Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

“Needless deaths of hardware store cashiers and bus drivers were framed in stories as the sacrifice of ‘heroes’ rather than an outrage and injustice. Or workers were written out of news stories entirely.”

The steady decimation of local news has also decimated the careers of working-class journalists without elite educations. We’ve lost many of the journalists who would have been best suited to cover labor issues exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and related topics like housing insecurity and the cost of healthcare.

Next year, we should expect stronger demands to recruit staff from a broader range of education backgrounds. This will in turn lead to more editors and writers from a broader range of class backgrounds. We must do this to provide accurate and rigorous coverage of the issues impacting most Americans.

There has been increased scrutiny of the homogenous class and education backgrounds of journalists in recent years. In 2019, Asian American Journalists Association Voices released a report that showed how graduates from a small cluster of universities have come to dominate newsrooms. AAJA collected data on the 150 news interns from the summer of 2018 who went to work at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR, Politico, and the Chicago Tribune. They found that 65 percent of the interns had attended the most selective schools in the country. At the New York Times and Washington Post, one in five went to the top 1 percent of schools known as the “Ivy Plus” (the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago). The report connects the practice of recruiting from elite schools to the disproportionate whiteness of the largest newspapers and media organizations.

This year put the consequences of Ivy Plus-led publications in stark relief. Needless deaths of hardware store cashiers and bus drivers were framed in stories as the sacrifice of “heroes” rather than an outrage and injustice. Or workers were written out of news stories entirely. Early on, when there were shelter-in-place orders and people wiped down every item they bought from the grocery store, the media’s advice for surviving the pandemic tended to be tailored to the work-from-home upper-middle class — order books off the internet! get your groceries from Instacart! — ignoring the people who work at every point in the supply chain. These workers are trying to survive too! There’s been some excellent labor reporting this year, but there’s also been abysmal work — coverage of workers written gingerly with sanctimony and a pandering tone. This is what happens when media professionals live sheltered lives and have limited contact with those who haven’t attended elite schools.

The quality of journalism suffers from this homogeny. The problem also leads to classism and credentialism in the workplace, which self-perpetuates in hiring practices. “It’s incredibly discouraging and scary to hear that my community college, which I was attending because I simply could not afford to take thousands of dollars in debt, somehow brought me down as an applicant — so much that it overshadowed my clips, my work experience, and the skills I bring to the table,” Omar Rashad wrote in Poynter this year. Seeking an internship, he had been told by a media professional that his community college experience was not good enough.

A reckoning is inevitable. In 2021, I expect greater efforts to undo this cronyism. It might involve advocacy to remove all degree requirements (64 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree). There could be mandates for HR to reach applicants beyond the Ivy Plus and strengthen ties with HBCUs, state schools, and community colleges. Newsroom unions might put forth these demands. All of this, it should go without saying, would be supplemental to diversity policies.

The steady decimation of local news has also decimated the careers of working-class journalists without elite educations. We’ve lost many of the journalists who would have been best suited to cover labor issues exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis and related topics like housing insecurity and the cost of healthcare.

Next year, we should expect stronger demands to recruit staff from a broader range of education backgrounds. This will in turn lead to more editors and writers from a broader range of class backgrounds. We must do this to provide accurate and rigorous coverage of the issues impacting most Americans.

There has been increased scrutiny of the homogenous class and education backgrounds of journalists in recent years. In 2019, Asian American Journalists Association Voices released a report that showed how graduates from a small cluster of universities have come to dominate newsrooms. AAJA collected data on the 150 news interns from the summer of 2018 who went to work at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR, Politico, and the Chicago Tribune. They found that 65 percent of the interns had attended the most selective schools in the country. At the New York Times and Washington Post, one in five went to the top 1 percent of schools known as the “Ivy Plus” (the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and the University of Chicago). The report connects the practice of recruiting from elite schools to the disproportionate whiteness of the largest newspapers and media organizations.

This year put the consequences of Ivy Plus-led publications in stark relief. Needless deaths of hardware store cashiers and bus drivers were framed in stories as the sacrifice of “heroes” rather than an outrage and injustice. Or workers were written out of news stories entirely. Early on, when there were shelter-in-place orders and people wiped down every item they bought from the grocery store, the media’s advice for surviving the pandemic tended to be tailored to the work-from-home upper-middle class — order books off the internet! get your groceries from Instacart! — ignoring the people who work at every point in the supply chain. These workers are trying to survive too! There’s been some excellent labor reporting this year, but there’s also been abysmal work — coverage of workers written gingerly with sanctimony and a pandering tone. This is what happens when media professionals live sheltered lives and have limited contact with those who haven’t attended elite schools.

The quality of journalism suffers from this homogeny. The problem also leads to classism and credentialism in the workplace, which self-perpetuates in hiring practices. “It’s incredibly discouraging and scary to hear that my community college, which I was attending because I simply could not afford to take thousands of dollars in debt, somehow brought me down as an applicant — so much that it overshadowed my clips, my work experience, and the skills I bring to the table,” Omar Rashad wrote in Poynter this year. Seeking an internship, he had been told by a media professional that his community college experience was not good enough.

A reckoning is inevitable. In 2021, I expect greater efforts to undo this cronyism. It might involve advocacy to remove all degree requirements (64 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree). There could be mandates for HR to reach applicants beyond the Ivy Plus and strengthen ties with HBCUs, state schools, and community colleges. Newsroom unions might put forth these demands. All of this, it should go without saying, would be supplemental to diversity policies.

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