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July 9, 1999
Unity'99 Draws 6,000 Journalists
Roman Allerano in Seattle and A P Kamath in New York
The largest gathering of journalists ever, the Unity '99 convention for journalists of color, has drawn at least 6,000 journalists and academics including 900 Asian American journalists.
The five-day convention, which started on July 7, cost $ 3 million and has attracted many Indian journalists and writers including novelist Bharti Kirchner, journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan of Columbia University, Rajee Suri, senior editor at CNN Interactive and Apoorva Mandavilli, a New York University graduate student and a regular rediff.com contributor.
The first convention, Unity '94, held in Atlanta, drew about 3,800 people.
Among the issues to be addressed at the convention are the ways to increase minority participation in the print and electronic media, and improving the coverage of minority issues by the mainstream media. Job fare, skill-enhancement opportunities and networking are part of the convention.
Scheduled speakers for the event include Vice-President Al Gore and former US senator Bill Bradley, who are both presidential candidates; the Reverend Jesse Jackson, president of PUSH/Rainbow Coalition; and Governor Gary Locke.
Recent studies have shown that 40 per cent of newspapers don't have any non-whites on the staff, and that non-whites make up a total of 11.5 percent of newspaper staffs, and 20 per cent of the television-news industry. In most newsrooms, people of color make up a smaller percentage than they do in the nation at large, where they total 26 per cent of the population.
Recently when The Washington Post ran a complaint in its business/workplace section about an Indian woman worker who reportedly smelled so bad that her co-workers were seriously upset, several Indian Americans met with the newspaper's ombudsman to protest the piece.
The Post reporter who responded to the complaint tried to find out if the lack of hygiene had anything to with religious customs in India.
"If the Post had a handful of Indian American reporters (there are just about two), someone would have checked with them before such assumptions were made," said Kap Sharma, former Washington intern.
At Unity '99, many Indian journalists will not only think of the effective means of correcting distortion about their community in the media but will also think-tank about getting into major newspapers.
"In many big cities, each newspaper has a handful of Indian American writers," says Mandavilli. "But the number could go up significantly if we persist in looking out for jobs with mainstream publications instead of adopting a resigned attitude and looking for non-journalism jobs."
Gathering for the group's first convention in 1994, Unity members were intent on ridding the media of what they saw as an overuse of labels such as "illegal alien" and coverage of minorities in negative ways, primarily as perpetrators or victims of crime.
Many of those complaints still remain, and Unity members this week will assess the progress made -- and chart courses of action.
The goal is not simply adding numbers, Keith Woods, a director for the Poynter Institute's Ethics and Diversity Program, said. "It's about trying to get more of the truth told, more neighborhoods covered, more issues analyzed more thoroughly. In the end, it's about pushing journalists to produce more honest, fair and more truthful journalism."
Asian journalists struggle with being the "invisible minority," said Catalina Camia, president of the Asian American Journalists Association and Unity president.
"When people talk about diversity, they sometimes frame the debate in black and white or in the black-white-Hispanic paradigm," said Camia, a Washington correspondent forThe Dallas Morning News. Asian Americans, one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in this country, are underrepresented in newsrooms and lack management positions, she said.
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