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Akst: Toward better inclusion in journalism

This is the part that makes me uncomfortable.

I have been fortunate to teach a variety of journalism and public relations classes at Northern Illinois University, but the class I teach most is “Basic News Writing.”

The title is not as self-explanatory as you might think. Sure, a lot of it is about sentence structure, punctuation and other writing mechanics. But for many students, the class is their introduction to the world of journalism, so I feel obliged to also cover things like law and ethics, interviewing techniques, note-taking and diversity perspectives.

Diversity perspectives are crucial to journalism because the changing demography of America is clear. According to the 2010 Census, America is about 65 percent white, about 15 percent Hispanic, about 14 percent Black, about 5 percent Asian and about 2 percent “other.” Altogether, minorities account for about 34 percent of the U.S. population.

Strikingly, however, the trend line for journalism runs in the opposite direction. According to a recent report from the American Society of News Editors, minority representation in daily newspapers has declined to about 12 percent in 2012 from about 13.5 percent in 2008.

The percentage change might not sound that striking, but the report (“Newsroom Diversity: A Casualty of Journalism’s Financial Crisis”) makes clear in narrative what might be missing from a pie chart. The decline of minorities in newsrooms, the ASNE report says, “means that fewer minorities are getting the opportunity to work in news, and news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and – especially in cases where language ability is crucial – even to report on minority populations in their communities.”

In one case, a journalist who left a newspaper in Seattle was the last person who understood Spanish.

This isn’t to say that only Asian-American reporters, for example, should cover news items significant to Asian-Americans.

Still, some cultural sensitivity and awareness helps a lot.

Like last July, when a commercial airline (Asiana Airlines flight 214) crashed near San Francisco International Airport, killing two and injuring nearly 200.

The Chicago Sun-Times ran a giant headline in bold type: “Fright 214.”

Given that passengers were predominantly Asian, many took offense to the headline, concluding the Sun-Times made a bad joke about the stereotype of Asians having difficulty pronouncing “L”s as “R”s.

What happened next is really interesting. The Asian American Journalists Association contacted Sun-Times management to investigate/complain, and management assured the AAJA that it never occurred to anybody that someone would take offense with the headline.

Back to Basic News Writing, and where I become uncomfortable. Last summer, I had the opportunity to attend a weeklong symposium at NIU (the Multicultural Transformation Institute) that works with faculty and staff to help them become more aware of diversity considerations.

It was a good experience and I learned a lot, but that week represents the bulk of my diversity training. When I was in “j-school,” I don’t think there were any diversity courses.

I’m a good person and am qualified and competent, but as a white guy who grew up in a predominantly white town and whose entertainment choices tend to be predominantly white, it’s awkward for me to teach up-and-coming journalists how to be more sensitive to minority populations.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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