Ring of Fire, Fault Lines and the News Media

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April 13, 2011

Ever since I learned that I live on the Ring of Fire I’ve been obsessed. The kind of  “pore over maps, bolt down the furniture, pack up emergency bags for my car and office, and then wake up in the middle of the night wondering what else I can do to protect myself in case the long-predicted earthquake hits” obsessed.

Late to the party, I just learned about the Ring of Fire after last month’s deadly and destructive earthquake highlighted the horseshoe-shaped area around the basin of the Pacific Ocean that is home to some of the most violent earthquakes.

First I vowed to move. Then I immersed myself in earthquake safety.

But I was born and raised in the urban East Coast, where the worst natural disasters I experienced often led to snow days at home.

California natives, at least the ones I know, seem to have a different take.

“What are you going to do? There are problems everywhere,” they say, with what is for me a mystifying fatalism. Then they roll their eyes as I enumerate the oh so many things I think can be done.

It’s the same kind of fatalism I see on display when news industry leaders discuss the dwindling number of journalists of color in newsrooms today.

In that case, the latest census figures documenting just how out of sync our newsrooms are with our communities could be considered a version of living on the Ring of Fire.

According to the U.S. Census, people of color make up 36 percent of the national population. According to the American Society of  News Editors, the percentage of journalists and media managers of color in our nation’s newspapers has dropped to 12.79 percent in 2010. 

 “What are you going to do? With the economic downturn and cuts in the newsroom we’ve lost a lot of ground when it  comes to diversity,” said one editor  at  the ASNE convention where the diversity numbers were announced. 

In both cases the fatalism has the potential to be counterproductive, perhaps even deadly.

Let’s take the Ring of Fire first.

Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which toppled a portion of the Bay Bridge, it was clear  that California needed to retrofit its bridges.  More than two decades later, the Bay Bridge, which serves some 280,000 cars a day, has yet to be fixed. Current  estimates suggest it is at least two years away before it’s close to being earthquake ready.

As it stands now, and for as long as it stands, motorists, including myself, just cruise along, hoping the retrofit beats the earthquake.

As for the legacy news industry, already shedding audience and struggling to survive,  this year’s U.S. Census figures prompted some demographers to predict that people of color will be in the majority sooner than 2050 as previously thought. Yet that seems to have done little to convince industry leaders that it is time to retrofit their newsrooms with journalists and media managers culturally competent to accurately cover communities across the fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography.

And that’s the biggest problem with looking at these issues as intractable - we rob ourselves of the ability to find creative solutions and demand change.

A little more fear, a little more passion and a little more confidence in our ability to get things done, and Bay Area residents  might rise up and convince the California Department of Transportation that it could be far more cost effective to accelerate its retrofitting projects. We also might ask what is being done to protect the thoroughfares that are in both the liquefaction and tsunami zones, while devising our own safety plans.

A little more will and even in these times of severe cutbacks, journalists can still take measures to cover and connect to the totality of their communities.  Remembering to search out sources who don’t remind us of ourselves is a good first step. We can also conduct content audits and compare them to our census figures to determine which portions of our communities are being routinely ignored. Something as simple as buying our groceries in another part of town can help us learn more about different parts of our communities. 

Geologists and demographers have been clear; earthquakes are coming and the country is changing. The urgency behind our efforts to shore up our infrastructures and our newsrooms will determine how well we fare.



Color in the Newsroom

Have you ever noticed on The Root that "The Blackest White Folks we Know" is often the most frequently emailed story? I take that to mean that lots of white people would prefer to appear "black" than in actually getting to know a person of color.

As more and more of the media are controlled by News Corp and their imitators, journalism is increasingly a venue for people who suck up to the rich and powerful. How the other 99% of Americans live is less and less of interest, and, of course, that means that at least 35 of the 36% of Americans who are people of color are really off the radar.

That's why I was surprised to find tucked among the fancy jewelry and perfume ads of the May Vanity Fair a piece by Joseph Stiglitz warning that the rich could bring everything down. Sorta like an earthquake warning. Your analogy is spot on.

digital ring of fire parallel


"Yet that seems to have done little to convince industry leaders that it is time to retrofit their newsrooms with journalists and media managers culturally competent to accurately cover communities across the fault lines of race, class, gender, generation and geography."

Hmm, this sounds like when newspapers pooh-poohed the growth of the Internet as a threat to it's livelihood and longevity. Look how that blase attitude turned out.


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