In the months and years to come, historians and pundits alike will no doubt dissect and analyze the political and cultural implications of the historic election of Sen. Barack Obama, the first African-American to win the White House.
What does it say about the collective mindset of the country that voters were able to put race on the back burner long enough to elect a biracial candidate? Have we turned the corner in race relations in this country, or were the past eight years so terrible that drastic change was the only viable alternative for most Americans? Will this new president appoint a cabinet that embodies the diversity of the country's electorate, shattering barriers for women and minorities?
Whatever the answers, as analysis reigns in print, on the air and online now through Inauguration Day, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the nation's largest organization of minority journalists, will ask these questions of news media executives.
By our accounts, in the midst of this monumental campaign for the Oval Office, black journalists had little to no opportunity to cover the candidates or the issues. Now in the midst of this defining moment, as the White House press corps is being formed to cover this country's 44th president, NABJ urges the news media to gather their own transition team for change.
Yes, we know the facts. The economy has worsened, and ad and circulation dollars are drying up, resulting in an absence of hundreds of minority journalists at newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations across the country. But a new generation of listeners, viewers and readers decided on Election Day that in the midst of crisis, the status quo needed a shakeup.
For the big media companies, diversity at all levels of the newsroom should be about gaining a competitive advantage and not satisfying a quota. For the readers and viewers, it should be about fairness and completeness in coverage—an implicit assurance of inclusiveness. And like the advertisers they serve, media companies should do the necessary homework to make sure they are demographically inclusive in their news coverage.
If the country ever needed the unique perspective and expertise of journalists of color, it is now. Not just in the coverage of the presidency, but also on issues such as immigration, housing, predatory lending, the impact of the economic collapse in our communities, the Iraq War, education and the war on poverty. Further, as this country moves deeper into the 21st century, issues of race and culture are sure to abound, and who better to tell those stories than the people who've lived them all their lives?
But our business is in trouble when it comes to the numbers of minorities in the nation's newsrooms. To date, not one black journalist hosts a Sunday-morning or daily news and commentary show on the major cable and television networks. There are no African-American executive producers at network newscasts and shows such as Today, Good Morning America and CBS's The Early Show. Minorities account for just 11.4% of all supervisors in newsrooms. These statistics are particularly important because they reflect who makes newsroom assignments and decides what news is worth covering.
If change is the result of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, it's time for readers and viewers to demand that media companies provide balanced coverage by a diverse group of journalists, from the White House press corps onward. If the presidential election is the nation's mandate for change, perhaps it's time for the news media to do something truly historic, too.