Some 6,000 journalists -- most of them black, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American -- have been meeting here in what is being billed as the largest gathering of professional journalists in the nation's history. The occasion is Unity '99, a joint effort of four major professional associations: the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association.
In a state that last fall voted for an initiative that, depending on one's perspective, either eliminates or severely curtails affirmative action in the public sector, Unity '99 has been a living monument to what is meant by "diversity," a concept that frightens the dickens out of those people -- mostly white males -- who worry about being pushed aside. Journalists are not immune from that fear of losing out as leaders of the news business publicly declare their commitment to diversity or "inclusion." At The Post, Executive Editor Leonard Downie has declared that "a great newspaper must be a diverse newspaper." In a portfolio prepared for the newspaper's recruitment drive at Unity '99, he writes: "At The Washington Post, we are extremely proud of our diversity -- diversity of subjects covered, diversity of backgrounds and interests on our staff, diversity of styles and approaches to journalism."
The Post's news staff is more racially and ethnically diverse than those of most newspapers: 18 percent vs. the industry figure of 11.55 percent. In terms of how happy those journalists are with their treatment at the newspaper, The Post is moderately successful. In terms of how a corporate commitment to diversity translates into routine coverage that reflects the lives of readers in The Post's core circulation area, the newspaper has a longer way to go. But The Post, like other major newspapers, is pursuing various plans to "grow the franchise," as many a publisher and editor has been heard to say at Unity '99.
Back to the minority journalists, some of whom are expected to help reach the evermore heterogeneous neighborhoods of the District and the surrounding Virginia and Maryland counties: Some 20 years ago, the nation's top newspaper editors decided that to remain relevant, they needed to do a better job of covering the black and brown people of the country. To accomplish that, they would hire more journalists of color so that they might bring their experiences and perspectives to the newsroom mix and help create a richer -- and more accurate -- portrait of the communities being served by the newspapers. So the editors set 2000 as the year by which their news staffs would look like their communities; the word used was "parity." Minority journalists were less than 4 percent of the work force in 1978; by 2000, they would have to be about 30 percent. Realizing that there was no way they would meet the goal by next year, they set 2025 as the year by which there would be newsroom parity.
The Unity '99 meeting has focused not just on hiring goals but, more important for readers, how diversity actually translates into a better newspaper. Among the questions minority journalists have asked themselves:
Are you actually bringing something different to the table, or are you coming with the same ideas and assumptions about what is news and who is quoted and where one goes to find the story?
If you are not interested in covering racial and ethnic communities that have largely been left out of newspapers -- as about half of journalists of color have said they are not, according to a study released by the Media Studies Center a few days ago -- what is the point of all this "diversity"?
These confabs provide opportunities to chew on such questions; when editors and reporters return to their newsrooms, including The Post's, they should continue with a more vigorous search for answers.