What's Wrong With This Picture? No U.S. Journalists of Color Speak at Conference on Future of Media

03/12/2009 04:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sometime after lunch on day one of a Columbia University confab on the future of watchdog journalism, I came to an unsettling realization: every U.S. panelist was white and over 40. Nearly all were male.

Could this be part of the problem?

When I put the question to Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, president of the Fund for Independence in Journalism and an organizer of the conference, he said "I see your point."

Panelists for the conference, entitled "Enlarging the Space for Watchdog Journalism: Countering Threats, Supporting Investigations," were selected by a "very diverse" group at Columbia, Lewis told me.

He said that the idea was to tap into the collective wisdom of those who run journalism-related non-profits, as well as seasoned investigative journalists. That group leans heavily white, male and over 40. They very nature of the conference, he said, dictated the list of panelists, which includes Pulitzer Prize winners James Risen and Mark Katches.

Full disclosure: I'm attending this conference as an invited guest. My hotel (three nights) and airfare (LA to NYC) as well as breakfast and lunch for two days are being paid for by a consortium of four media-related sponsors: The Open Society Insititute, The Fund for Independence in Journalism, The Dart Center for Journalism an Trauma and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

All are highly regarded institutions and organizations that are deeply invested in crafting a sustainable model for the journalism of the future. I'm delighted to be a participant, and I want to be a supportive presence.

But as a longtime resident of Los Angeles who is witnessing the rapid implosion of my city's newspaper, I couldn't help but notice how the U.S. conference panelists failed to reflect the diversity of the world in which I live.

Lewis told me - apologetically - that there were no U.S. journalists of color whose investigative chops were sufficient to merit inclusion. As for the under-40 crowd, he pointed out that tomorrow, Andrew Donohue, the youthful editor of the online publication Voice of San Diego, is slated to speak.

During the course of the panel discussions today, at least two other younger journalists were discussed in glowing terms.

Amanda Michel, who directed the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project during election season, was recently hired by Pro Publica, the non-profit investigative news entity.

"She mobilized 1,500 people who were not journalists but were volunteers in the campaign and who got access to events where the hoard of the press, the folks that were on the bus, were kept out," Paul Steiger, Pro Publica's editor in chief told conferees. "The result was a daily feed that many days was pretty banal, but from time to time produced really important stuff."

At Pro Publica, Steiger said, he hopes Michel will "teach our editors and reporters how to do this" kind of citizen-driven reporting and apply it to investigative journalism.

The other youngish journalist mentioned was Joshua Micah Marshall, founder of the Talking Points Memo, who recently was awarded a George Polk Award for bringing down U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Marshall enlisted the help of fans of his site to pore over thousands of pages of documents to root out details that contributed to Gonzales' demise.

Do not these journalists embody the very innovation heralded in the conference title?