nation’s top journalism schools — the University of Missouri, Columbia University and Northwestern University, among them — recruiters are overlooking a rich pool of talent at historically Black colleges.
Take the case of my alma mater, Knoxville College in Tennessee. With an enrollment that has never reached 1,500 students during its 126-year history, Knoxville College has turned out more prominent African American journalists than the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University combined. Alumni include syndicated columnist Vernon Jarrett, a founder and former president of NABJ; Barbara Rodgers, an anchor for KPIX-TV in San Francisco; Ralph Wiley, a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated and author of several books; and Starita Smith, editor of the Dallas Examiner. After serving as editor of my college newspaper, I took a job as a reporter for Sports Illustrated, served as editor of Emerge: Black America’s Newsmagazine and was elected president of the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME).
Remarkably, none of us ever took a journalism course at Knoxville College — because none were offered. And that’s the point. If media executives are serious about recruiting potential journalists, they need to seek the talent that is already on the campuses of HBCUs.
There is another advantage to recruiting students from Black colleges. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but it won’t be the first time I’ve created a ruckus. It seems to me that many, though not all, of the young Black reporters being hired today are nothing but a tinted version of Caucasians. They are tinted and tainted. Many are reluctant to be identified as African Americans; they have few, if any, ties to their local Black communities; and they won’t go near a housing project in search of a story without being assigned. They are, in short, what famed sociologist Nathan Hare called, “Black Anglo-Saxons.”
Of course, recruiting potential journalists from HBCUs won’t guarantee avoiding these kinds of wannabes. But it reduces that likelihood and increases the likelihood of finding the next Vernon Jarrett, a journalist comfortable with his racial identity and his skills as a journalist. With the numbers being as dismal as they are, at least the people holding these jobs should know why they are there. 

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