Hiding in Plain Sight: Absent Media Diversity

By Melissa Wells

The college classroom easily holds more than the 50 students scattered around the room, which makes it easy for Zipporah Osei to spot the four or five Black people, aside from herself, and to find even that many is surprising. Osei is rarely shocked by the lack of color in the student populace around her when she walks into a class on any given day, but it is moments like these when she wishes the diversity in her courses was more apparent. Perhaps then, Osei’s professor would not have felt comfortable playing a video — without warning — depicting police brutality to open a discussion on video production.

Born and raised in a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood near the Bronx—Yonkers, specifically—the 21-year-old grew up with victims of police brutality, knows those touched by it and thus, gone out of her way to not watch the videos circulating online. Osei has to mentally and emotionally prepare herself for the traumatic experience of watching the violence those viral videos depict of African Americans shot or killed at the hands of predominantly white officers. “Because of the lack of diversity here, there isn’t that forethought of, ‘Oh, somebody in the classroom actually could be personally touched by something like this,’” the third-year journalism major said.

The frustration is clear in her voice, but she doesn’t believe moments like those happen out of insensitivity. For students like Osei, the failure of diversity and inclusivity she sees in the journalism department goes beyond the discomfort she feels in a circumstance like that one. It’s a lack of awareness among the faculty and students in those rooms: most often white and generally from upper-middle-class families.

The continuous struggle to increase media diversity does not evaluate how the issue may extend back to education into this profession, specifically in the student body, faculty and curriculum. At Northeastern University, the College of Arts, Media and Design, or CAMD, is small, but the School of Journalism within it is even smaller. The dearth of diversity students of color see is a glaring issue among the faculty and their curriculum.

In 1979, the American Society of News Editors, or ASNE, pledged to increase the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities across newsrooms to match the nation’s demographic makeup by the year 2000. Upon realizing the industry would fall far short by then, ASNE would adopt a new goal for parity by 2025, also creating bench marks to help the press better track progress.

In 2018, ASNE’s annual Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey found the average publication staff was 59 percent male. Although annual participation in the survey was low, newsrooms that responded revealed people of color represent 22.6 percent of news staff. Over the course of 17 years, gender and racial diversity increased little more than 30 percent.

The American Press Institute views diversity as both a business and journalism imperative, with “broader, deeper, urgent effects on our news organizations and on their sustainability for the future.”

Masudul Biswas agrees; the field of journalism imperative to diversify can start by incorporating diversity into journalism education. He co-authored “A 2009 Assessment of Diversity Education in Journalism/Mass Communication Schools,” with Ralph Izard, executive director of the Media Diversity Forum. Biswas is also the site editor and web developer of the Media Diversity Forum, a website he describes as a “research resource,” created to consolidate research, foster dialogue and sponsor programs about diversity in both the media and higher education. “Journalism schools should focus on diversity through three areas: trying to include diversity in the student body, faculty and in the curriculum,” Biswas said.

Data acquired from fall enrollment in 2016 shows the most common race/ethnicity of both the enrolled student population and graduating students at Northeastern University is white. Enrolled white students comprise 40.3 percent of the student body, including full-time and part-time undergraduate and graduate students. In 2016, 61.5 percent of journalism degrees awarded at Northeastern were to white students. Only 12 percent were to Black and Hispanic students respectively, and only 2 percent to Asian students.

Ellen Cushman is the associate dean of academic affairs, diversity and inclusion and the chair of the college advisory committee on diversity and inclusion in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Other colleges, such as the College of Science and Bouvé College of Health Sciences, have similar faculty members with this title. Some, like the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, have pages on their websites reiterating their commitment to diversity with current activities, goals and initiatives listed. The College of Arts, Media and Design have neither.

But, Cushman explains that Northeastern University has created an academic plan for 2025 indicative of “ways in which we’re trying to conceptualize diversity and inclusion to tackle some challenges that all universities face really, but specifically to how those challenges manifest at Northeastern.” The plan is “a fairly comprehensive look at not just the mission of the overall university, but how diversity plays into every single one of these schools,” Cushman said.

Jonathan Kaufman, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, editor, author and director of the School of Journalism for four years now, affirms the department’s commitment to diversity. “We look for gender diversity, racial diversity, diversity of background and so forth. Our goal is to have a student body and a faculty that reflects all the different groups out there in the country, and even globally. I think it’s especially important because we want to make sure we produce journalists who can take their place.”

Jasmine Wu, 22, is a fourth-year senior from Queens, New York. She and her friend Erica Yee, a 21-year-old Oakland native and a fourth-year junior, just returned to campus after co-oping at CNBC last semester. Both came to Northeastern University undeclared, meeting in a journalism course that convinced the pair to declare journalism as their majors. “I don’t think, at the time, I was conscious enough about the imprint of diversity and the effect that it would have on me when I was applying, so it didn’t factor into my decision then,” Wu said. “But in the classes that I’ve taken, there have not been many students of color in my journalism classes, and I think, relative to the rest of Northeastern, there’s less diversity. It is a problem in the journalism department, in particular.”

Amaya Williams is a first-year journalism major from Manhattan. For Williams, diversity factored into where she applied for college. “Small things, like having people that look like me, that’s important.” She was surprised by the lack of diversity in the journalism department. “I think that the university does take diversity seriously, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of applicants in journalism, in general.” The 18-year-old points out that there were only 13 students with a declared major in journalism when she began last fall. In 2016, only 62 degrees in journalism were awarded at Northeastern, up from the 48 given in 2015.

Biswas said the benefit of a diverse student body shouldn’t be overlooked. “An African American student journalist or Asian American student journalist can offer a better perspective of what other Asian American or African American students are thinking about concerning certain issues that affect the whole college body. A diverse student body helps in that way: sharing perspective.”

Kaufman affirmed this. “I think having a more diverse student body and a more diverse faculty is important both to us, in terms of what we teach, and in terms of serving as a pipeline into the profession.” But efforts aren’t directed at increasing diversity in the student body, rather encouraging. “I think we assign our students a wide variety of topics, and we assign them to cover diversity in Boston, for examples, and diverse issues. We’re always hoping for ideas from students, but I think our students do a pretty good job of going out and covering a wide variety of topics.”

Wu finds it concerning, as she sees the repercussions beyond college. “Because of the field that, in my opinion, is hard to enter in a conventional way, you want to limit the number of barriers to entry as possible,” Wu said.

“I think that’s the responsibility of a journalism school and I think for students of color, lack of diversity is one of those huge barriers to entry.”

– Jasmine Wu

Osei is currently on co-op covering higher education at The Chronicle, where she experiences this firsthand. “The newsroom I’m in is probably just as diverse as Northeastern is, especially the J-school. It’s mainly white. There’s a couple of people of color, but I would definitely say it’s a majority-white newsroom. But then I’m also living in D.C., which is a really diverse city, so it’s like getting a taste of diversity without really having it in the workplace.” But that taste is not enough in either setting. “There’s just an increased exposure to differences of experiences, and opinions, and ideologies when you have a more diverse backdrop and, as someone who is in the minority, I think that definitely would enrich my experience.”

Cushman understands the emotional and mental impact a lack of diversity can have on students of color within certain programs. She describes it as a feeling of not being included, which can hinder students’ persistence to complete their education. “If diversity is representative of a wide range of perspectives and students aren’t necessarily seeing their perspective, their experience, their understanding in their other student cohorts, other faculty members, other staff members, that can feel very isolating to students, sometimes very alienating to them,” she said.

Osei is evidence of the feeling Cushman describes, revealing she is disillusioned with journalism because of her experience in the School of Journalism. “It’s hard when you see who is successful in journalism, and they don’t look like you, and then when you look at your own J-school and the people who are in it also don’t look like you. It’s hard to feel like you can relate to anybody. It took a lot of soul-searching to realize, to tell myself, ‘There are journalists that look like you, they just aren’t at Northeastern.’”

Kaufman sees increasing diversity as a priority that has rendered successful results. That said, when asked if he viewed the current faculty in his department as diverse, he responded, “I think we’re making strides, it’s not where I would like it to be, but I think we’re getting better.”

Better, perhaps, but students of color don’t see it as enough. Yee pulls up the faculty directory page on the CAMD website and scrolls, Wu looking over her shoulder. “If you look at the faculty website for the journalism school, every person is white, I believe, except Aleszu [Bajak], Dan [Lothian] and Susan [Conover], who is [an academic adviser],” she said. Despite that Yee is fond of her professors, “it’s the lack of seeing people that look like you, which is often something we grapple with, as Asian Americans, in powerful places and as role models,” that she struggles with.

Williams just completed her first year at Northeastern, and the “faculty issue,” as she describes it, is evident to her in how “professors will either try too hard to cover an issue because they feel like it’s important to the student body but lack the tact to do it. Or, worse, they just don’t cover those issues at all because it doesn’t affect them, so why would they care about those issues?”

Kaufman believes “having a wide variety of voices and a diverse collection of talent makes any organization stronger, and we’re no different… that’s something the students demand and something the students want. We try to be as responsive as we can to that.”

Osei will be a fourth-year senior next year, and she does note some positive changes on staff reflective of this. “When I came in, there were no Black professors that I’m aware of… I didn’t have any and I didn’t see any or know of anybody who had any Black professors. Now there is one, Dan Lothian,” she said. “Aside from race, there were more male professors than female. I think we’re striking more of a balance now.”

But, Wu adds,  “I don’t know whether [the School of Journalism is] just not conscious of it, or whether it’s particularly difficult to get faculty of color, but I think it sends a certain type of message to your students of color when they don’t see people who are supposed to be their role models or supposed to be the first encounter that they have with the field of journalism.”

When it comes to making the faculty more diverse, that’s the glaring issue that makes diversifying staff difficult—the size of the department. Thus, there are a limited number of openings in the first place. However, when an opening becomes available, Kaufman dictates how the process prioritizes diversity. “Whenever we have an opening, we create a search committee and on the search committee, there are certain parameters we are looking at for candidates who apply. We make a special effort to reach out to a diverse pool of candidates, so we’re not just sitting and waiting for applications to come in, we’ll go out and try to recruit people, encourage them to apply.” Other ways the department tries to pursue this diversity is through hiring for special courses and bringing in speakers for department wide events or to guest-lecture in specific classes.

Based on his research, Biswas describes why diversity of faculty is especially important to curriculum. “If there are faculty that are African American, Latino, Asian, people with different religious backgrounds and/or some international faculty, what they can do is they can infuse their experiences into curriculum to better expose students with a diverse range of assignments and topics,” he said.

Yee, who is now a combined journalism and information science major, recently registered for classes this coming fall. She needed to take two electives and one caught her eye. “One of them was taught—it’s an information science/computer science course—by a Black woman professor.” Pleasantly surprised, she was quick to register for it. “I thought, I’m definitely taking this because I have not had that experience in my IS/CS stuff. That’s an example of how it’s encouraging seeing diversity in your field—in this case, for me, it’s in computer science.”

Irvin Zhang is a third-year journalism major like Osei, with a political science minor. Unlike Wu and Yee, Zhang came into Northeastern as a journalism-declared major and hasn’t strayed since. Zhang holds a similar view to Yee. “People of color can feel they have more confidence in the route they’re choosing to pave and in a mentor that could help them, which is already a resource. We can take lessons from their journey, not just the white professors. It’s more helpful if I see an Asian professor here and I can talk to him about that.”

This is what Biswas calls the “infusing” of diversity into curricula. “Some journalism programs come with the philosophy to infuse diversity content, or teach diversity content/diversity topics in regular courses.” According to his joint-study with Izard, their results saw “the majority of the respondents are in favor of infusing diversity content across the curricula (by including diversity content in different mass communication and journalism courses) instead of offering separate courses on diversity.”

For Zhang, the benefits that diversity brings to all students is limited at Northeastern. “How am I going to get a true journalistic education simulating a newsroom if all my peers are white when the expectation is that the newsroom is going to hold a diversity of people and thought?” he said.

“When I hear about the importance of diversity as an asset that should be in every newsroom, and then I look at my education here it Northeastern, I question why I’m not being taught that my perspective matters in those newsrooms or why I should understand the importance of it, you know?”

– Irvin Zhang

There are no designated diversity efforts the students may know about, but Kaufman sees himself as the resource to go to with concerns. “Students will sometimes talk to me directly or I will sometimes ask them, I reach out to students all the time and ask them, ‘What do you think we should be doing? What can we be doing better?’ In the past, I have reached out to students of color. I’ve met with groups of students of color to talk about the kind of issues they might be facing. But they also talk to the other faculty and faculty will bring those concerns to me.”

It was out of a conversation with graduate students of color this January that prompted the School of Journalism to create new offerings for the fall semester geared toward more diverse faculty teaching special courses, including a course on race, gender and the media and another on public relations for nonprofits—taught by a woman who heads the largest LGBTQ+ public advocacy firm in Massachusetts.

But he doesn’t see the necessity for diversity to be incorporated into every class. “The way the journalism school works is our required courses are focused skill-building, ethics, things like that. What we’ve found is that students like having a wide range of electives, so you can now take courses like—I teach a course on race and class—the course on race, gender and the media. When it comes to these issues, students should be free to take what they want.”

In 2013, the Poynter Institute released results of a survey on journalism education. It revealed troubling views on the value and quality of a journalism degree. Specifically, it found more than

80 percent of educators say a journalism degree is extremely important when it comes to learning newsgathering skills, but only 25 percent of media professionals agree.

But Biswas believes diversity is invaluable to journalism education when incorporated comprehensively. “Diversity teaching comes from a more holistic learning approach because teaching of diversity cannot be couched into one course or two dedicated courses. A media writing class needs to have an assignment on how to reach out to people with different ethnic identities, or how to write in a more gender-sensitive way, he said. “Journalism schools need to infuse diversity content that goes into the curriculum throughout different courses, not in just diversity-specific courses like gender in the media or race in the media.”

And some journalism courses at Northeastern do infuse diversity into their curriculum. “For example, Understanding the News, which is an introductory course, which many students take, often has several classes where we’ll talk about diversity in the media and the issues facing that and the track record of newsrooms and why that is,” Kaufman said. “And then in our foreign programs, obviously the trip to Cuba, that was something where we sent 15 students down to Cuba in the spring, which I think was a really eye-opening experience for them. That’s, I think, the most important kind of reporting students can do when they’re starting out, which is to learn about different communities and then write about them.”

But Wu sees Kaufman’s view as potentially limiting, just as Zhang does. “With diversity confined to special courses, students can graduate having no kind of understanding of [diversity] at all.”

After all, the majority of the journalism students will work in a news or media outlet. “Different news organizations, they’re getting the new employees who graduated from these programs so addressing that this is a pipeline is important,” Biswas said. The pipeline Biswas describes originates in a journalism program. “So, the more [the program] has diverse groups of students and/or faculty, or at least makes the curriculum in a way that anyone can be prepared to work in a multicultural environment, the graduates will be able to talk to people with different identities, collaborate with colleagues of different backgrounds and also challenge their biases on different issues.”

Kaufman believes the School of Journalism does this. “Our students of color have all the opportunities that every student has, and we’re also giving them opportunities to do things that involve their experience and gives everyone a chance to learn about different communities and how to approach them.”

Students of color in the journalism department want the issue better addressed, so they aren’t necessarily on the same page as Kaufman. Yet, despite the absence of diversity they see, the students truly love what they do. Williams sees those who won’t give her major a chance as “people who don’t find journalism to be rewarding.” She is not one of those people.

Neither is Wu, who is set to graduate next month. When asked if diversity factored into her post- graduate plans, Wu paused. “Ideally, yes. Theoretically, yes. But in reality…” She trails off. “… no. The choices are so limited that I think if I were to take into account how diverse my team would be, I could risk a good job offer, like a paying job. But it’s definitely something that I am considering as an end goal.”

Unlike her sentiments before starting her co-op, Osei’s resolve to complete her path into the profession steadily increases. “I definitely still have my moments where I am concerned about going into an industry that has such a problem with diversity, but I do think I’ve learned to adapt to it.  I have come to expect that most newsrooms that I’m going to be working in are going to be majority white, at least early on in my career, unless that starts to change.”

And like her peers, she is eager to be a part of that change. “I am willing to be part of trying to be the people that help diversify journalism because I do think journalism matters and I want to be a journalist. So, if it’s something I have to help improve in the industry, I’m willing to do that.”

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