When Dorothy Butler Gilliam showed up for a birthday party at a house in a wealthy Washington neighborhood, the doorman told her that the maid’s entrance was around the back.
Gilliam instead showed the man her press badge from The Washington Post.
In 1961, Gilliam was the first black female reporter hired at The Post, an experience that she shares in her memoir, “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America.” During her 30 years working as a reporter, editor and columnist at The Post, she witnessed and participated in the fight for equal rights for women and people of color, inside and outside the newsroom. Whether she was reporting on integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 or pushing newsroom managers to hire more women and minorities, Gilliam committed her career to sharing a broader view of American life.
Diversity is still a shortcoming in the newsrooms of legacy media organizations. Esquire was recently criticized for a cover story titled, “An American Boy,” featuring the photo of a white male. CBS was pilloried on social media after it tweeted photos of its 2020 election coverage team, which included no black journalists. And increasingly, news organizations are being called out for using terms such as “racially charged” instead of “racist” to describe bigoted/offensive rhetoric and behavior. Gilliam raised such issues while she was in The Post newsroom and has continued to work on them since retiring from The Post in 2003.
But Gilliam and other advocates worry that news organizations are losing ground in the area of newsroom diversity, especially at this time when people of color, women and LGBTQ individuals are raising their voices and challenging old assumptions about what it means to be an American. “The more you have different communities represented and have people in leadership who can speak to what is going on, the stronger the news media will be,” Gilliam says.
A study by the Women’s Media Center found that, overall, the proportion of women of color in newsrooms remained stagnant or fell last year in comparison with previous years. The report said women of color accounted for 7.95 percent of traditional print newspaper journalism jobs, 6.2 percent of radio jobs and 12.6 percent of TV news jobs. Overall, women account for 32 percent of newsroom staffs nationwide.
However, there was some growth in female representation in online-only publications, according to the American Society of News Editors. A majority (79.3 percent) of the online-only organizations reported having at least one woman in leadership, and 32.7 percent said they had at least one minority journalist in a top position. Both ASNE and the Women’s Media Center noted in their 2018 findings that in comparison with newspapers, online-only publications such as HuffPost had more women and people of color than in 2017.
About US talked with Gilliam about the state of black women in journalism and what it takes to hold news organizations accountable for hiring more of them.
About US: What was it like inside the newsroom during the civil rights movement?
Gilliam: The inside and outside merged sometimes in the newsroom, because I could have a pleasant conversation with a colleague in the newsroom, but if I saw that colleague on the street, they might ignore me or act like they didn’t know me. But the backdrop to that also is that race was not discussed in the newsroom except when I would hear some editor say something about how in general blacks were regarded, and it was always from an inferior position.
About US: Did you ever feel a certain pressure to write stories about black people?
Gilliam: I did. At first, I said I wasn’t going to just cover black stories. I didn’t want to stereotype myself. Just to show you how naive I was when I first got there, but there were a lot of important stories that needed to be written.
About US: What were some of those important stories?
Gilliam: During the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, The Post sent me down to do a story on the reaction of the black community. The story I got was about both their pride in what had happened on that campus — that a black man had the audacity to integrate that campus — and their fear. It was a story of triumph, and that this person had done something they knew would open the door for others to follow.
About US: What kept you committed to covering these stories, even if they weren’t popular?
Gilliam: Part of it, I think, was what I already had. I came to journalism with some strong inner resources that I got from my family and from my church. You know that I am somebody, no matter what other people say or think. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t present or that it wasn’t painful, but I persevered because I knew what I was doing was significant. And I also knew that if I succeeded, it would be easier for the next black woman to be hired.
About US: Did you ever feel as if your race affected more of your experiences at The Post than your gender?
Gilliam: There wasn’t very much acknowledgment about being either, really. I had what some people would see as a double handicap, but they’re invisible because of so many of the things that happened at The Post. You asked about my identity as a woman versus my identity as being black. I had to force my identity as a woman by asking is it possible for me to work four days a week instead of five just to have one extra day on the weekend for my children. At that point, I had two children. At first, the assistant manager said no, we can’t show you any special favors. But I kept begging, and finally they let me do it. I think it lasted maybe less than a month before the editor said you are lowering the morale in the newsroom.
About US: Did you feel more empowered as an editor to address newsroom diversity?
Gilliam: Yes, absolutely. I definitely saw that as one of my duties, responsibilities and joys. I looked for reporters from other newspapers who I had seen writing these stories. I felt much more empowered going to meetings discussing what would be in the paper. I’d bring clips from Ebony and Jet and say these are stories we need to have.
About US: Do you find recent reports detailing that women of color are still underrepresented in newsrooms surprising?
Gilliam: I find it disheartening. I think it's very important to have people of color in leadership positions as well as women. You need that kind of internal leadership to help make things really move forward.
About US: We are seeing more and more news stories calling incidents of racism “racially tinged” or “racially charged” instead of “racist.” What are your thoughts on why editors and writers employ these phrases?
Gilliam: I think these euphemisms are a mistake. Things should be called what they are. People are talking more about white supremacy, but they are leaving out the anti-black narrative. Racism is in America’s DNA, and unless you call something what it is, we [in journalism] won’t have that trust from the public and, most certainly, black Americans.
About US: One of the common responses for why newsrooms aren’t diverse enough is that there aren’t enough qualified candidates of color. What are your thoughts on that?
Gilliam: I certainly know that when I first started in the ’60s, if I hadn’t graduated from Columbia, I would have never been hired. You know they were looking for white credentials.
About US: Do you think that is a testament to elitism in journalism?
Gilliam: No. That’s a testament to being racist.
About US: How do you think a more-diverse newsroom can shape coverage around news dealing with race?
Gilliam: I think it’s more important now than ever, because you know the country is so polarized, and so the more you have different communities represented and have people in leadership who can speak to what is going on, the stronger the news media will be. By reporting on what communities are doing, thinking and feeling, the news can inform other communities. It might not end polarization, but it will certainly increase understanding.