Diversity in Journalism and Where Ethnic Media Has Carried the Weight
A new Newseum exhibit looks at the history of immigrant and minority journalists.
By Tierney Sneed
The debate echoing through media criticism at the moment is the issue of diversity in journalism – or lack thereof – as critics point out the dearth of minorities at online startups like Vox and FiveThirtyEight, as well as at legacy left-leaning publications such as Mother Jones, The Atlantic and The Nation.
An exhibit opening Friday at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum, called "One Nation With News for All," explores where minority journalists have long flourished: ethnic media, e.g., newspapers, radio stations, television programming and websites rooted in minority communities.
The exhibit came about as a result of a partnership with the Smithsonian, says Sharon Shahid, the Newseum's online managing editor and the exhibit's lead writer, to examine "how ethnic media – minorities and immigrants – used the power of the press to tell their story."
Ethnic media in America is older than the country itself. The exhibit includes the lead type used to publish the Philadelphische Zeitung, the German-language newspaper founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1732. German newspapers continued to be so influential throughout American history that Abraham Lincoln bought one – the Illinois Staatsanzeiger – to help boost his presidential campaign, which he sold back to its original publisher once he was elected.
According to Shahid, ethnic publications formed so minority and immigrant communities could see their voices represented in a way the mainstream media was failing them. Throughout history, they've led the charge to correct stereotypes – such as the Angry Asian Man blog which often riffs on the depictions of Asians in pop culture. They also give greater attention to political causes, like Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper founded by two free African-American men in New York in 1827 to cover slavery and the abolitionist movement.
Not only did these publications serve their communities, they contributed to the reporting of milestones in American history and contributed to the history of journalism. For instance, a 1983 lawsuit filed by a La Opinion photographer against the INS for harassing him while he covered its activities helped strengthen the right of journalists to exercise freedom of the press.
Often times they carried the weight when their mainstream counterparts overlooked some of the biggest stories of the day. For instance, the exhibit includes the June 19, 1942 front page of Detroit's Jewish News, which in large, red block print blared news of the Vilna massacre that killed 60,000 Jews. The massacre was relegated to a single column on page 6 of The New York Times. Likewise The New York Times only included stories about the Holocaust on its front page 26 times between 1939 and 1945.
Soon enough major publications realized that staff diversity was a necessity to cover the country's biggest news, and the exhibit includes one such episode, the 1960s race riots in Los Angeles.
"Mainstream newspapers knew that they needed to have minorities on their staff to be able to go into those communities and tell those stories," Shahid says. "They couldn't go to Watts [the African-American neighborhood] in L.A. with a white reporter. They needed black reporters to tell those stories."
Today, you also see major publications partnering with or launching minority-oriented outlets. The Washington Post has partnered The Root, NBC launched The Grio and ABC has teamed up with Univision to create the TV channel Fusion, oriented toward Latino youth.
"There's still a need for ethnic newspapers, regardless of whether they're newspapers or radio or television, they still have a voice. They still need to get a voice, because their voices are still being misrepresented," Shahid says, and according to the exhibit one in four Americans get their news from an ethnic media source. "The issues that prompted these publications to start are still the issues today."
Tierney Sneed is an arts and culture writer. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.