WASHINGTON, DC — Sonya L. Ross, the Associated Press’ race and ethnicity editor and former White House reporter, has quietly retired from the news cooperative after 33 years, settled a three-year-old discrimination suit against her employer and begun her own journalism project.
“I retired from AP at the end of June to run my own journalism initiative, Black Women Unmuted,” Ross, 57, told Journal-isms last week by email.
Among the initiative’s first efforts is “Madame Mayor,” a series exploring governance issues cities with black female mayors — in Atlanta; Baton Rouge, La.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; New Orleans; San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — presented with FierceforBlackWomen.com and WURD radio in Philadelphia, founding content partners.
“First up: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who spoke with legendary journalist and fellow Atlanta native Charlayne Hunter-Gault about her struggle to balance the city’s economic development needs against concerns that gentrification spurred by that development is pushing out the poor.”
The project was launched under a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and last week was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network.
Lauren Easton, director of AP media relations, said the organization had posted Ross’ race and ethnicity editor’s job internally.
On Ross’ appointment as the first to hold the race and ethnicity post in 2010, Steven Komarow,acting Washington bureau chief, said, “She’ll work with AP journalists around the country to produce coverage that captures the changing facets of race and ethnicity in the United States and its effects on the experiences of people of various races. Through her editing and writing, she’ll help the AP look thoughtfully at the evolving definition and significance of race and ethnicity in American culture and society.
“Sonya will also expand her role in the news department’s diversity initiatives, and help the AP create new types of content on diversity topics in all formats.”
Last October, Ross told the Journal-isms Roundtable (Facebook membership required) that the news outlets that pay the AP to run its copy are increasingly seeing the business case for covering race. Ross highlighted how the coverage appeals particularly to the coveted millennial demographic. Even as AP clients (and AP itself) have cut back on staff, Ross said her team has been growing. “The overall goal is to chronicle the changing demographics,” she said.
Ross, an Atlanta native, joined the AP in 1986 under an internship program that followed a 1973 complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by female AP employees. A settlement was negotiated between the AP, the Newspaper Guild and the EEOC.
She rose at AP from general assignment reporter in Georgia to urban affairs reporter and White House reporter, world services editor and news editor for regionals in Washington. She was the first African American woman permanently assigned by AP to the White House.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks, Ross, cameraman George Christian and sound technician Erick Washington were among only five journalists with President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One.
In 2011, when April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks was elected to the board of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Ross noted how rare that was. “WHCA is 97 years old. [It is now 105.] Its board was all white and male for most of that time,” Ross wrote in an email then. “There were no black [board] members until Bob [Ellison] was elected president for the 1990-91 term. I was elected in 1999 and served until 2003. No black correspondents have served for nearly a decade. April ran for election twice, I think, before winning this time.”
Francesca Chambers, senior White House correspondent for DailyMail.com, now serves on the board.
To underscore her belief that more journalists of color needed to be political writers, Ross chaired the Political Journalism Task Force of the National Association of Black Journalists.
In 2016, Ross unloaded a bombshell.
Ross accused the news organization of marginalizing her and denying her opportunities for promotion because of her race, age and gender, Zoe Tillman reported at the time for the National Law Journal.
“According to the complaint, the trouble began in 2008, when the former Washington bureau chief, a woman, was replaced by a white man, whose name is not included in the complaint. He is referred to as ‘Employee A.’ Ross claimed the new supervisor created a hostile and abusive work environment, singling her out for criticism, speaking to her harshly in front of another reporter, and undermining her efforts at advancement.
“Ross said that when she became Race and Ethnicity Editor in 2010, the move was announced as a promotion, but AP failed to give her the necessary resources to do the job. She said she was promised a ‘meager’ pay raise at her insistence, and did not receive it until she protested three years later.
“In 2011, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs began an audit of the AP, according to the lawsuit. Ross said she was urged not to discuss her discrimination complaints, but did so. In the years that followed, Ross said that AP retaliated by cutting her out of editing opportunities, denying her resources and diluting her authority as an editor. In February 2016, according to the lawsuit, the Labor Department’s compliance office concluded its investigation with a finding of workplace hostility. . . .”
On March 28, Ross and the AP told U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan that they had reached a settlement, and Chutkan dismissed the case. The terms were not disclosed.
Ross’ new project, undertaken with partners Tracie Powell and Kelly Macias, is an extension of her promotion of black female journalists. Last year and this, for example, Ross championed Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black woman to cover the White House, traveling with President Harry S. Truman. Ross was an active participant when a statue was unveiled in Dunnigan’s honor at the Newseum in Washington and later in Dunnigan’s hometown of Russellville, Ky.
“It is so gratifying to see Alice Dunnigan finally being given her rightful place among America’s greatest journalists,” Ross said at the Newseum. “Because she endured low wages and myriad indignities to become a political reporter, the little black girls who came after her could stand in the White House on their own authority and question presidents too. As one of those little black girls who walked through the door she opened, I cannot thank her enough for her sacrifices.”