Facebook stalking in the name of affirmative action

Ahead of the Supreme Court hearing on affirmative action, I recall how at Roll Call newspaper, I was told that one of our three interns had to be from a racial minority. Diversity is important, but giving someone an advantage beyond his experience degrades the applicant and the hirer.

Al Behrman/AP
University of Michigan student Ebrie Benton demonstrates outside the Federal courthouse March 7 in Cincinnati, where the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing oral arguments in a review of their ruling last summer that Proposal 2, the ban on affirmative action in Michigan, is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court will soon hear a case on affirmative action, involving race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas.

There I was, Facebook stalking again. But I wasn’t chasing after an old boyfriend or trying to see if my niece was having too good a time in Italy. As the internship coordinator for Roll Call (now CQ Roll Call), a newspaper covering Congress on Capitol Hill, I was looking at the faces of candidates for internships.

One might ask: Why did I care about what a prospective intern would look like? The answer was that I was told that out of three interns hired each semester at Roll Call, one of them had to be from a racial minority: African-American, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, Native American. And in some cases, what you can’t tell from a name you can see from a picture.

Mike Mills, the paper's editorial director, denies that Roll Call had a policy to "tip the scales in favor of any candidate solely to fulfill our our diversity goals," but I was given a clear directive otherwise, initiated when I was with Roll Call in 2009 and 2010. It was part of an overall push to improve diversity at the newspaper, which is owned by The Economist Group. The company felt, laudably, that an ethical work environment is one that offers opportunities to those who may not have had them in the past.

I want to be clear that I think the goal is a good one: Most newsrooms these days are anything but diverse, and that lack of diversity affects the kinds of stories covered, the approach to those stories, the photographs, the headlines, everything.

But is there a way to fix this – at least a better way than using race as a key part of the selection criteria? The US Supreme Court will to take up a version of that question itself when it hears a case that challenges the University of Texas's race-conscious admissions practices later this year. In 2003, the court ruled that public colleges could use race in a vague way as a criterion for college admissions. But now the court has agreed to look at a case involving admissions at the University of Texas. Observers predict that the more conservative bench today is likely to end any kind of race-based preference in higher education.

In my case, what I discovered in my hunt for the right interns was an obstacle that had less to do with racial factors and more to do with economic ones. When I started at Roll Call as features editor in charge of internships, we offered three unpaid internships each semester and in the summer. What that meant was that one of the main qualifications for the job was a set of parents who were able and willing to allow their child to work fulltime for free for several months, with the hope that it might lay the groundwork for future employment.

Meanwhile, besides my Facebook-stalking of candidates who had sent in resumes and published clips, I was systematically approaching groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, and historically black colleges like Howard University. But as soon as I mentioned the fact that these were unpaid internships, the conversation was over.

Eventually, I convinced Roll Call that offering a salary to interns was a way to widen the search. And that $10-an-hour slot did seem to improve the diversity of the candidates applying for the spots.

The next problem was that I was pressed for time and collecting applications from all over the country, which meant that I was unable to interview candidates in person. I was back to sleuthing: Did the student belong to any organizations that might give an indication of his racial background? What about languages spoken? Did her newspaper clips reflect an interest in diverse topics?

These all turned out to be more useful methods of research than the illegal tactic of simply asking a job applicant about his race. And in some ways it was all part of the thorough investigation I did of most candidates for these spots, since I needed to hire interns who had a foundation in journalism experience and could write well. I spent hours reading clips, poring over cover letters, making notations, ranking the applicants in a pile. For summer internships, the competition was fierce: as many as 100 viable applications for what had been reduced to two spots.

In the end, I can say that I put my finger ever so slightly on the scale for the candidates who were both accomplished journalists and from diverse backgrounds. Most of the time that meant that one out of my two interns was from a racial minority but also highly qualified to be an intern at Roll Call.

Occasionally, the process got clumsy and almost funny: Once, I assumed from the spelling of a name an ethnicity that wasn’t there. Sometimes a intern from a racial or ethnic minority was from a private-school, privileged background that seemed to defeat the purpose of giving advantages to those who might not otherwise have them. Another time a young man announced to me on the last day of his internship that he was biracial. Who knew? Who cared?

Overall, this focus on race felt ultimately racist itself, a process that was less about journalism and more about race. To this day, I haven’t admitted to any of the wonderful interns I hired that their ethnic or racial background had been even the remotest factor in the hiring process. In fact, I’m sure they would be appalled to think that they were chosen for anything other than their journalistic potential.

In a perfect world, I would have been able to hire the absolute best interns whether they were from Mars or Hoboken. The process should have been color blind, focused on who could write the best ledes, who could be brave enough to cold-call a source, and who had the attention to detail that made a good story memorable.

In a less-than-perfect world, a reasonable solution could be a better approach to outreach, such as formal programs at newspapers to encourage diversity. In the same way that I reached out to organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists, newspapers could establish regular programs to allow diverse young journalists to visit newsrooms and hear from reporters and editors about their daily lives. Once they got there, they would need to have a mentor who could guide them through the sometimes-overwhelming world of breaking news and cutthroat competition.

In fact, my old employer had started to do just that with regular talks given to student groups and monthly pizza lunches for the interns who were already in place. I never had the time to travel, but an internship coordinator could go to career fairs and journalism classes at historically black colleges to make the point that this publication cared about reaching out to diverse journalists.

In addition, I think there’s nothing wrong with a hiring manager paying attention to the organizations someone belongs to, the languages he speaks, and the story ideas he cares to cover. It’s all part of a thorough investigation of candidates in any tough hiring environment, and a person with a wider perspective is going to be a more valuable candidate than someone with a more narrow approach to life and journalism.

Having said that, I do think that a broad experience of life – whether it’s through passionate involvement in curling or ballet or whether it’s through gospel singing or fluency in Portuguese – is more important than the color of one’s skin.

We have to find an approach to hiring that is both positive and straightforward. Giving an extra advantage to an applicant beyond that is degrading for both the applicants and those doing the hiring. For me, I’m happy not to have to stalk anyone on Facebook anymore, except maybe that niece.

Debra Bruno is a Beijing-based journalist who has written about everything from air pollution to fashion to poetry. She describes her experiences on her blog, www.notbyoccident.blogspot.com.

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