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Column on Facebook stalking mostly a lesson on how not to implement Affirmative Action programs



roll-call-newspaper.jpgAnother day, another clueless take on a race and diversity issue.

Forgive the cynicism, but I was drowning in it after reading a column Wednesday in the Christian Science Monitor dubbed "Facebook stalking in the name of Affirmative Action."

The piece written by Debra Bruno, someone who once worked as internship coordinator for Roll Call, a Capitol Hill-centered newspaper once owned by my current employer, Times Publishing Co. In the column, the author recalls being told that one of three interns hired must be a racial minority, so she spent time trolling Facebook to see if applicants were people of color from their profile pictures.

Right away, as someone who has written about and implemented diversity programs at media companies, I see a truckload of warning signs. This is a classic example of a badly-implemented diversity initiative, held up as some sort of proof that the concept of Affirmative Action doesn't work well, against the backdrop of the Supreme Court considering race-conscious admissions practices in Texas.

affirmativeaction0312_full_600.jpgTo me, it's like looking at a Yugo and deciding automobiles are terrible. But when you're already uncomfortable with a concept, I guess it's easy to find reasons why it doesn't work so well.

What's oddest to me about the column, is that it describes a lurching, fitful move past the ill-considered practices which hobble most flawed diversity hiring programs to something better. But instead of a lessons learned, we get a lament about using race as part of a selection criteria for an internship program at all.

First, I'd say some of the best Affirmative Action programs work like the NFL's Rooney Rule, which requires football teams to consider qualified applicants of color for every head coaching job. The two key words there: consider and qualified.

That means you're not lowering standards to include people who don't deserve the job. And you're not filling some quota of people you have to hire. It's about breaking down the privilege and social connections which can disadvantage minority groups locked out of certain professions, literally for decades. I'm a strong enough believer in equality to think that, if you put a few talented people of color in a mix of applicants for an internship, you'll hire one because they're as right for the job as anyone else.

facebook_stalking_trend.jpgSecond, finding those qualified applicants of color is hard. And it requires specific work looking for people of color. As uncomfortable as it may seem, overcoming these issues takes sustained specific effort. If it were easy to achieve diversity levels in staff and internship jobs, then this wouldn't be such a tough issue in the first place.

Colleges and other institutions have scholarships and internship programs reserved for women, people of Irish descent and people who attended certain schools. So I'm not as sympathetic to the queasiness over using race as a qualifier here.

Third, I always think diversity initiatives should be rooted in journalism. What do you hope this person may add to your coverage that you don't have now? Could having a Spanish-speaking intern who cares about immigration issues add value? If that person is also Latino, you have diversified your newsroom with the goal of making your coverage more diverse.

unity.jpgBruno also identified herself a significant reason why they had trouble finding people of color to fill internships at Roll Call; they were originally unpaid (later upped to $10/hour). This is also a significant hurdle in raising diversity at top media companies. The only people who can afford to work for free come from wealthy families, a group which has much less ethnic diversity.

When I was a student, I got internship offers from the Miami Herald and the Pittsburgh Press newspapers. I took the one in Pittsburgh because it paid better and I had a family member in that town I could live with, cutting my expenses further. Because I grew in a single-parent household, raised by a schoolteacher, I didn't have the option of working a job which paid nothing for a summer.

Bruno also suggests another "reasonable solution"; formal programs with newspapers aligned with minority journalism organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists to encourage diversity. I find it disappointing that she didn't know such programs already exist, though they have been threatened by continuous cost-cutting (the Chicago Tribune just laid off Sheila Solomon, one of the nation's longest-serving recruiters and voices for diversity in newsrooms).

What I think Bruno's column ultimately misses is the notion that having a diverse staff and field of interns is a step toward more balanced and less myopic coverage, which hopefully translates into more accurate coverage. On the national stage, everything from the death of pop star Whitney Houston to the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has benefited from the voices of qualified, perceptive journalists of color who see stories from a slightly different cultural perspective.

Staff diversity isn't about righting social wrongs. It's about accuracy and fairness in our journalism. And not realizing that diversity in staffing is about coverage, makes me wonder how much value they got from having another person of color on staff, anyway.

Bruno frets about giving an "extra advantage" to an applicant of color, without recognizing that we're still trying to unwind decades of prejudice and unfairness which has kept qualified people from getting jobs and getting promoted in the first place.

In the end, Bruno admits she wound up hiring qualified interns who were people of color and helped diversify their newsroom.

It seems like she figured out the problems, corrected them and picked great interns. So what, exactly is the problem?


[Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:27am]


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