By EDWARD IWATA
Amid media coverage of the Atlanta killings, immigration issues and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, more journalists of color are going public to fearlessly disclose the biases and racism that they face in newsrooms.
Unfortunately, I suffered through similar experiences as a cub reporter four long decades ago. The traumatic flashbacks feel as if the episodes happened recently:
The blatant stereotyping and gaslighting. The Pearl Harbor jokes and other racist cracks. The invisibility unless you spoke up, only to be labeled a “troublemaker.” The denied opportunities, while less-qualified colleagues enjoyed prized promotions.
One editor asked why I liked covering “the eggroll beat,” “little brown people” and “sob sister” stories. Another blathered that I was a “quiet Asian guy” and an “angry inner-city guy” with a chip on my shoulder — two classic stereotypes in the same breath. They also hated stories on poor rural whites that did not appeal to their genteel “suburban” demographic.
Most of my diverse story ideas were killed. But a few slipped in like dispatches from the resistance:
A first-person piece on my family history at the Manzanar concentration camp. Stories on the redress and reparations movement. An exclusive interview with controversial Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. And breaking news on Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant wrongly imprisoned in California for two murders.
In earlier eras, long before diversity became a management trend, it was a risky career move for journalists of color to fight for media diversity. Some played it safe and laid low. The rest of us advocated for editorial coverage of race, class, and gender issues, and for the hiring and development of journalists of color and women.
Fortunately, mentors and educators gave us encouraging and inspiring advice — especially when many of us wanted to flee the industry. The rise of minority journalism groups and newsroom diversity committees also offered valuable support.
Moreover, the community media — whose knowledge of their immigrant and ethnic readerships is unmatched — provided crucial platforms for journalists. In a groundbreaking feature for the Los Angeles Times, I explored how The Rafu Shimpo, La Opinion and The Los Angeles Sentinel served their communities with in-depth coverage of local and national issues.
My writing and cultural roots go back nearly half-a-century with The Rafu Shimpo, which my parents and the Nikkei community read religiously each day. When I was a high-school student, The Rafu published in its special holiday issue my first short story, “Long Shot,” on a Sansei kid shooting hoops and dreaming of his future. The Rafu also ran my 1980 article on the dearth of Asian Americans in Hollywood — my first story out of journalism school.
The bad news?
The “mainstream” media still fails to cover non-white communities with the same depth and expertise as the community media. Not surprisingly, the number of diverse mainstream media employees has stalled in recent years, falling far short of reflecting the U.S. population. Barely more than 20 percent are journalists of color, according to the ASNE Newsroom Diversity Survey and the Pew Research Center.
The good news?
While some mainstream media coverage of diversity-related news stories has stumbled badly, we’re also seeing a mini-boom in coverage of diverse issues by journalists of color and white journalists with strong cross-cultural backgrounds.
Today’s mainstream and community journalists are an asset, not a liability. They boast more knowledge and insights than ever into diversity issues and their communities. Their stories provide valuable context and credibility — especially in many broader topics, including politics, economics and entertainment.
No doubt, diversity also is good for the media business. The smartest Fortune 500 corporations know that there is a growing mainstream of minority consumers with $4 trillion in spending power, according to a 2019 report by the University of Georgia’s Selig Center. More companies are changing their business models and marketing to entice those consumers.
Those in the media field who fail to evolve will go extinct, like newspaper publishers a generation ago who scoffed at the Internet and digital-savvy consumers.
Monocultural managers who ignore the new demographics and their diverse newsroom staffs no longer have any excuses. Their lack of business vision, low cross-cultural I.Q. and poor editorial judgment are showing.
No weak straw-man argument here. By any fair-minded, reasonable standard, this is simply good journalism. Journalists of color and the community media are stepping up to create stories full of facts, cultural complexity and sociopolitical and historical analysis that are badly needed in today’s world.
Those stories were rarely seen in the biased, old-school media, where my story pitches on the “eggroll beat” got laughed out of the newsroom. Hopefully, we’re entering a new epoch for journalists of color and our vital talents and worldviews.
Edward Iwata is a former USA Today business writer, co-founder of the Asian American Journalists Association’s San Francisco chapter and head of diversity programs for the historic UNITY ’94 conference of minority journalists in Atlanta. He grew up in Crenshaw/South-Central L.A. and Little Tokyo.