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Diversity of Journalism for a Multicultural Society

New America Media, Interview, Andrew Lam Posted: Jul 21, 2009

Editors Note: A new study of journalisms commitment to inclusion concludes that too many diversity initiatives focus on the modest and mostly inconsequential goal of newsroom integration. Buttressed by a case study of coverage of a local issue in mainstream and minority newspapers in San Jos, Calif., the study argues that diversity of journalism matters more than diversity in journalism. NAM editor Andrew Lam spoke with study co-author Theodore Glasser, a professor at Stanford University.

Q: Your study says the American press ought to be more concerned about diversity across newsrooms than diversity within newsrooms. Can you explain?

Most diversity initiatives focus on the modest and mostly inconsequential goal of newsroom integration. This is what we mean by diversity within newsrooms. These initiatives include hiring minority journalists, expanding the range of sources cited in news stories, and targeting minorities with specialized publications. These are the kinds of things that individual newsrooms can do, voluntarily, for and by themselves. While we applaud these efforts to diversify newsrooms, we also recognize that they contribute little, if anything, to the more important goal of diversity across newsrooms.

Diversity across newsrooms diversity of journalism (in contrast to diversity in journalism), as we describe it in our study responds to the need of culturally diverse societies for genuinely alternative forms of news. Diversity across newsrooms promises more than a heightened sensitivity to cultural differences. It broadens the base of journalism by putting new, more, and different people in control of it. Diversity across newsrooms strengthens the role of minority media in their struggle to achieve the social justice and political parity that self-governance demands.

Q. You distinguish between pluralism and multiculturalism. Whats the difference?

We use the terms to capture contrasting views of the relationship between democracy and cultural inclusion, which in turn leads us to a discussion of competing views of the relationship between journalism and diversity.

Im not going to be able to do justice to these distinctions in a few sentences, but, basically, were arguing that a pluralist model of democracy, popular in the United States since World War II, prescribes what it describes by affirming the value and efficacy the success of existing arrangements. Indeed, pluralism rests on the premise of a broad and enduring consensus on the viability of democracy as it is currently practiced. A multiculturalist view of democracy, in contrast, rejects the pluralist celebration of the status quo. In fact, multiculturalism challenges pluralisms cherished consensus on the grounds that it masks or at least neglects the existence of patterns of discrimination, exploitation, poverty, inequality, and other forms of oppression.

Also, the two terms denote very different conceptions of culture and cultural diversity. Pluralism treats individuals fairly by bracketing their cultural differences. In the context of race, this is the ideal of a color-blind society. Multiculturalism, however, recognizes that differences in culture often coincide with differences in social position (differences in the quality of education, differences in occupation, differences in income and other material resources, differences in influence and prestige, even differences in status under the law). And these differences need to be addressed, not ignored, to the extent that they impede democratic participation.

Q: Explain your case study in San Jos and your findings.

We looked at a local issue plans by the city of San Jos to redevelop a strip mall in an area of the city with a predominantly Latina/o population as it was covered locally by the mainstream and minority press. Specifically, we examined coverage in four newspapers: the San Jose Mercury News, the local mainstream daily; Nuevo Mundo, a Spanish-language weekly owned and operated by the Mercury News; and two locally owned weeklies, La Oferta and El Observador.

All four publications took the issue seriously and provided ample coverage of it. But they took the issue seriously in very different ways. Basically, the Mercury News and Nuevo Mundo framed the issue as a conflict between city planners and the malls shopkeepers and neighbors while La Oferta and El Observador presented the issue as yet another example of the discrimination and injustice that San Joses Latino/a community has endured over the years.

Q: What accounts for the differences in coverage?

Professionalism turns out to be a big factor in explaining the differences in coverage. By design, the Mercury News and Nuevo Mundo embraced the same conception of professionalism, one that requires reporters to cover events and issues from the perspective of a disinterested bystander. Understood this way understood, that is, as a commitment to impartiality and neutrality professionalism standardizes the practice of journalism and homogenizes the production of news. No matter how diverse a newsroom might be cultural differences can never be a factor in how something gets covered. For this reason, coverage in the Mercury News didnt differ substantially from the coverage in Nuevo Mundo.

Journalists at La Oferta and El Observador operated with a very different sense of professionalism. Their stories were written from the perspective of San Joses Latino/a community. They wrote about the plight of their community and the struggle of their people. They used the first-person plural, which signals an alliance with readers views and interests and which contravenes the conventional disdain for partisanship.

The point, of course, isnt whether one approach is better than the other. The point is that there are real and important differences between mainstream and minority journalism, and these differences matter a great deal in a multicultural society.

Q: You argue that the mainstream and minority press ought to work together, as partners.

Yes, thats right. Whats missing in American journalism is a tradition of cooperation and collaboration between and among newsrooms. Theres very little in the way of linkages between mainstream and minority journalism.

With very few exceptions, mainstream news media do a miserable job of amplifying the voices of minority news media, which leaves minority interests and perspectives at the margins of society. Its difficult to overcome an institutional ethos that celebrates autonomy and competition, which by implication denigrates partnerships and other efforts to work together to achieve common goals.

If we want a society with multiple sites for discussion and debate, sites where politically disenfranchised groups feel comfortable expressing themselves, then we need to find ways to connect these sites and feed their discussions and debates into successively larger discussions and debates.

Q: What should we conclude from the study?

Two important conclusions, I think. First, journalism trivializes diversity when it focuses only or even mostly on diversifying newsrooms, especially when minority journalists are told, for reasons of professionalism, not to let their minority interests and perspectives influence their reporting and writing. This is precisely the dilemma Sonia Sotomayor faces: In order to win Senate confirmation of her appointment to the Supreme Court, she has had little choice but to argue that her gender and ethnicity and the experiences associated with them will not influence her work on the bench.

Second, journalism needs to understand its commitment to inclusion as a collective project, and one that cannot rely on marketplace forces alone. If we insist on equating a free press with free enterprise, were unlikely to imagine a very happy future for American journalism.

Theodore L. Glasser is a professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University. He is the co-author of The Claims of Multiculturalism and Journalisms Promise of Diversity, a study of newspapers in San Jose, Calif., regarding how mainstream media and ethnic media differ on the issue of diversity and discrimination. He was interviewed by NAM editor, Andrew Lam, author of "Perfume Dreams; Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."

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