It became a priority in the 1970s as a result of immense racial and political disturbances, race riots, throughout the United States in the sixties. It was only after this period of massive upheaval that the media companies of America recognized that they had played a role in the racial divisions of the past and they needed to rectify their role. So they began in the seventies and eighties a process of greater inclusion. It did succeed in a lot of ways. To some measure it improved the situation, but not dramatically.

But now we’re in a situation, you’re correct, where racial diversity is the last thing that any major media executive in America is thinking about these days. They’ve got all these other problems that they’ve got to deal with to survive in the changing environment. However, the reality is the country continues to become more racially mixed and it will soon be facing the reality that the white population of the country is going to become a minority within a minority. So the reality is that the non-white communities of the United States are going to be the consumers, and sooner or later these companies are going to recognize that it’s not just a question of exploiting this new growing market. It’s also serving this public. It’s also providing the kinds of news and information that this new majority of America needs. And you don’t do it just by putting your least expensive editorial product into these communities to be able to get advertising dollars, but you actually have to serve the community.

Would social media allow communities of color to push these companies to action?

I don’t think so. I think social media is playing an important role. However, unless we get straight what is going to happen with net neutrality and the ability of that information to flow over the Internet in a non-discriminatory fashion, you have the potential to replicate on the Internet the same kinds of inequities that existed in old media. So that’s why my co-author Joseph Torres and I agree that the fundamental issue right now in terms of media policy in America is what happens to government policy on the Internet. And it’s not just net neutrality. It’s the issue of surveillance, and to what degree our companies and government are allowed to surveil everything that people do on the Internet; what are the privacy rights of Americans; and it’s the issue of as the advertising driven model of journalism, professional journalists, disappears, will there will be replacements, or must everyone become a citizen journalist, working for virtually nothing?

Have you found that people, by virtue of the Internet, have become more empowered just by being able to interact through engagement with social media?

Yes, but it is largely still a class and racial situation. Remember one third of the American people still do not have high speed Internet and that one-third is largely poor, disproportionately black and Hispanic, although with mobile devices and with phones that’s changing a little bit. But in terms of home-based broadband access, I get a lot of tips and information now from people on the Internet that I normally wouldn’t have gotten in the old days, but it’s still skewed to those who have, and are more familiar with, broadband access. You’re getting a significant percentage of the American people who still do not have broadband access. That’s the part of the population with the most problems.

You paint a somewhat dire picture for what lies ahead and you even ask in your book whether we’re headed toward a de facto apartheid system of media in the United States, in which the divide really deepens. Do you think we’re going there?

I think there’s the potential to go there if the citizens and the journalists do not get together to pressure for government policies that will change things. For example, in the seventies, as a result of enormous pressure on the government, under the Carter administration they passed the Minority Tax Certificate Program, which basically provided incentives to major broadcasters that were selling stations to sell them to racial minorities. As a result you had a significant increase in the number of radio and television stations owned by racial minorities throughout the late seventies and early eighties, until the Minority Tax Certificate Program was eliminated in 1994. Since then the pendulum has swung back the other way.

Ernest R. Sotomayor is assistant dean for Career Services and Continuing Education at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was previously president of UNITY: Journalists of Color.