Publication Without Representation
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
Diversity in student publications.
By Tamsin Pargiter
Columbia University advertises itself as one of the most diverse universities in the nation. Students in the College and SEAS Class of 2017 come from 48 states and 51 countries. Within President Lee Bollinger’s first four years at Columbia, the ethnic diversity of the undergraduate colleges increased by 6.8 percent, according to statistics from the annual class profiles. But within this supposedly hypersensitive, progressive, intellectual bubble, students of color often express feelings of neglect and isolation. In an October fireside chat, Gerardo Romo, CC ’14, said that students of color at Columbia felt “a lack of support” in a “predominantly white environment that forces students to essentially assimilate or die.”
Who are You Reading?
As non-affiliated student groups, unattached to any single identity, publications may best represent the collective student voice. And yet, upon closer examination, it seems these same channels of open student expression represent a fairly small slice of the student body, unrepresentative of the whole. The ethnic diversity statistically evident in the student body is not emulated in the publications that are meant to speak for and report on the entire community. Columbia defines “minority students” as US resi dents who do not identify as “white” or “unknown” when asked to check off their race on their admissions application. In fall of 2013, 47 percent of CC students were white; 34 percent of SEAS; 69 percent of GS; and 60 percent of BC. In total, nonwhite students comprise 47.5 percent of Columbia’s undergraduate student body. Yet the estimated ratios for publication staff are drastically lower. The Lion was the most ethnically diverse publication, with a staff that was 68 percent white, while The Blue andWhite was the least diverse at 81 percent white. There seems to be a disparity between the diversity of our community and the media sources that supposedly serve and represent it.
Kiani Ned, BC ’16, who self identifies as black, says, “This lack of representation is noticeable because rarely do I feel like these publications are speaking to me. I feel like they’re speaking at me. I’m only a ‘true Columbian’ if I care about, think about, or talk about x y or z. Shut up. Ask me what the fuck I care, think, or talk about.”
Can campus newsrooms report relevant, well-rounded stories that reflect the goings on of their diverse readerships when reporters are predominantly white? Bill Grueskin, the Dean of Academic Affairs and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, says it’s an unavoidable problem. Reflecting on his days as the city editor of the Miami Herald, he said “Our city desk was 40 percent non-anglo, including African-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Haitian-Americans…given the ethnic makeup of South Florida, that was critical to how we covered the news, with everything from politics to cultural events. According to Gureskin, “Inevitably, if you have a homogenous newsroom, the publication will reflect the priorities and values of those in the news room… It is imperative for other newsrooms to diversify in order to accurately represent their readership.”
This doesn’t mean that a sort of affirmative action is the solution. Campus media organizations go to lengths to ensure that their staff are the most qualified, talented, and interested writers and editors possible—as it should be. Yet campus publications may seem less accessible to their student readers who don’t identify with the same cultural norms as the writers and editors of these outlets. This makes it difficult for those students to see themselves reflected in the pages they read.
Sean Augustine-Obi, CC ’16 and editor of The Lion claims, “Despite the apparent lack of racial diversity, I believe mainstream campus media does a good job at covering stories that affect minority groups at Columbia, and not just students of color.” He cites coverage of the Intercultural Resource Center and Tracey Wang’s article about Top Girls as examples.
Spectator columnist and former opinions editor, Leo Schwartz, CC’14, believes that the solution is in the hands of the dissatisfied: “People complain about a lack of diversity, but that’s weird to me because the way that you stop that is by submitting op-eds,” he said. “I think the opinions page is pretty balanced.” Last semester, Schwartz wrote an op-ed, “Discourse on Discourse” (opener: “Being a straight white male at Columbia is not as easy as it seems”), which sparked a series of similar op-eds Orgo night dubbed a “masturbatory dialogue on the Jewish White Man’s burden.”
Schwartz says, “I just wished that all the people who disagreed with me had written op-eds in response, so that we could truly open up the conversation.”
Yet fewer students submit op-eds about their experiences as a marginalized voice in the conversation. Romo feels people did not understand the reasons he felt compelled to submit an opinion piece, titled “Legacies of Trauma,” which attempted to explore “what it means to be a person of color on a campus that historically restricted marginalized identities from entering its gates.” (“I don’t get the point of this article,” went one top comment; “This is an incredibly lazy and problematic way of thinking,” went another.)
Other students indicate that the surface analysis of identity labels, so to speak, overwhelms student discourse, drowning out the potential underlying quest for more student cohesion and collective awareness. In an op-ed titled “Cultural sensitivity and PC-ness substitute for examining real injustice,” Ricardo Alatorre, CC ’14, wrote, “most of the people I know here have habitually smoked or tried marijuana… They indirectly feed a machine that makes it that much more probable that someone in my family, still living in Mexico, will be skinned alive tomorrow.” In another response to the Theta controversy, Ryan Elivo, CC ’15, argued: “We can never hope to achieve a post-racist, post-sexist, post-elitist society if every aspect of our lives is an issue of group identity… Promote diversity by living it. Then we’ll talk.”
A problem with a lack of diversity is that it can lead to coverage bias, the phenomenon born of reporters who are culturally biased to ignore certain stories, many of which may be important news. According to transgender Bwog features editor and B&W senior editor Alexander Pines, CC ’16, “I do think that there’s definitely coverage bias when a staff is predominantly white, straight, and from the United States.” It is worth asking whether Tracey Wang’s article on the Top Girls “yellowface” controversy, which Augustine-Obi cited as a good example of diverse coverage, would have been written at all if Wang did not identify with aspects of Asian-American representation. She has also covered Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the East Coast Asian American Student Union conference, and a panel about whether America will ever elect an Asian president. She has also written five articles covering Native American issues in 2012-13, the first time they have received coverage since 2009.
Gianni LaTange, a Cuban, Haitian, and Jamaican BC sophomore, explains that she doesn’t look to campus publications when she is looking for news that is relevant to the African diaspora. LaTange explains her alternative, saying she attends group meetings held by organizations like BOSS (Black Organization of Soul Sisters) and BSO (Black Students’ Organization). But why aren’t student publications covering the work of these organizations? There are three articles tagged “BSO” on the Spec website, from 2007, 2009 and 2011. While there are a few articles featuring the organization that are not tagged, the BSO apparently received no coverage in 2013.
LaTange says, “this segregation is an issue because it shows a lack of inter-connectedness within the entirety of the Columbia undergraduate student body.” A picture emerges of a mainstream, visible discourse on one hand, featuring the concerns largely of white students, and niches for other groups on the other. She added that this is especially a problem “if this is due to self-segregation and the unconscious dubbing of these topics as ‘black issues.’” The problem is, media coverage serves as a group’s record and its voice: without coverage, to the wider community, these groups may as well not exist. Rega Jha’s, CC’14, 2012 Eye article, “Rules of Discourse” pointed out: “Whether or not Spectator columnists or Bwog writers have ever been to a BSO meeting, they have no choice but to pay attention when comments fill their screens, asking that they ‘check their privilege.’” But if Ned and LaTange are representative examples, it seems students who might do so aren’t even reading campus media, and are unlikely to join it either.
An op-ed by Elora Lopez, CC ’15, in the wake of the Theta mixer photos suggested that the issue goes beyond one of coverage bias, and represents an endemic culture: she recalls that at a “Columbia publication” social event she attended, while discussing the lack of underrepresented minorities in the organization, one person commented, “Well, I think white and Asian students join academic clubs freshman year, whereas blacks and Latinos are more interested in parties and stuff…” Lopez writes, “I certainly couldn’t encourage black and Latina studentsto join, knowing what the atmosphere was.”
Is it the publication’s duty to cover stories that may affect marginalized groups, or is it the duty of the marginalized groups to reach out and request coverage? This disagreement is exemplified in the comments on Spectator ’s recent coverage of Theta’s Team Mexico costumes. A “former news editor” wrote, “this just points to the news editor’s desperation for sensational content and poor judgment for what is actually relevant and productive to discuss on campus.” Another commenter asked whether “spec actually got complaints from a student organization or a group of students who were offended by this?” The way this comment trend sees it, people get mad, webpages get a lot of views. By this logic, it would only be newsworthy if, for example, the Chicano Caucus had independently reached out to publications to make a statement.
One situation where a community directly reached out to direct the dialogue was in the wake of the physical assault of Dr. Prabhajot Singh, a Columbia professor of international relations and a Sikh, in Morningside Park. According to Sarika Kumar, BC ’16 and who identifies as South Asian, students on and off campus were able to engage in a much needed discussion about hate crimes, Islamophobia, and the way the turban is perceived. She says, “I knew it was important for the Sikh community to speak up during this time so they could tell the story from a Sikh perspective, rather than have it become a muddled story that targeted and identified the suspects and victim in a particular manner.”
This brings us to the question of whether a reporter can successfully report on a community of which they are not a member. The obvious answer is yes: not only do close ties with organizations and communities create conflict of interest between reporter and story, but news stories rely on objective distance. The writer’s beat does not have to relate to a reporter’s interests or identity.
Still, a more inclusive newsroom has inherent benefits. A person’s background determines, in part, what counts as news for them. And as Pines notes: “I think non trans people can report accurately about trans things and white people can report accurately about people of color…the problem is that when you’re not a member of these marginalized identities, you’re not looking for their stories, and you may not know the correct language or terminology to discuss these issues.”
If Columbia student publications value their progressive heritage and journalistic commitments, it clear that changes must be made regarding staff diversity. With things as they are, it’s difficult to even gauge coverage bias, because student media is the public record. However, actually affecting a change can be a tricky process. Generally, our publications are self-selecting on either side. Real representation will surely require initiative of both parties, but it’s incumbent on student publications to treat their homogenous newsrooms as what they are: a problem.