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Mayor Lightfoot calls out media for glaring lack of diversity

Mayor takes on an issue that has plagued newsrooms for decades.

“I have been struck since my first day on the campaign trail back in 2018 by the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of Chicago media outlets, editorial boards, the political press corps, and yes, the City Hall press corps specifically,” Lightfoot said in a two-page letter dated May 19 that was sent to the major news outlets in the city to explain her decision to offer Black and Brown journalists a rare interview opportunity.
“I have been struck since my first day on the campaign trail back in 2018 by the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of Chicago media outlets, editorial boards, the political press corps, and yes, the City Hall press corps specifically,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a two-page letter dated May 19 that was sent to the major news outlets in the city to explain her decision to offer Black and Brown journalists a rare interview opportunity.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to “exclusively” provide one-on-one interviews to journalists of color ahead of her two-year anniversary set off a firestorm on Twitter, and in the city’s newsrooms.

“This is beyond disappointing. It’s disgusting. We are going backwards in this country on race relations,” wrote one commenter.

While another person replying to @MaryAnnAhernNBC had a different take:

Many whites are throwing fits bc of their white privileges [sic] challenged. This is called leveling the playing field, more equity-minded practice.

Lightfoot’s manifesto, delivered midway through a challenging first term marked by a deadly pandemic, rising homicide rates, at least two questionable police shootings and a dehumanizing police raid, have some accusing Lightfoot of trying to boost her image by taking on a longstanding race-related issue that shocks those unfamiliar with the press corps.

“I have been struck since my first day on the campaign trail back in 2018 by the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of Chicago media outlets, editorial boards, the political press corps, and yes, the City Hall press corps specifically,” Lightfoot said in a two-page letter dated May 19 that was sent to the major news outlets in the city to explain her decision to offer Black and Brown journalists a rare interview opportunity.

“While there are women of color who sometimes cover my administration, there are zero women of color assigned to the City Hall beat. Zero. I find this unacceptable,” the mayor said.

The death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, and the COVID-19 pandemic that exposed inequities in our health care system pushed the “diversity, inclusion and equity” issue from vague discussions to bold actions.

Corporate boards opened up. Industries aggressively pursued Black people to join the C-suite and newsrooms quietly began to address this issue.

The Sun-Times held a session to educate reporters on implicit bias; expanded efforts to recruit journalists of color; and established a People of Color caucus within the newsroom so that journalists could safely air their concerns.

Still, the work seems to inch along at a snail’s pace.

By now, everyone should know Lightfoot barrels down on problems like a freight train. That kind of leadership style has won her both fans and foes.

But to be fair, this isn’t a policy. Nor is it the first time a politician has set aside time to talk specifically to Black journalists in a group about issues concerning Black Chicago. Those concerns are often different from matters raised by white reporters.

Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, often met with the Black press behind closed doors for off-the-record chats.

And one of the first groups to meet privately with President Barack Obama during his first term was Black columnists.

Lightfoot’s mistake was not going directly to the heads of the newsrooms, TV and radio stations and having a conversation about that lack of diversity and the need for racial inclusion.

After all, the press didn’t turn overwhelmingly white overnight. It has been going that way for years.

The small steps toward diversity, however, get harder to maintain as newsrooms shrink and writers of color move on to more lucrative professions.

An article posted at niemanlab.org, “The moral argument for diversity in newsrooms is also a business argument ...,” written by Nicole A. Childers, cites a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis using 2012-2016 data that shows only 23% of newsroom employees are people of color despite being 40% of the U.S. population.

A 2019 Radio Television Digital News Association survey found that 14.5% of radio employees and 25.9% of local TV news employees are people of color, according to Childers.

But of even more concern, “Over the past decade newsroom employment in the U.S. has dropped by a staggering 23%,” the writer found.

The lack of diversity is a subject that newsrooms have wrestled with for decades.

Lightfoot just dragged it out into the light of day for the public to see.

Now it’s on newsrooms to deal with.

After all, we are purveyors of the truth, and this truth is staring us in the face every day.