Numbers and Power: Congress and News Media
Elections and Politics Policy Brief #28 | By: Rosalind Gottfried | October 18, 2021
Header photo taken from: The Economist
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Photo taken from: Pew Rearch Center
Congress is more diverse than previous Congresses but only slightly more than the 116th. Congress is 77% white while the general population is 60% white. Women comprise 24% of all seats though women are more than half of the American population. Though 23% of the Congress are racial or ethnic minorities, some groups are closer to proportionally represented than others. African Americans and Native American Congressional membership closely mirrors their populations with 13% and 1% members, respectively. The Hispanic population shows a more skewed relationship with 9% Congressional members and 19% in the general population.
The Asian American/pacific Islander corresponding data is 3% members and 6% general population. Democrats account for 83% of the nonwhite membership compared to 17% among Republicans. Although the numbers are growing seemingly larger than in the past, when looking at the relative proportions there is very little change. In 1981 Congress was 94% white while the population was 80% white, so the level of the gap between the Congressional composition and the general population has remained remarkably consistent.
Attaining parity is not a simple matter of numbers of Congresspersons, though that is one important aspect of gaining equitable representation. Eleven percent of top staff are people of color while they comprise 40% of the population. Congressional offices have a small proportion of African American staff and many have none in the top staff position. Research and reports by Black congressional organizations suggest a big problem in the composition and attrition with the Congressional staff offices. Low wages, high living expenses, and an insular culture make the Congressional offices inhospitable to people of color.
Nancy Pelosi raised the salary of top staffers to potentially $200,000 though the average staffer makes between $30-40,000 and the lowest entry level position pays $29,000. Median Black household income averages $20,000 less than in the average American Household, suggesting less access to resources. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on nonwhite populations, and the threat and fear generated by the Jan 6 riot, have further increased the reluctance of nonwhite professionals to serve in the federal government. Although the Democrats generally have a more diverse staffing pattern than the Republicans, the Senate offices in the three states with the largest portion of African American voters had only one top staffer who was African American.
Another arena essential to establishing parity in the culture concerns the news media. The media personnel remain 75% non-Hispanic white and the percentage of people of color who are in leadership position is 13%. Seventeen percent of newsroom staff are white, according to surveys of research by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR)*. Newspapers have reduced their workforces by half in the past ten years and many of the first to go are nonwhites. This against a declaration by the American Society of News Editors that pledged parity by 2000. Some data from the CJR show that the NPR editorial staff rose from 23% persons of color in 2012 to 25% in 2017. The WSJ newsroom staff is reported to be 90% white. Huffpost newsroom leaders are 86% white. The Washington Post newsroom staff is 69% white. The NYT newsroom is 81% white, down from 84% 16 years earlier. There were no people of color hosting prime time shows on
Fox and only one on CNN and MSNBC.
Examination of demographic data in politics and media regarding the relatively low presence of people of color, and women, often leads to scrutiny of these groups and can spiral into blaming their paucity on the groups themselves. A more accurate assessment would consider the structural and cultural barriers faced by these groups.
Wages and conditions of employment need to be assessed and biases regarding who represents a strong candidate need to be examined. A bias in favor of ivy league educated persons, as well as people with certain internships and experiences, negates the many assets people of other backgrounds can bring to a position and fails to assess the level of their actual skills.
Photo taken from: Canadian Institutes of Health
If the powerful institutions which inform civic life are to become more inclusive, no aspect of them can go unexamined; self-examination of those in power is an integral part of bringing equity because no one is in a better position to identify and rectify problem areas.
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