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Another newsroom hurdle?

After Jayson Blair, young minority journalists worry there may be trouble ahead.

May 23, 2003|Reed Johnson and J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writers

When Daralene Jones first heard about the saga of Jayson Blair, her initial thought was: "Is this another way to try to bring another person of color down?" But after reading the facts about the young African American reporter for the New York Times whose acts of plagiarism and deception have rocked American journalism, Jones said, she concluded "it was inevitable that he was guilty."

Nneka Nnolim's first reaction to the Blair affair was feeling upset that a young black man had blown his chance at the big time. But as coverage of the incident has unfolded, Nnolim thinks that "it has become very sensationalized, and I think it's taking on a bit of a racial undertone. That's very troubling to me."

For a number of young black journalists like Jones, a reporter for NewsChannel 20 in Springfield, Ill., and aspiring journalists like Nnolim, a journalism graduate student at Michigan State University, the Blair scandal has triggered feelings that range from sympathy and frustration to wariness and anger. In the days since Blair resigned under pressure and his former employer published a four-page spread chronicling the 27-year-old reporter's transgressions -- which included plagiarizing the work of other reporters and making up sources -- young African Americans in newsrooms across the country have been trading phone calls and e-mails, swapping opinions and insights, and speculating how Blair's actions may affect their careers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Minorities in newsrooms -- In a Friday Calendar article about how black journalists have reacted to the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, the proportion of minorities in newsrooms was incorrectly stated. The error was in this sentence: "Of the total number of minorities working for U.S. daily newspapers, 5.5% are African Americans, 4% are Latinos, 2.6% are Asian Americans and 0.5% are Native Americans, according to ASNE figures." The sentence should have begun: "Of the total number of staffers" -- not "minorities."

"I wouldn't say it's a sense of siege, but there's a real sense of concern that some of the fallout is going to come to us in particular," said Peter McKay, a 27-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter.

Mashaun D. Simon, a third-year student at Georgia State University and a senior staff writer for the Atlanta Daily World, a black-owned weekly, said he'd discussed the matter with other members of the National Assn. of Black Journalists' Young Journalists Task Force, on whose board he serves. Sentiment, he said, has followed a trajectory, from disappointment in Blair, to empathy, to concern that his behavior could be used as an argument against helping more minorities obtain careers in journalism.

"It kind of started off with everyone being either hurt or upset over what Jayson Blair had done, but then it kind of turned into supporting him," Simon said. "Now we've kind of branched into making sure that programs like diversity or programs like affirmative action are not killed or not affected by this situation and making sure that young journalists in our organization know what's coming next."

The Blair incident comes at a time when the proportion of minorities working for U.S. daily newspapers has been growing, but relatively slowly. Between 1978 and 1993, the number of minorities in newsrooms rose from 1,700 employees out of a total work force of 43,000 to about 5,500 out of 53,600, or from 3.95% to 10.25%, according to a survey published last month by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But in the last decade, that number has risen at a slower rate, to 6,900 minorities out of a total work force of 54,700, or about 12.5%. Of the total number of minorities working for U.S. daily newspapers, 5.5% are African Americans, 4% are Latinos, 2.6% are Asian Americans and 0.5% are Native Americans, according to ASNE figures. The country's African American population is about 12%.

Fewer resources invested

Arlene Morgan, an assistant dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who specializes in diversity issues, said she thinks newsroom diversity has been hurt by severe hiring freezes at many newspapers today, among other factors. Few newspapers are willing to devote the time and effort to minority journalists who want to pursue serious, in-depth reporting, she said.

Morgan said that minority recruitment and training programs can succeed if time is spent working with young journalists, training and nurturing them. Will the Blair incident taint these programs? "I hope not," she responded. "I can point to dozens and dozens of people who are doing a great job."

While changes in newspaper hiring policies brought more minorities into newsrooms in the 1980s and '90s, retaining them has often been a problem, according to groups that track the numbers. Zerline Hughes Jennings, a freelance writer for the Boston Globe, said she thinks that "newspapers need to do a lot more mentoring" of young black journalists. "I just think there should be a lot more tutelage going on."

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