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Home > Reading Room > Journalism educators must leap diversity hurdles

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Journalism educators must leap diversity hurdles

By Sally Lehrman

Editor’s Note — In “News in a New America,” Sally Lehrman offers an analysis of news coverage and newsrooms in a rapidly changing nation. Based on more than 150 interviews of journalists, social scientists and media analysts, the book addresses such issues as how to identify unconscious stereotypes and bias in coverage and newsroom practices. The book also provides ideas to enhance journalism education, day-to-day coverage and hiring practices, and features an extensive diversity resource guide.

In this excerpt, Lehrman examines the hurdles journalism education must overcome in order to teach students how to cover an increasingly diverse country.

Ralph Izard had grown up knowing few African-Americans. Then his high school in southern West Virginia was integrated. The young man got a job cleaning up the black campus that was merging into his own. “It really hit me: My school building was a palace compared to theirs,” he says.

Later, when Izard traveled around the globe as a journalism educator, he was stunned at how little he knew about other people’s lives.

Tomorrow’s journalists shouldn’t have to work with such a handicap, but based on the track record of today’s colleges and universities, they could very likely start out that way. In most journalism schools and departments, students will meet mostly white people. Their professors will be mainly male. Many students won’t experience America’s diversity until they step into a professional newsroom or out to report a story.

Newsrooms across the country clamor to hire graduates who can cover a multicultural society. Yet journalism schools themselves frequently fail to meet their own diversity standards: Only about 100 of the nation’s 450 journalism and mass communications programs are accredited. Of those that are, in accrediting reports over the 15 years leading up to 2003, more than one-quarter of those cited for noncompliance missed the mark in diversity.

The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications created this standard because it believed the media must reflect and serve the diversity of America. The council requires schools to hire women and faculty members of color. They must seek a wide mixture of students, and in their teaching choices, professors must expose their charges to a spectrum of issues, voices and views.

But the nation’s journalism school faculty does not reflect the nation’s population. For the past two decades, less than one out of every 12 full professors in journalism and mass communication was someone of color. Journalism and mass communication programs include a smaller proportion of faculty of color than the overall makeup of most four-year colleges nationwide.

Women make up about 40 percent of the teaching staff in journalism and mass communications, although usually at lower ranks and rates of pay than male faculty. Still, two of every three students in these programs are female — taught by a faculty in which nearly two of every three teachers are male.

“I wish we were doing a lot better,” says Jerry Ceppos, former vice president for news at Knight Ridder and immediate past president of the council. “We kind of know the way to do this: Have good critical mass on your faculty, and in every syllabus have specific items that deal with diversity.”

Recruiting women for faculty should be easy, says Lionel C. Barrow Jr., immediate past chairman of the Commission on the Status of Minorities for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. About 60 percent of doctoral graduates in 2003 were women. “Are we ready to hire them?” Barrow asked in his August 2005 chairman’s report.

The pipeline for professors of color needs more attention, Barrow says. Only about one in five receiving doctoral degrees were students of color, and of those, very few were African-American or Latino.

“We should, we can, and we must do better than that,” he wrote.

Schools simply aren’t actively recruiting these students, Barrow said in an interview.

“There are a number of places the deans and directors could be looking for minorities, and they aren’t,” he said.

If schools don’t have funds to do their own recruiting, they could easily identify promising candidates from resources such as the McNair Scholars Program, which prepares low-income, first-generation college students and undergraduates of color for doctoral study.

In her 2003 study of the links between classrooms and newsrooms, Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte described how faculty ratios affect much more than the faces in the hallway. Some schools have managed to change their courses despite a preponderance of white professors. But in most cases, these teachers continue doing things the way they always have.

Even when faculty members start paying attention to diversity, they can inadvertently set up a dichotomy between “us” and the “other.” People of color, those who are not Christian or Jewish, or those who have disabilities often remain the exception and the outsider.

The Accrediting Council doesn’t consider staff diversity of student publications or broadcast outlets. But when Kathleen Woodruff Wickham at the University of Mississippi reviewed demographics in the Southeast Journalism Conference, she found student newspaper staffs there to be overwhelmingly white. The skew matters, because student newspaper alumni often help each other get newsroom jobs after graduation. Student media are indeed important stepping stones, educator and former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger found in her study of journalism education, “Winds of Change.” In a survey of 500 newsroom recruiters and managers, more than half said they hired three-quarters of their interns from among people who had worked in campus print or broadcast outlets.

The accrediting council tried to give journalism schools some tools for change in a 2003 handbook of best practices. The teaching strategies ranged from bringing in guest speakers to integrating diversity into every part of the school. In the most successful classrooms, all courses — from journalism history to news values to ethics — include ideas about diversity.

“You’re going to do a much better job with this if you make it a normal part of everything you do,” says Izard, who is now Sig Mickelson/CBS professor at the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication. He is also professor emeritus at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Newswriting classes should look at word choices that contain buried assumptions, Izard says. Reporting courses ought to underline the value of consulting multiple sources. Ethics seminars can study stereotypes, fairness and unconscious symbolism, and discussions can stop assuming that the white, male, heterosexual experience is the norm.

Many educators agree that teaching diversity well requires depth and intensity. Students can absorb ideas about multicultural reporting more easily through activities than lectures. For instance, they can examine their own stereotypes in classroom exercises. They can learn to identify media bias through collaborating on projects. Story assignments and beats can help students meet people from unfamiliar cultures and communities.

De Uriarte, who is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, recommends changing the learning environment so that it supports intellectual diversity. Readings and discussions should include more writings and research by authors of color. New classes should educate students about the history of race in America and the U.S. power structure, she says. Students could read George Fredrickson’s A Short History of Racism, for example, or Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror: A History of the Multicultural United States.

Like newsrooms, journalism schools that commit to do it can indeed diversify. The University of Alabama went from no communication professors of color in 1989 to about one in eight in 1998. The University of Florida more than doubled minority faculty from 9.4 percent to nearly 20 percent over the same period. The University of Missouri quadrupled its faculty of color to 12.2 percent and doubled its female faculty to 40.8 percent during that time.

Lee Becker and his colleagues at the University of Georgia studied the reasons behind such successes. All three colleges had targeted hiring and kept job descriptions flexible. They also developed student recruiting and curriculum diversity at the same time.

At LSU, Manship designed its action plan after it received a poor rating on the diversity standard six years ago. The faculty began working harder to recruit doctoral candidates of color, tapping historically black colleges and universities for leads. Professors developed relationships with high schools in Baton Rouge and New Orleans to introduce journalism to the students.

Izard arrived at Manship as an associate dean two years after the wake-up call. Under his leadership and that of Adrienne Moore, director of the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs, the school recently founded Mass Communicating: The Forum on Media Diversity (http: //www.masscommunicating. The Web site, the most comprehensive of its kind, offers a host of resources to support diversity in newsrooms and academia. An impressive collection of research can help reporters and editors improve news coverage on minority issues. The online library features searchable articles on media, gender, religion and race, including directories of scholars, courses and research centers. The site features more than 100 course syllabi.

Izard says he believes that both professional journalists and faculty must commit themselves to diversity before much will change. In an audit of 300 journalism and mass communication programs across the country, the Forum found that only about one-third address the subject at all.

“It’s not a racist attitude,” Izard says, “as much as ’This approach was good enough for me, why should I do more?’”

He warns that any new emphasis in a university department, let alone diversity, takes more than lip service.

“It’s a matter of total dedication and absolute persistence,” Izard says.

Then, and only then, he says, is it reasonable to expect a little bit of progress.

Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman. This column was excerpted from “News in a New America” and reprinted with permission of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Visit

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