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TV Newsrooms Lag on Diversity

A look at statistics makes it appear that diversity in TV newsrooms is improving, but numbers don't always tell the full story. As the nation celebrates Black History Month, it's not clear that minorities who work in TV news have much to cheer about.

According to the Radio-Television News Directors' annual study of diversity, blacks in TV newsrooms are at 9.5%. And 4.2% of all TV news directors are African-American.

Also, the study states, overall minorities in TV newsrooms are at their second-highest level ever: 22.2%. Likewise, 13.2% of all TV news directors are minority, the second-highest that number, too, has ever reached.

But with the total U.S. minority population at 33.6%, all employment numbers fall short. “The number of people in broadcast news has declined in general,” says Gary Wordlaw, a former news director and now general manager of CBS-owned WUPL New Orleans. “So the number of minorities looks greater proportionate to the total number. There's been no significant change for years.”

Progress has been made, insists RTNDA President Barbara Cochran, but there's room for improvement. “The percentage of minorities in the newsroom is not keeping pace with the percentage in the population,” she says. “I think local stations have a huge interest in serving their communities by having people in the newsroom who reflect those communities. There's a very strong reason for them to diversify their staffs as much as they can.”

Improving the Numbers

To do that, there are clear steps that TV stations and the companies that own them can take, some executives say. First, the industry needs to make it easier to get promising people into the employment pipeline by identifying and training them earlier and by offering them paid internships.

“A lot of students of color have to work in the summers to augment their tuition, and usually they have to have paying summer jobs,” says Paula Madison, who heads NBC's trio of stations in Los Angeles and is executive VP of NBC Universal's diversity efforts. “The reality for students of color is that they get pulled away from unpaid internships in order to earn money,” she says. “We as an industry are going to have to look at paid summer internships.”

Once students land jobs, Madison says, organizations have to make sure they have strong mentors with whom they can consult, especially because companies often want to push promising minorities into positions of responsibility before they are ready.

“It happens because the pool is so slight that when we see [minorities] who have potential, we as an industry put a lot more responsibility on them sooner than they can handle,” Madison says. “I've seen a number of people of color who absolutely were doing wonderful jobs, and then they get into a circumstance where it's a bigger job than they thought it was going to be and they didn't have the kind of mentorships where they could seek advice on how to handle it.”

A proven model is run by the Washington-based Emma L. Bowen Foundation, which works with media companies to provide year-round jobs for students of color in all segments of the media industry, including TV stations, Internet and ad agencies. The foundation identifies high school seniors and stays with them through college so they can try their hand at media positions. Each student is backed by a corporate sponsor, where he or she often ends up working.

Positions of Power

“When I started with the foundation in 1999, we had 17 corporate partners and 75 students,” says Phyllis Eagle Oldson, president of the foundation. “Today, we have close to 50 corporate partners and 275 students. What that says is, companies understand the importance of diversity for their business models and have a variety of ways to improve that diversity within their companies.”

It's as important to improve diversity among media management as it is to improve it in the overall workforce, adds Cochran. “It's commonplace in television for young people to want to be on camera, but they don't necessarily pursue jobs that are behind the camera,” she says, “even though that's where the power and decision-making is.”

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Paige Albiniak
Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.