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Media is Growing More White. What’s the FCC Doing About It?

(Image: JR / Truthout; Adapted: martinhoward, Pengster)

The increasing lack of racial diversity in the U.S. media landscape is becoming a hot topic and putting pressure on policy makers to (finally) pay attention.

As the American Society of Newspaper Editors has reported, racial and ethnic minorities make up less than 13 percent of newsroom employees. Minority ownership of television stations hovers around 3 percent, while radio station ownership is at 7 percent, despite the fact that the minority population of the U.S. is roughly 28 percent.

In a open letter to network executives and editors earlier this year, Kathy Times, outgoing-president of the National Association for Black Journalists, decried this lack of diversity in the newsrooms of the top three broadcast networks, pointing out the large disparity between minority populations and their representation in news outlets. “As America inches toward a world that is more black and brown,” wrote Times, “corporations are adjusting their cultures to embrace diversity because they know it makes good business sense. But too many network executives are ignoring this reality.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled last month that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) inadequately justified its approach to advancing the diversity of broadcast ownership. Over the past couple years, the FCC’s approach in dealing with racial diversity in the media has been to rely on the Internet to serve as the space for diversity to flourish. This has neglected the fact that minority ownership of media outlets has dwindled over the same time period, in which policies have fostered more media consolidation.

To effectively instigate and sponsor racial diversity in the media landscape, the FCC in particular will have to think more broadly about media policy entirely. In a report commissioned by the FCC this summer, a number of recommendations were made. In order to address these issues and begin implementing these policy ideas, a clear outlook of where minorities stand in media is needed.

The systemic issues in the media landscape include both the divide in how minority groups access the Internet and the lack of minority ownership and participation in mainstream news media. There are a number of barriers to Internet access for minority Web users and content producers—despite higher levels of blacks and Latinos accessing the Internet through their mobile devices, the high costs associated with using these devices to tether, for instance, limits what one can do with that access—and overcoming the access gap is just one piece of the puzzle. The other, and more obvious issue, is the one that Kathy Times poses to broadcast networks.

The disparity between minority populations and their representative news outlets is large. It affects nearly all aspects of news media production, from how minorities participate in mainstream media to the influx of new, young journalists who enter the industry.

Black editors and other established professionals have recently been fading out of mainstream press outlets and into black-oriented media. This shift poses a difficult dilemma. The experience of these editors might be just what is needed to reinvigorate the black press’ readership and circulation, as well as to inspire minority youths to engage in media production on a larger scale. However, even as this trend creates renewed potential for the black press—where readership has fluctuated over the years as the number of outlets has dwindled—it diminishes the diversity of perspectives found in traditional news outlets. Movement out of the mainstream press could further exacerbate the gaps that mainstream news has in providing significant and accurate reporting on issues regarding minorities and race in the U.S.

The picture is also bleak for minorities who are in or have recently graduated from journalism and communications programs, adding another layer to the disparity. In the 2009-2010 academic year, the Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates found that the rate of minority graduates landing full-time employment dropped from 62.1 percent the year before to 48.6 percent, while white graduates had an employment rate of 63.9 percent. That’s the largest gap between whites and minorities since 1987.

One approach the FCC can take to fixing this problem is to build on recommendations presented in a report it commissioned earlier this summer. The author of the report, Steve Waldman, pointed out the usefulness of a late 1970s “tax certificate” program, which improved minority ownership in the media landscape. The program offered tax breaks to broadcast or cable owners that sold an outlet to a minority buyer or invested start-up capital in a minority controlled broadcaster. Although the program was abandoned due to perceived misuse, a similar but more expansive program today could support community-based media outlets that not only provide news, but train youth to become producers of news and content. The program would encourage and support minority youth entering media outlets and have a “trickle up” effect in establishing more racial and ethnic diversity in the media landscape.

The role of the news media is to provide a forum for discussion and engagement for all people in society. Yet the industry is plainly failing to measure up, and current FCC policy is doing little to help change that fact. When the FCC reassesses how to better measure and enact minority ownership and participation in the future, it will have to address the industry’s structural problems or the racial disparities in who produces and delivers our news will continue to worsen.

Jason Smith is a COMPASS Fellow with New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative. His research revolves around race and ethnicity in the media.

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