By Dennis J. Freeman
Black journalists have always been underrepresented in the newsroom. For decades, black journalists have struggled to have a strong presence in the telling of our stories and our communities.
Climbing up the ladder for a chance to report news for mainstream publications or media outlets would give black journalists an opportunity to do that, many thought.
Wrong. That has turned out to be nothing but a misleading avenue of glass-ceilings, disillusion and a sense of unfulfillment, according to a recent news article published by the Columbia Journalism Review. The story highlights the plight of black journalists and the downward spiral from mainstream media they are facing.
Jobs have evaporated. Leadership positions have taken its toll on some of the brightest minds in the business, often resulting in constant battles as black reporters and editors fight to prove their worthiness. One longtime reporter, according to the news article, went as far to say that black journalists working for mainstream media outlets “had to be ready to fight.”
The air may have been taken out of that fight with the wave of job cuts in the last several years in newsrooms. For black journalists it has been a steady decline out of the mainstream market.
According to a study produced last year by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), black journalists attendance in newsrooms has dropped dramatically in the last five years, falling as much as 34 percent. Not good.
Black journalists account for just 4.68 percent of mainstream newsroom staff, according to the ASNE study. Kathy Times, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, spoke on the employment issue at a recent meeting with members of the Black Journalists of Southern California.
Many of these black reporters have chosen the route of returning back to their roots and working for black publications. This should not be considered strange. It’s not a matter of going backwards in a career, but should be construed as a way of feeling sense, purpose and self-worth.
As a journalist with over a decade of experience, I can say that black reporters face an incredible amount of disrespect in the newsroom and have their ideas or suggestions on stories about issues dear to their heart routinely rejected or mocked.
As the one reporter mentioned in the Columbia Journalism Review story, being ready to fight is not an abbreviation. As a sports writer for a daily newspaper early in my career, I was subjected to racist emails by my editor and dealt with sexual harassment taunts from colleagues.
The abuse and unsupportive work environment can be so heavy that you get to the point that you want to go off, especially when a peer speaks of your wife in an unwanted, unsolicited sexual way. However, a black jounalist can’t afford to do that.
To do so would be to solidify the notion that we’re too sensitive, can’t handle constructive criticism and always angry. We always have to be cool. Developing thick skin as a black journalist is somewhat an understatement.
An example of what I endured as a black journalist working for this publication is when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was ready to make leave Virginia Tech for the NFL. I was assigned with an award-decorated, veteran white reporter to speak to his relatives. Vick lived in the hood.
And the hood in Newport News, Virginia, is a lot rougher, meaner and depreciating than the urban spreads we see in big cities like Los Angeles.
Come to find out that this white reporter admitted to me, as we made our way over to the rough side of Newport News that he had never been to that side of town before. I found this admission astonishing considering this reporter had been working for this particular newspaper for many years, and I barely knew the city.
Basically, because I was black, the newspaper used me as a shield to protect this white reporter to get information from black people about this great black athlete. This was a lesson learned.
The glass-ceiling memo was issued early and often throughout my tenure at that particular workplace. As a black journalist, I am not alone. The joy of a journalist is to go out and pursue stories and issues they are passionate about.
In many instances, black journalists that work for mainstream media find out that passion does not translate to steady employment. If you’re the lone wolf in the meeting on a staff of about a dozen people, chances are your voice will not be heard.
And so, when we see black journalists leaving mainstream buildings for blacker pastures and head over to the black press to write about their people, their issues, their concerns and their communities’ well-being, they do so because they want to feel they’re making a difference in other people’s lives.
By going back to work for the black press, those journalists are able to do just that.