Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Friday, July 31 on NBC Sports Bay Area after "Giants Postgame Live."
Sekou Smith was just a pup reporter when he realized the racial discrepancies in journalism.
It was in the early 1990s at SEC media day. On one of his first assignments, he was taken aback by what he saw.
"There were 600 media members and four black faces," said Smith, now a Senior Writer at NBA.com, on the latest episode of "Race in America: A Candid Conversation." "Representation for the college kids in the ’90s was a shock to me as a journalist of how few faces of color there were."
Smith's experience more than 20 years ago still resonates under the current climate, and a 2018 Pew Research Study found that 77 percent of U.S. newsrooms are white. In recent months, the outcry from the killing of George Floyd -- a black man killed by white Minneapolis policemen Derek Chauvin -- has forced journalism entities to evaluate its diversity issues. Smith, now among the leading voices in sports journalism, says the industry-wide reckoning is a long time coming.
"I think that takes some industry-wide understanding of how toxic a situation you can have when you don’t have that representation," he said. "We’ve seen instances of not having diverse people at the table."
Smith's words have merit. The discrepancy has come under fire in the wake of Floyd's killing. Journalism giants like the Washington Post, Bleacher Report and Los Angeles Times have been scrutinized for their diversity numbers. Smith attributes the corporate uprising to the widespread social movements of the past five years.
"We’ve seen instances of not having a diverse group of people at the table," Smith said. "The 'Me Too' movement has highlighted that as well. Just how crucial it is to have women at the table. How important it is to have different perspectives.
"I think that’s something that’s been one of the greatest resources of this country."
[RACE IN AMERICA: Listen to the latest episode]
In the NBA, people of color are an advantage for their publications, according to former Golden State Warriors guard Sleepy Floyd.
Floyd, also a panelist on this week's episode of "Race in America," said seeing someone of color covering sports brings players "comfortability" in the locker room.
"If you see a guy going through whatever they may be going through on the court or off the court, how does a media member portray him? Are you going to completely throw them under the bus, try to get to the bottom of what's really going on?" Floyd said. "Are you going to blow the story up to get more listeners, or are you actually going to tell the truth or do you have any compassion for what a 21-year-old player is going through?"
"How do you portray him ... how do you write those stories about that player's life and his livelihood? It’s very important to see, because there's a comfortability of seeing someone of color in the media. We feel better that our stories will be told correctly, and with compassion."
For journalists of color, Smith said such reporters have to toe a line in locker rooms on the beats they cover.
"We have a very fine line to straddle as journalists. Any sense that we are showing favoritism based on the color of someone’s skin puts us all in a compromising position. It's something you have to navigate … we are ultimately in the relationship business, and we have to cultivate those relationships no matter what barriers are there. Dealing with the front office is a very different makeup of what we deal with in the locker room, and that's something that's always in the back of our mind as reporters -- that there is a different world from the locker room to the board room."
"Still," Smith added. "A lot of work to be done."