BY EMILY GOLDBLUM
The National Association of Black Journalists is noticeably absent as an organization at UNITY 2012, and that absence is generating debate on the convention floor.
At an opening panel Wednesday on difficult conversations about diversity coverage, CNN Managing Editor Mark Whitaker implied NABJ left UNITY over the addition of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
However, NABJ President Greg Lee said his organization left UNITY in April 2011 primarily for financial reasons, long before NLGJA was invited to join.
“For those who say that NABJ is homophobic in terms of NLGJA being a part of UNITY, that’s not the issue for me,” Lee said. “The issue for me is that there’s no diversity in NLGJA.”
Lee specifically criticized NLGJA’s leadership for its lack of diversity. However, two of NLGJA’s 16 board members are black, and five are women.
In the ongoing discussion over NABJ’s departure and UNITY’s future, members of both groups are defining diversity differently.
UNITY President Joanna Hernandez said the coalition’s mission to promote diversity in newsrooms has been broadened to include LGBT issues.
Mark McNease, an NLGJA member who was attending UNITY for the first time, said diversity is “too narrowly defined in our culture.”
Several NABJ leaders, though, have questioned UNITY’s mission as it moves beyond serving journalists of color. Shortly after NLGJA was added to the alliance, the organization asked for a change in UNITY’s name – eliminating “Journalists of Color” to be more inclusive of NLGJA members. In April 2012, UNITY’s board voted 11-4 to change the name to UNITY Journalists.
NABJ leaders called the name change a “deal breaker” in their talks about possibly rejoining UNITY. NLGJA leaders said the change was a matter of fully including a new member.
“Once UNITY accepted NLGJA as a full member, that name was no longer accurate,” said NLGJA President David Steinberg. “We aren’t just people of color. We are that and more.”
LZ Granderson, who is a member of both NABJ and NLGJA, said some NABJ members remain conflicted over NLGJA’s presence in UNITY.
“What is true is that NLGJA’s presence in UNITY has been in the past and is currently something that rubs a lot of membership of NABJ the wrong way,” Granderson said.
UNITY MEMBERS RESPOND
The debate over UNITY’s mission has left some members confused but hopeful the differences can be resolved.
“It’s kind of ironic because the whole reason we’re having UNITY is so that people from diverse backgrounds can find some common ground,” said Susanna Pak, a member of the Asian American Journalists Association. “The fact that that’s kind of breaking apart is ironic and really sad in a way.”
Joel Mahan, a member of NABJ, said he’s not clear on the issues behind NABJ’s departure but that his own act of protest was to attend UNITY anyway.
“I think it is important to have solidarity and a lot of people together with a united front,” Mahan said.
Blanca Torres, a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, said she was still hopeful NABJ would return to UNITY by 2016.
“I feel like we are missing a part of our family and hopefully, maybe, in four years things will come back to the way it was,” she said.
NABJ’s departure took thousands of members from UNITY since NABJ held its own convention in June. The last UNITY conference in 2008 drew at least 6,665 registrants, but attendance in 2012 is down to about 2,000.
UNITY leaders acknowledged the steep drop in attendance will mean less revenue from the convention. Expenses will decline, as well, Hernandez said. Corporate sponsorships also have decreased as UNITY has become a smaller organization.
Irma Esquivel, a NAHJ member, said the drop in attendance was impossible to ignore, along with fewer seminars. She faulted NABJ for leaving.
“If they left, they don’t want to be a part of diversity, like separating themselves from everybody,” she said.
Michael Kwan, an AAJA member, said it was a “tremendous void.”
“I think there’s a vibrancy and kind of energy that’s missing,” he said.
Recruiters, too, are noticing fewer attendees at UNITY’s job fair.
“Without NABJ here we’re losing a good chunk of potential candidates,” said Curtis Jay from Scripps.
Dana Canedy, a recruiter and senior editor at The New York Times, said NABJ’s absence was affecting the dialogue at UNITY from the start.
“I was struck during the opening ceremonies yesterday by the discussion about diversity and not a single mention of African American diversity, at least during the very beginning,” she said.
When the alliance was established in 1994 by members of NABJ and NAHJ, it was called UNITY to promote diversity. “Journalists of Color” was added to the name in 1998 to clearly state its mission.
The inclusion of LGBT journalists in UNITY comes as gay rights have gained wider acceptance in the U.S. population and in the political process. For the first time in history, the U.S. president has voiced his support for same-sex marriage this year.
Among journalism groups, though, there is still disagreement over whether UNITY should expand to include other minority groups.
NABJ Treasurer Keith Reed said he believes there are differences between the challenges that journalists of color face and those centered on gender and sexual orientation.
Susan Green, a former member of NABJ, who is on NLGJA’s board, said she views diversity as more than just race and ethnicity.
“Diversity does not just apply to gender or ethnicity, it also applies to LGBT issues, economic issues, age issues and the list goes on and on,” she said.
As for the possibility of NABJ and UNITY reconciling their differences in the future, Lee said he is open to talking in the future. Hernandez, the UNITY president, said she believes there’s still a chance.
“I want NABJ back to help shape the future of UNITY,” she said. “We need to talk with each other. We need to sit down and ask what would it take. We haven’t had that conversation.”
UNITY News writer Todd Crow contributed to this report.