Journalists who belong to marginalized groups often seek representation for their communities and dignity for their work. However the road to fulfilling that mission is often a difficult one.
“Everything I do goes back to growing up in El Salvador and being part of that community,” said Esmeralda Bermudez, a Salvadoran-born journalist who’s been writing at the Los Angeles Times for 12 years. “Making space for communities is incredibly essential because people want to be seen. They want very nuanced, layered, complicated coverage. They want the messy and beautiful aspects of life.”
Bermudez, who was raised in Los Angeles after moving there at 5 years old, is one of a multitude of journalists who have pushed to include stories of their diverse communities in news media. Journalists like her have done this while advocating for their own presence in newsrooms across the country—newsrooms that historically have suffered from a lack of diversity.
“Friends: I’ve had 1 raise in 11 years at the @latimes. I make nearly $20K less than my white male counterparts. I’m not ashamed to admit that. The only ones who should be ashamed are those who created, supported the system that’s allowed this 2 happen 2 women & minorities #latguild,” tweeted Bermudez in September of last year, as negotiations for a fair work contract at the L.A. Times were underway.
In October 2019, the newspaper’s union, The L.A. Times Guild, succeeded in establishing a contract that secured pay raises and a commitment for hiring managers to interview at least two people from underrepresented communities during vacant positions.
“One thing that cannot be questioned is how unbelievably resilient my colleagues are who have stuck around,” said Bermudez, explaining that the contract layed a foundation that is chipping away at existing disparities in newsrooms. “Not only have they stuck around but pushed for more coverage of communities of color.”
A major issue preventing journalists of color from working in newsrooms and online media is retention—employing and keeping journalists employed—according to the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), a journalism leadership organization. This phenomenon correlates with the way journalists of color feel in their work environment, according to a survey led by a Black journalist.
In 1993, Sharon Bramlett-Solomon, a Black journalist who currently teaches at Arizona State University, conducted a survey on the job satisfaction of Black journalists. In it, Black journalists reported experiencing a number of issues working in newsrooms, including little opportunity for job advancement and having to work twice as hard to be considered as qualified as white colleagues. The survey found that more than half of U.S. newsrooms did not employ any journalists of color at the time.
“Whiteness is seen as a default setting,” said Raymond Matthews, a student journalist who writes for The Bottom Line at University of California, Santa Barbara, who attended the three-day Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Business and Advertising Managers college journalism convention in San Francisco last month. “Being a person of color, people think you have an agenda. I’ve found myself having to do more work to show I’m a fair and accurate reporter.”
Matthews, who also wrote for The Daily Nexus, another student newspaper on campus, said he felt his voice confined as a queer Black man. “I felt more pigeonholed there. They didn’t have any Black writers. By virtue of the fact, they wanted me to be the voice of Black queer people, or Black people in general.”
Last year, president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), Dorothy Tucker, and Bramlett-Solomon collaborated on an updated version of the 1993 survey on job satisfaction of Black journalists. The survey which closed January 31 of this year has not yet been published.
The issue of diversity in journalism has long persisted and was highlighted in 1968 with a historic report titled “National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” The report, also known as the Kerner Commission, addressed the riots that had occurred across major U.S. cities in the 1960s. It found that news coverage of circumstances for the riots had contributed to the upheaval.
“[T]he press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now,” stated the report.
Following this turning point, several collectives were established to support journalists from underrepresented communities and increase their numbers in the industry.
The first national organization of journalists of color was the founding of the NABJ in 1975. With more than 4,000 members, the NABJ is the largest association of journalists of color; the Asian American Journalists Association followed with its formation in 1981; the Native American Journalists Association—originally the Native American Press Association—first met in 1983; the National Association of Hispanic Journalists was later established in 1984; and most recntly the Association of LGBTQ Journalists—previously the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association—was formalized in 1991.
“Everything is funneled or looked at through a white-dominant narrative,” said Bermudez, describing the pressure the industry puts on Latinx journalists to assimilate. “We’re always victims or villains, eternally suffering or eternally killing.”
The most recent survey on newsroom diversity was released by ASNE in 2019. The data was collected from 429 national news organizations, both print and online-only, and revealed that while journalists of color make up 30.8 percent of salaried workers, only 18.8 percent are managers.
The survey pointed out that news organizations with gender and racially diverse staff in leadership positions tend to have more gender and racially diverse staff.
Bermudez wrote an article in January regarding the controversy with the book, American Dirt. In it she explained how an overrepresentation of white people in the publishing industry leaves Latinx writers out. The effect, she said, is the publishing of inauthentic stories by white people who write about the experiences of people of color.
“The focus should be the amount of white people who control newsrooms,” said Bermudez, explaining that without diverse leadership in news organizations, the stories journalists of colors want to write will continue to be compromised. “You shouldn’t have to dull your culture or your perspective.”
ASNE has pledged to help achieve the goal of having the number of journalists of color working in news organizations reflect the number of populations of color in the nation by 2025.