CABJ offers support for minority journalists


Shemaiah Kenon is the president of the Capstone Association of Black Journalists. CW | Layton Dudley

Rebecca Rakowitz

Raising the percentage of African-American journalists in newsrooms is currently a pressing goal for media organizations all over the U.S., even at the level of college campuses. This includes The University of Alabama.

Shemaiah Kenon, a senior majoring in journalism, wants to inspire students with a passion for writing. As the president of the Capstone Association of Black Journalists, Kenon wants to not only inspire students, but also help make their writing better and be the best journalists they can be.

CABJ, a student organization at The University of Alabama, brings together students of all backgrounds to work toward increasing diversity in American newsrooms. They and their parent organization, the National Association of Black Journalists, strive for a day when the percentage of black journalists in American newsrooms is no longer unrepresentative of the percentage of black people in the nation.

The gap in the number of employed black and white journalists isn’t due to a lack of journalistic drive in the black population. There are plenty of black and minority journalists. This gap is present because black journalists aren’t being employed.

According to a 2015 article in The Atlantic, “Where Are All the Minority Journalists?” that gathered information from the Radio Television Digital News Association, minority groups made up 22.4 percent of television journalists, 13 percent of radio journalists and 13.34 percent of journalists at daily newspapers in 2014.

Those numbers are “pretty pathetic,” as The Atlantic said. Riva Gold, a reporter at The Atlantic, expressed in her 2013 article about newsroom diversity that this is a problem because it leads to inadequate reporting.

“This means that fewer minorities are getting the opportunity to work in news, and news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and –especially in cases where language ability is crucial – even to report on minority populations in their communities,” Gold said.

The University of Alabama’s Society of Professional Journalists wasn’t formed until 2006.

“[CABJ] was created in the ’80s, but that kind of organization is still needed today,” said George Daniels, associate professor and assistant dean of the Department of Journalism.

That being said, Kenon said she wants people to remember that black journalists are more than just their diverse perspective.

“A lot of employers hire black journalists to report on minority issues,” Kenon said. “That’s not all that we know how to write about.”

Kenon said there are many barriers for black journalists. She believes that when black journalists go out to pursue communication fields, an employer questions whether they should hire the candidate to meet a diversity quota that is in place, or because the candidate is really talented.

Though CABJ was created for black journalists, it is open to all students, regardless of race.

“Any student can be a member,” Daniels said. “The only thing that we ask is that when you come to the meetings you’re interested in the issues that the organization is focused on.”

Taking this idea further, Marquis Munson, a senior majoring in sports journalism and a CABJ member, said CABJ is not about being black or Hispanic or any other culture, it’s about learning something new. Through CABJ, Munson learned about the different tools of diversity in the newsroom, how it affects you as a journalist and the organization you work for, how organizations adjust to it, that everyone has a touch of diversity in them and why diversity is important.

“It’s very important to have diversity in the newsroom so you know what’s important to cover,” Munson said. “You get those different aspects of what’s important in the world and different stories spoken by different voices and different cultures.”

Kenon said CABJ was established as a place for students, black or white, to connect and learn. It was for those students who didn’t feel comfortable or well-represented in a larger student organization like SPJ.

Meredith Cummings, professor and faculty advisor for CABJ, said she felt that CABJ is a niche organization that is filling a void at the University. She also said the group is changing the face of the newsrooms.

“Newsrooms need to accurately reflect society, both in coverage and in makeup,” Cummings said.

The reasons for a lack of newsroom diversity varies, but an article in The Columbia Journalism Review, “Why aren’t there more minority journalists?” rejected the notion that it was because minorities lacked journalistic ambition. Cummings said that while the numbers of black journalist are increasing, the incremental changes are painstakingly slow.

“Our gains year to year are almost nothing. To say the numbers are increasing is misleading,” Cummings said. “The gains are not good enough.”

Daniels, along with several articles, emphasized the importance of a strong network, lamenting that no matter how many times you report numbers like the ones above, if the network isn’t there, the students aren’t going to be successful.

By joining CABJ, Daniels explained students immediately create a network with their peers, NABJ, the Birmingham Association of Black Journalists which CABJ has a relationship with and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which NABJ and CABJ are starting to work more and more with.

“Network building can start right now, in the first year that you’re enrolled at The University of Alabama,”  Daniels said. “But you have to take the initiative. We can’t make you go to these events. You have to say that this is important enough to show up and know about it and start building your network at the beginning.” 

Another reason why black journalists aren’t being employed, one that Cummings highlights, is racism. Cummings said applications with “black-sounding” names are more likely to get ignored. Those candidates aren’t even making it in the door for an interview because of their race.

“People say [racism] doesn’t exist in 2016, but it is alive and well,” Cummings said.

Feeling that the organization needs to do more to combat the challenges faced by black journalists today, Daniels said he considers CABJ to be inactive. He noted that it is not doing the programing that it had been known for in the past, and that students are not signing up to come to meetings. The latter he attributes to students not knowing about the organization and its importance.

Munson agreed that CABJ doesn’t yet have the name recognition that an organization like SPJ has.

“You don’t have to be told about SPJ, you know about it already,” Munson said. “You have to hear about [CABJ] – you don’t just automatically know about it.”

Daniels also said student apathy could be due to students majoring in journalism, but not being sure that it is what they truly want to do. Offering a different explanation, Kenon attributed the rockiness of the last few years to constant changes in leadership. Cummings agreed, adding that the club needs to cultivate younger members to become officers so that they can lead for longer periods of time and add stability to the organization.

In the spring of 2015, as a newly elected president and a self-proclaimed “rebranding freak,” Kenon, started work rebranding CABJ, focusing on new logos, establishing a larger presence, gaining and retaining members and developing more programming such as the Black Lives Matter-themed open-mic night they plan to have with UA’s NAHJ. Kenon even said she’d like to see a CABJ publication in the future.

When she transferred to the University in Fall 2014, Kenon said she knew little about it. When she received an email the following spring about elections for officers, she decided to go to the meeting. There were six people in attendance. And one of them was the faculty advisor.

“Right then and there we knew there was a problem,” Kenon said.

Kenon felt the meeting should have been in one of Reese Phifer’s large lecture halls with 200 people in attendance vying for positions.

“I think there’s a very big problem here,” Daniels said. “Not because we don’t have the organization, not because we don’t have an outstanding advisor, but because students don’t come to the activities. Students don’t know about it. And students don’t know the problem that you’ve identified nationally with black journalists and their challenges with finding jobs and keeping jobs.”

According to Daniels, it must be conveyed to students, particularly African-American students, that the problem of them being successful is great enough that it demands activity, especially in organizations like CABJ.

“We want to retain members and make them feel like CABJ is something important to be a part of,” Kenon said.

Cummings agreed and wants to work to make CABJ a priority in student’s minds, though she understands that not everyone will be able to commit to the organization.

“Students have busy, busy lives,” Cummings said. “Fitting everything in can be hard.”

Daniels feels differently. He wants students to invest.

“As an African-American faculty member, I have a special concern about minority organizations being active because I think that’s the key to students being successful,” Daniels said. “And I’ve seen so many examples of what happens when they’re successful. And I think we’re doing the right thing by providing the opportunities, but [the students have] got to step up and they’ve got to respond.” 

Kenon said CABJ has both highly successful and involved students, and students who are unsure how to get started in a publication. She said the group hopes to promote the work of the former, be a liaison and resource for the latter and inspire those who have a passion for writing.

Above all Kenon hopes that CABJ will help students find their footing and their confidence.

“Regardless of where students go they will probably be stereotyped or looked at differently, but CABJ wants them to know that they can always beat the odds, regardless of their skin color or where they come from,” Kenon said.