Blacks Seek Changes in Newsrooms : Journalism: The National Assn. of Black Journalists' convention in Century City is looking at ways to bring more African-Americans into the field.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Mary Walker tells her story--one of insult followed by outrage--her voice grows louder, her eyes wider. Then she shakes her head in disbelief.

"There's a place in San Antonio called 'The Hill,' which is predominantly black and known for crack dealers and crackheads," said Walker, an African-American television reporter. "Well, because police officers called it 'monkey island'--so did the anchor during a newscast."

Walker, a newswoman at KSAT-TV for 13 years, was appalled when she heard the degrading reference and made her feelings known to her boss and the anchorwoman--both white. The anchorwoman later told Walker she had no idea she had made such a mistake. "But had I seen the script or if we had a black producer it never would have happened," Walker said.

Walker and others attending the 15th annual convention of the National Assn. of Black Journalists here agree that similar incidents emphasize the need for more African-Americans in the newsroom, from entry-level jobs to mid-management to those at the top.

Indeed, a new survey of the American Society of Newspaper Editors shows that few gains have been made in the hiring of minority journalists.

According to the society's report, minorities compose 7.86% of the staffs (or 4,500 of the 56,900 reporters, editors, artists and photographers) in newsrooms across the United States. In 1978, when the ASNE conducted its first survey, it found 4% of newsroom employees were minorities.

African-Americans now account for 4% (2,372) of the newsroom population--twice the number of Latinos (1,226) and more than three times the number of Asian-Americans (715). The survey found 153 American Indians working in ASNE newsrooms.

"If you look at the percentages and how slowly the industry has moved to respond to a very rapidly changing population, the progress isn't nearly as impressive," said Denise Johnson, the association's vice president. Johnson agrees with the society that newsrooms in the United States should reflect America's racial composition.

Equally disturbing news for the almost 2,000 participants attending the convention at the Century Plaza is the ASNE's report--released in conjunction with the convention's opening day Wednesday--that shows 54% of American newspapers employ no African-Americans or any other minorities--only whites.

Cornelius (Neil) Foote Jr., minority affairs director of the ASNE, said more than 300 newspaper editors took part in the survey. According to their responses, the most common reasons for failing to hire more minorities include: the lack of qualified journalism graduates; poor starting salaries, and a lack of commitment to affirmative-action hiring.

Other respondents said:

* "Many minority students don't come from family backgrounds where reading and writing are stressed."

* "Minorities who don't make the grade are almost impossible to dismiss."

* "Those hired proved incompetent."

* "We hire 'best available.' Not quotas. Period."

* "I favor adding black employees, but I have trouble finding a moral obligation to track them down and beseech them to come to work here when I daily turn down qualified white applicants who desperately need a job."

African-American journalists contend such attitudes are major obstacles to achieving success in the newsroom and in their careers. As a result, many choose to leave the field, shrinking the numbers even more.

"America is browner and tanner and is going to continue to be in the future and the industry must reflect that perspective and diverse view of the world through the people it hires," said Johnson, an editorial writer and columnist for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul .

To help increase minority employment and boost student interest in journalism the National Assn. of Black Journalists will award 10 $2,500 college scholarships at this year's convention. It has already sponsored 18 10-week summer internships to college students. Last year, the group co-sponsored an international journalism conference and sponsored three professional development seminars for its membership.

The association also is concerned with the lack of promotion among African-American journalists, said Linda Williams, the convention's co-chair. Several convention workshops on empowerment and making the move into management are scheduled, she said.

"African-Americans have a high dropout rate in this business because of the glass-ceiling effect," said Williams, who has been a business writer for the Los Angeles Times for a little more than two years and has worked for the Wall Street Journal and Portland Oregonian.

"People with 10 to 15 years experience are very frustrated because they are not getting promoted to jobs like foreign correspondents. . . . All of the avenues have been closed off to us for upward mobility. Sadly, we leave for other professions."

Said Johnson: "We have members like myself who have been in the business 14 to 16 years and the problem is not getting in, it's getting promoted."

Why?

Because, she said, "most institutions in this country are still pretty much dominated by white middle-age males and I think the tendency on their part is to look out over the staff of people they direct and take under their wing a person who reminds them of themselves.

"So that means we (African-Americans) have to be that much more aggressive in letting editors know that we are there and that we want those kinds of management opportunities."

And promoting qualified and capable minorities she said, also makes for good business. "Diversity in the newsroom means that our product will be better," she said.

Patricia Thompson, a suburban editor at the San Jose Mercury-News said that when people at the top are not hiring African-Americans "then you have to make a lot of noise."

Thompson is serving as managing editor of the NABJ Monitor, the convention's newspaper, which is reported by college interns and edited by professionals. "At the Mercury-News," she said, "I've become heavily involved in hiring . . . because I have a strong interest in the journalism industry and minority representation. I've been at papers when I was the only one out there."

John McCaa, a TV reporter and weekend anchor for WFAA-TV in Dallas, has been in the business for 14 years. He said there has been some progress.

"At first we were hired to solely cover our communities. But now we have to let producers and editors out there know that we can cover anything and provide a viewpoint on anything as well. I'm seeing issues being covered that never before were given importance."

Still, he and others agree, African-American journalists, like other minorities, have a long way to go to reach parity with their white counterparts in the newsroom.

More important, McCaa said, he and other African-American journalists must leave the convention with a commitment to encourage minority youth to enter the profession.

"That's the challenge. We have to make this business important to the kids out there. We have to tell them to show up for class, to stay in school, to go to college. Because if we have the numbers then we can't be ignored by the people who do the hiring."

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