Michel: a legacy of unity

An era has ended in journalism
Michel: a legacy of unity
Photo courtesy of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity
Editor Karen Lincoln Michel at the 2008 opening ceremony of the UNITY convention in Chicago.

An era has ended in journalism and I can’t let it pass without telling Madison Magazine readers about it. UNITY: Journalists for Diversity Inc., a national nonprofit that promoted accuracy and fairness in coverage of diverse communities and challenged media organizations to staff their newsrooms to reflect the nation’s diversity, announced it would dissolve on March 30 due to financial difficulties. UNITY’s demise is significant to many of us who helped build the organization and still believe in its mission.

I probably would not be the editor of this city-regional publication without the trailblazing work of UNITY. When I served on the group’s board of directors in the mid-1990s (then called UNITY: Journalists of Color Inc.), I was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News and had no aspirations of becoming an editor. But as I, along with many other journalists of color, spoke to news industry leaders on behalf of UNITY and urged them to diversify their news staffs and promote editors of color to key decision-making positions, I started to think perhaps I could climb the newsroom ladder. And after I served as UNITY president from 2007 to 2009 – an opportunity that helped shape my leadership skills – I took on important editing jobs that prepared me for my current role.

What’s more meaningful are the many accurate news stories of issues facing diverse communities that have aired or been published since UNITY launched in 1994. We will never know the organization’s impact on news coverage or on the hires and promotions of journalists of color. But for a mid-sized city like Madison, it’s important for the public to see diversity among the dozens of journalists who cover our region.

The announcement to end UNITY came the same week as the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, which concluded that our nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The report, authored by an 11-member commission appointed by then-President Lyndon Johnson after riots broke out in U.S. cities in 1967, contained recommendations for the media. Among them: Expand coverage of the black community and race through the “permanent assignment of reporters familiar with urban and racial affairs,” and recruit more black people into journalism and broadcasting and “promote those who are qualified to positions of significant responsibility.” UNITY expanded on those ideals to include all journalists of color and did so with passion.

The organization has reached its end, but its spirit will live on in the actions and voices of those like me who witnessed the power that journalists can unleash in unity.

Karen Lincoln Michel is editor of Madison Magazine.