Diversity matters in news coverage, Davis lecturer says

Thursday, February 22, 2007
Pearl Stewart

Most of America's newsrooms have few minority reporters or editors despite the fact that minorities make up a third of the nation's population, a black journalism professor and former newspaper editor says.

Pearl Stewart, who was the first black woman to serve as editor of a major daily newspaper in the United States, lectured at Southeast Missouri State University on Wednesday.

"In my opinion, diversity does matter," she told a crowd of about 50 people, mostly students, in a noon speech at Dempster Hall's Glenn Auditorium. Minority employees help print and broadcast media better report on the issues that are relevant to the black community and other minority residents, she said.

"I think you get more diverse coverage when you have a more diverse staff," said Stewart, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where she teaches advanced reporting. She also heads Stewart Media Consulting Inc. in Jackson, Miss.

Stewart delivered the annual Michael Davis Lecture, which recognizes contributions of blacks in the media. It also honors Michael Davis, a mass communication student at Southeast who died in a hazing incident in 1994.

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, minority journalists last year accounted for 13.8 percent of the staff in the nation's newsrooms. That was up from 13.4 percent the previous year, Stewart said.

Even with internship programs geared to train minority journalists, progress has been slow, she said.

Many of the least diverse newsrooms are at small newspapers. Nearly 70 percent of the 377 newspapers with no minority staff members have circulations of 10,000 or less, Stewart said.

The black community historically was ignored by many newspapers, she said. As a result, many black Americans didn't turn to the newspapers for information because they didn't view them as relevant to their lives, Stewart said.

Newspapers, she said, historically covered blacks only in terms of crime or sports.

But Stewart said journalists should interview black residents or other minority residents as part of any story.

However, such efforts can irritate some readers. Stewart said that was the case at the Oakland Tribune where she served as editor in 1992 and 1993. At the time, she was first black woman to head up the newsroom of a major daily newspaper in the United States.

"When I was editor, I constantly got hate mail," she said.

Readers questioned the newspaper's coverage, wondering if it was "a black thing," Stewart said.

"These are some of the attitudes you have to fight," she said.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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