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‘There is no pipeline problem’: Robert Hernandez on newsroom diversity

Robert Hernandez is an associate professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg School of Journalism
Photo by: Olivia Mowry / USC Annenberg

Is newsroom culture evolving? 

With the resignations of The New York Times’ James Bennet, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stan Wischnowski, Philadelphia Magazine’s Tom McGrath, Roxboro Courier-Times’ Johnny Whitfield, Refinery 29’s Christene Barberich, and others, the industry is having a “reckoning moment” as conversations about diversity and racism gain momentum.

In an online conversation about dismantling racism in journalism, CNN Digital Senior Vice President of news, opinion and programming S. Mitra Kalita said, “There is a pipeline of failed white male media executives directly to teach in journalism schools, and I think we have to stop that. That is a part of the problem.”

We reached out to Robert Hernandez, associate professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg School of Journalism, to discuss whether these personnel changes reflect a broader shift around diversity and inclusion in media, and how academia can help. 

Why do you think the industry has been so slow in addressing racial inequities within?

Hernandez: Well, from my perspective as a professor, there is no pipeline problem. J-schools across the country have trained and prepared talented, diverse voices ready to work in our industry, but they are often overlooked when hiring. The classic problem that the hiring manager goes with A) “we can’t find any”, which is B.S., or B) using the false “good fit” model, which is based on the hiring manager’s comfort. If they do get hired – often via a fellowship rather than a full-time job for some reason – the experiences I routinely hear about within the newsroom is problematic. From micro-aggressions to straight-up racism, it is no wonder why journalists of color don’t stay in our industry. Those that do stay, work harder than others to prove themselves. Yet they get overlooked when it comes to a promotion, let alone a leadership position. We see this with people of color and with women; there is no excuse except racism, sexism or both.

Do you believe that journalism schools are doing enough to encourage diversity both in terms of faculty and students? 

Hernandez: “Enough” is different depending on who is defining it. From my perspective – as a professor and when I was a student decades ago – J-schools, albeit imperfect, were not the main problem. Every year we graduate talented, diverse voices. These include coders, data journalists, etc. We routinely hear we need to hire in our industry, but these incredible students aren’t given those opportunities. 

J-schools across the country can do more, of course. Especially by not hiring failed editors to transfer their bad leadership from the newsroom to the classroom, inflicting more harm on generations of journalists. Like newsrooms, universities need to hire faculty that reflects the community it is aiming to serve.

How can journalism schools help reshape the industry to become more inclusive?

Hernandez: I can’t speak for all schools, but at USC Annenberg we’ve launched fellowships aimed at mid-career journalists of color that are put in a leadership level at the student-run publication. While still somewhat new and still finding its footing, this opportunity was created to offer JOCs a chance at leadership experience that they were not getting in newsrooms. We train our students, we train veteran journos. The next thing to do is to launch a new publication run by the alumni. 

Other than that, we are doing all we can. Leadership in newsrooms needs to adapt to the diverse reality or – and I mean this all due respect – retire. Retiring is an essential part of evolution, giving power to newer voices. That has not been happening for my entire journalism career. More of the same, when hiring leadership… and we see, in terms of business, more of the same isn’t working.

Can you share examples of hiring managers or organizations that are doing it right?

Hernandez: Take a look at this recent Twitter thread by former LA Times editor Henry Fuhrmann: He talks about his career journey, and in telling his story talks about his opportunities – with help from veteran journalists – but also the lack of opportunities his Metpro peers didn’t get. Henry, to me, represents what editors should be doing, advocating and empowering new, diverse voices.

Look, I’ll be more blunt. In my circles, a lot of the HR editors and editors put in charge of fellowship programs that are meant to bring in these new, diverse voices… well… they had done generations of harm. Countless talent that was basically treated so poorly they left journalism, or weren’t hired, while others with less experience got those positions. These are not hypotheticals. I won’t list the examples because I don’t want to burn bridges, but we all know these stories.

What do the recent changes and pushbacks in the industry mean for the future of newsroom culture?

Hernandez: Well, if they hear the nut graph of these “revolts” or “pushbacks,” and genuinely address those valid concerns, then there might be a chance of changing newsroom culture through hiring (+ support + mentoring + promoting + retaining) diverse journalists and integrated into the fabric of the newsroom. And, look, if newsrooms don’t do this and hire more of the same – or claim that, being blunt, hiring a White person from a different part of the country is diversity or hiring a White person who is a military veteran as diversity (and these are real examples given to address diversity concerns) – then this won’t be the moment of change yet and journalists of color have to continue to fight for parity and representation.

How do you think COVID-19 will affect diversity in newsrooms?

Hernandez: Sadly, it likely will. There have been efforts to hire diverse voices, but “last one hired, first one fired” tends to be the line used when making layoff decisions. Newsrooms should strive for parity, which means having a diverse staff that mirrors the demographics of the community it is aiming to serve. Don’t inflate numbers of X people because you feel guilty or something. Look at the data – the demographics of your market – and strive to get a staff that genuinely reflects it – across all levels, from reporter to management. Make that decision based on data and good business.


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Chen Boon Tai
Chen Boon Tai
2 years ago

I am from Malaysia, a very diverse country……. I am very used to living and working among people of different colors, speaking different languages and dialects…… admittedly there are challenges, but overall….. more reasons for celebration than for lamenting…..