When the first black president of the United States walked into the White House press room to talk about Trayvon Martin and the complexities of race in America last Friday, the people poised to convey his remarks to the world were overwhelmingly of one race — white.
At a time when one of the most contentious subjects in Washington is immigration reform — an issue of great import to many Hispanics — the people questioning the president on a regular basis are unlikely to be Hispanic themselves.
But does that matter?
The mainstream news media have always been disproportionately populated by white journalists. According to the American Society of News Editors annual survey, 12.4 percent of 38,000 newspaper journalists were racial minorities in 2012. The figure for TV journalists was 21.5 percent, and for radio was 11.7 percent, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association. These figures haven’t changed much even as the nation’s minority population has increased to about 37 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau says. Among the small but influential subset of reporters who cover the White House — arguably the most prestigious beat in American journalism — the numbers are roughly the same.
Of the 53 correspondents who regularly report from the White House, seven are African American or Asian American, according to head counts by a dozen White House correspondents, journalism organizations and other sources (figures on other minorities aren’t available). “There are just so few,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist who has kept detailed tallies on participants in White House news conferences for decades.
The numbers haven’t budged over decades, and may in fact have declined over time, according to George Condon, a National Journal reporter who has been researching the history of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA), a group that represents reporters in coverage-related issues with the administration. One measure of the group’s minimal diversity: Only three African Americans have ever served on the WHCA’s board during its 99-year history, Condon said.
Given the symbolic nature of the job, the largely unchanging face of the White House media pool has long been a disappointment to organizations that represent minority journalists. In a somewhat ironic twist, “there was a noticeable drop” in the number of black journalists covering Obama after his first election in 2008, said Gregory Lee, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists. The current situation, he said, “simply does not reflect the America we see changing on a daily basis.”
Condon, a journalist in Washington for 31 years, offers a mixed assessment of whether race makes a difference in how the presidency and the issues surrounding it are portrayed: “You don’t have to be Protestant to write about a Catholic president or Polish to cover Lech Walesa and Solidarity. People here are awfully good reporters. They cover lots of things that aren’t in their backgrounds.”