How the journalism industry’s elitism locks out folks from underrepresented backgrounds

After he took a look at my resume and clips, I asked him for advice on how to get a journalism internship. I had applied to around 20 summer positions, including a few at the company for which he works.

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He, a journalism industry executive, suggested that I keep up what I was doing in college. But he had more to say about my school in particular.

“We just don’t know what you’re doing there,” he said, referencing the part of my resume that indicated I was attending a community college.

It left me gutted. From his elitist point of view, my community college lowered my value as an applicant. That conversation eroded any self-confidence I had in pursuing journalism following my freshman year.

At first, I was genuinely thankful that he decided to take the time to talk with me: an eager and motivated California community college student interested in pursuing journalism.

But I cried later that day.

When I first attended El Camino College in Torrance, California, in fall 2018, I knew from the start that I wanted to transfer to the University of Southern California. However, I was skeptical because too much would have to go my way for it to happen.

For starters, the first hurdle was admission. The second hurdle — and this was the bigger one — I’d need financial aid. I couldn’t afford $50,000 a year for an undergraduate journalism degree at a private university. But I knew I’d miss all the shots I didn’t take, so I applied.

Sometime in June 2019, I was getting work done at a local library when I got an email from USC. It was from the admissions department.

I got in.

I still remember how I stood up and quietly paced between bookshelves, pumping my fists in triumph and joy. Here I was, one step closer.

My parents were a mix of happy and shocked. I’m the proud son of immigrants who sacrificed much more than their personal goals and dreams, all to make a life for their kids in the United States. I’m also lucky and grateful for having parents who support me financially in college, regardless of their reluctance in me pursuing journalism, which is honestly out of love and worry.

But on my 19th birthday in July 2019, I received an email from USC Financial Aid. I found out that I needed to take out $50,000 in loans for just one year at the Los Angeles private university. I was upset even though I had been preparing myself to be let down. I tried to not think much of it that day, but the fact remained: The one thing keeping me from attending my dream school was, really, an outrageous price tag.

I tried to get over it, though. I’d be applying to more schools in a few months, most likely to schools that didn’t cost 50 grand per year. I still had options.

But that pain of letting go of my dream school became directly linked to the pain I felt after meeting with that journalism industry executive a few weeks later.

I told him about what I had done in the last year: I was doing a lot of work at my student-run campus newspaper, The Union, mainly covering breaking news and the intersections of education, state legislation and homelessness.

I brought my resume and clips. He gave me good critique, also a few compliments, noting how I had decent clips for a college freshman. I also mentioned how I got into USC but couldn’t transfer in the fall because it was too expensive.

We got to the topic of internships. I told him I applied to around 20, including a few at the company he is an executive of. None had panned out, so I asked for advice. He explained how his company typically looks for older applicants, like juniors and seniors in college.

That’s understandable — some places are super competitive, so they limit applicants to folks who have the most experience. But that was when he shared his thoughts about me being at a community college.

Not only did he say he didn’t know what I was doing because I was at a community college, he added that if I was at a four-year university, like USC, I could have probably gotten a summer internship at his company, considering the clips I had already.

It took a solid 30 minutes for those words to really sink in.

It’s incredibly discouraging and scary to hear that my community college, which I was attending because I simply could not afford to take thousands of dollars in debt, somehow brought me down as an applicant — so much that it overshadowed my clips, my work experience and the skills I bring to the table.

The idea that my lesser-known school could remove me from consideration for an opportunity is elitism at its core. In that moment, it felt like the journalism industry was more likely to recognize folks who attended elite private schools, rather than for the quality of their journalism.

I was perplexed: My economic status kept me from attending an elite private university, which also kept me from obtaining an internship, at least according to that executive.

It also felt like salt in the wound when he made it a point to explain that being at a four-year university was almost a rite of passage to a journalism internship, given that I had just explained that I had been priced out of attending USC.

My experience mirrors what countless others have faced in journalism. Elitism is not a new “-ism” of this industry — it takes on many forms in different contexts — but it’s so important to point out when discussing the significance of alma maters within the hiring process because elitism locks out folks from underrepresented backgrounds from entering the industry.

When recruiters and editors bring this university bias to the hiring process, that means more than 2 million students at California community colleges like me — of whom 75% are students of color — are locked out of a field that prides itself on telling compelling stories and amplifying voices.

This only touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the inaccessibility of a career in journalism. It doesn’t even get into the systemic barriers that make it incredibly hard for students from low-income backgrounds to pursue journalism, given they are more likely to take on part-time or even full-time minimum wage jobs to provide for their families, all on top of a full-time course load at their college.

To be clear, I know elitism, racism, sexism and many institutional barriers exist in the journalism industry. But up until 2019, I had only heard of those things. I’m now able to say I experienced the corrosive elitism in this industry firsthand.

This elitism also has numbers to show for it. An investigation done by a team of reporters as part of the Asian American Journalist Association’s Voices program in 2019 found, “65% of summer interns from a group of publications including The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and Los Angeles Times, came from among very selective universities in the nation.”

Another instance of a clear bias in the hiring for temporary positions, in this case at the Los Angeles Times, was recently highlighted by the Latino Caucus of the Los Angeles Times. It found, “In nearly a decade, The Times has hosted more than 250 interns and Metpro fellows. Only 4% of those spots have gone to students from Cal State universities.”

I am a recent community college graduate who is transferring to a California State University this fall. I genuinely question whether I have a place in this industry. I have not even truly entered journalism, yet elitism already casts an ominous shadow on some of my first experiences and impressions of this industry.

Looking back, I have no qualms about the school I attended. I have nothing but pride as a community college graduate and an incoming CSU student.

However, I do have qualms about how journalism treats certain people from underrepresented backgrounds. This industry cannot claim to be the purveyor of diverse and compelling stories if it erases and ignores those eager to tell them, especially those who come from “nontraditional” backgrounds. My experiences as a community college graduate set me apart from my counterparts at universities.

Also, the stigma against community colleges is incredibly outdated. Not only do students save at least $20,000 by spending two or more years there, they’re surrounded by students who come from modest backgrounds not commonly represented at universities.

This is not in any way intended to erase the experiences of those who have come from “unconventional” backgrounds and risen above these challenges and barriers. This is a call to those in power to reflect on how these barriers limit the quality of journalism produced by newsrooms — because this industry shouldn’t make folks feel ashamed of their schools.

The school you attend has a lot to do with your financial status. Your financial status has a lot to do with your background. Your background is what makes you who you are.

However, since my conversation with the industry executive, I have surged forward. One mentor advised me that this was an industrywide issue. He saw potential in me and wanted me to ignore the comments. Instead, he said, I should keep doing great work at my student paper and keep applying for internships. I listened to those uplifting words. I’m happy I did.

In spring 2020, I served as the editor-in-chief of The Union as we got through a semester that, in many ways, felt derailed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Despite obstacles, I was able to lead a newsroom that has a revitalized, dogged approach to covering campus administration and a genuine interest in amplifying underrepresented stories. I was also able to land an internship this past summer.

Despite losing motivation because of a pitiful financial aid package and an industry executive not placing value in my background as a community college student, going back to my community college to continue reporting with care and empathy was enough to reinvigorate my hopes to one day enter this industry full time.

As I finish up my summer internship and transfer to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, I look forward to continuing to do good work, but I hope others entering this industry don’t have to go through what I have.

Omar Rashad is a California-based journalist covering higher education, state legislation and homelessness. Find him on Twitter at @omarsrashad. He can also be reached at [email protected].

This article was originally published by Poynter and is republished here with permission.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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