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July 22, 2020, 9 a.m.

Race and the newsroom: What seven research studies say

Differing notions of objectivity in Black and mainstream white newspapers, how white reporters see their ethical obligations in covering race, the ways that reporters’ race affects their coverage of political candidates, and more.

In recent weeks, hundreds of journalists have turned to Twitter to chronicle their experiences with overt and covert racism in newsrooms. The message is clear: whether national outlets or hyper-local brands, journalism has a race problem.

About three-quarters of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white, compared with about two-thirds of all U.S. workers, according to a 2018 analysis from the Pew Research Center. About half of newsroom staff are white men, compared with about a third of the overall workforce. Newsroom diversity remains far below the goal the American Society of News Editors set in 1978 “of minority employment by the year 2000 equivalent to the percentage of minority persons within the national population.” Racial and ethnic minorities make up about 40% of the U.S. population, according to Pew Research. [Ed. note: ASNE recently announced that it’s “pausing” its diversity survey in hopes of revamping it and getting more participation; many newsrooms simply didn’t report their numbers.]

“The thin ranks of people of color in American newsrooms have often meant us-and-them reporting, where everyone from architecture critics to real estate writers, from entertainment reporters to sports anchors, talk about the world as if the people listening or reading their work are exclusively white,” journalist Soledad O’Brien wrote in a July 4 New York Times opinion piece.

Time will tell whether this moment will lead to substantive changes in newsroom staffing, leadership and coverage, to include a diversity of perspectives that reflects the diversity of America. The fact remains that the conversation about race in journalism and coverage of race in the news is one the profession has been circling back to for decades.

In spring 1991, Carolyn Phillips, the first Black assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, wrote in the Newspaper Research Journal: “At least to a degree it’s reasonable to blame the industry’s hard times, the layoffs, early retirements and retrenchments. Fewer and fewer people are asked to do more and more; expansiveness goes out the window. And the hidden agendas, unspoken beliefs and fears, the prejudices that each human being harbors begin to surface. Too, the larger society is showing such intolerance. And newsrooms, like it or not, are a microcosm.”

The seven peer-reviewed articles featured below offer historical insight and perspectives on journalistic objectivity as a construct of a largely white mainstream press, in contrast to constructions of objectivity among Black news media; detail the experiences of Black women in local newsrooms; suggest that active objectivity — as defined below — can help fix what white reporters get wrong when they cover race; show that the path to diversity will likely be different for every newsroom; and much more.

“Racialization of news: Constructing and challenging professional journalism as ‘white media.'” By Carlos Alamo-Pastrana and William Hoynes, in Humanity & Society, December 2018.

The authors trace the evolution of the largely white mainstream press and the Black press during the 20th century — and their divergent conceptions of journalistic objectivity. Carlos Alamo-Pastrana is dean of the Department of Sociology at Vassar College and William Hoynes is a sociology professor there.

Before World War I, mainstream reporters were “not concerned with the separation of facts and values” but remained “confident in their ability to identify the relevant facts and to report them accurately,” Almo-Pastrana and Hoynes write. During the war, many white journalists actively participated in pro-war propaganda, which prompted self-reflection within the profession after the war.

“The recognition that information could be manipulated and the rise of a new [public relations] profession that was dedicated to the shaping of public opinion left journalists with a crisis of confidence about their ability to report facts in any straightforward way,” a crisis that led to evolution of the modern conception of journalistic objectivity, according to the authors.

The development of the Black press during the late 1800s and early 1900s overlapped with the emergence of American academic sociology — and that wasn’t a fluke. “Segregated out of popular academic networks, the Black press was the next best thing where Black intellectuals and academics could reach broad audiences and present their research,” Almo-Pastrana and Hoynes write. “W.E.B. Du Bois and Charles S. Johnson are among some of the important figures in the early Black press who also enjoyed prominent careers as social scientists.”

The Black press “made no pretenses to objectivity and instead directly challenged the marginalization African Americans experienced within the U.S. empire state that required them to demonstrate their very humanity in the face of daily racial violence,” the authors write. Circulation among Black newspapers grew by the hundreds of thousands through World War II. The Pittsburgh Courier was the biggest Black paper in the country by 1940, with a circulation of more than 350,000, according to the authors. They point to a variety of reasons Black press readership declined after the war. These included McCarthyism, which “targeted numerous prominent members of the Black press,” and mainstream media outlets recruiting Black journalists during the 1950s and 1960s.

The authors then document the recent spread of two online media outlets that push white nationalist storylines and find that “the current visibility of white nationalist media highlights the complexity of the contemporary racial politics of professional journalism.”

They then contrast how the historical development of objectivity in Black media and white mainstream media persists today in perceptions of objectivity among Black and white media representatives. In particular, the authors chronicle the experience of former ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who tweeted in 2017 that President Donald Trump’s election was a “direct result of white supremacy.” Even though the White House press secretary at the time, Sarah Sanders, called for Hill’s termination, ESPN executives declined to fire her. They did state in a companywide memo that “ESPN is not a political organization.”

“The resurgent visibility of white nationalist media may open new possibilities for conversation about the racialization of news,” Almo-Pastrana and Hoynes conclude. “But this will require journalists to look squarely at how professional journalism fails to explain historical forms of racial exclusion and, in its inability to confront its own enduring whiteness, helps to reproduce, even in its liberal critique of white nationalism, unremitting forms of white privilege.”

“Repeating history: Has the media changed since the Kerner Commission?” By Michael Bowman in Race, Gender & Class, January 2018.

At the height of the 1960s civil rights movement, President Lyndon Johnson established The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate issues of structural racism. The group became known as the Kerner Commission, named after its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr.

Michael Bowman, associate professor of media at Arkansas State University, compares coverage of civil rights coverage across two eras, drawing threads from the findings of the Kerner Commission to the 2014 uprisings against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore in 2015.

The commission found that news media largely made good-faith efforts to chronicle civil rights protests and marches in the 1960s, but there was little coverage of the systemic racism that spurred the movements. Bowman documents that the sensational, graphic images of burning buildings and looters that dominated news coverage in the 1960s persisted in coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore.

“Major media institutions possess a unique power to shape and mold public opinion on people, places, and events,” Bowman writes. “While good journalism still exists, too often intense coverage by national broadcast and cable news mesmerizes audiences with scenes of riots in the streets, burning building, and clashes between citizens and law enforcement.”

“The role of minority journalists, candidates, and audiences in shaping race-related news coverage.” By Mingxiao Sui, Newly Paul, Paru Shah, Brook Spurlock, Brooksie Chastant, and Johanna Dunaway in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, May 2018.

The authors analyze local news coverage of 3,400 state legislative candidates across 663 news outlets in 14 states in 2012, to find out how reporters’ race affects coverage and how coverage changes given the race of candidates and the racial composition of the outlets’ audiences. They rely on the 2012 ASNE Newsroom Census to determine the racial composition of newsrooms.

The researchers “focus on how words have been attached to race, rather than how different ethnic groups perceive the effects of a given issue. For example, certain social agendas and policy measures — such as welfare, affirmative action, and immigration — are yoked to people of color, even though on their face these issues are color-neutral.” They find that the race of candidates and newsroom diversity did not particularly drive coverage of racialized campaign issues. However, diverse newsrooms with large Hispanic and Black audiences were more likely to cover those issues.

“The implication of this is that pressure for race-related reporting is a blend of both reporters’ racial and ethnic identities and the economically driven norms and routines of journalism, where the selection of news stories is made largely with presumed preferences of audiences in mind,” the authors write.

“When white reporters cover race: News media, objectivity, and community (dis)trust.” By Sue Robinson and Kathleen Bartzen Culver in Journalism, August 2016.

In 2011, the Urban League of Greater Madison proposed a charter school that would aim to serve Black boys and reduce racial disparities in educational achievement in Madison, Wisconsin. From 2011 to 2015, 30 reporters — all of them white, according to the authors — covered the proposal and racial educational disparities in the city

Sue Robinson and Kathleen Bartzen Culver, journalism professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, use coverage of the proposed charter school as a case study to explore ethical obligations white reporters have when covering race. They conducted three focus groups and 39 in-depth interviews with 24 white reporters and 15 community leaders of color. They also analyzed more than 1,000 news stories and social media posts about racial disparities in educational achievement in Madison from 2011 to 2015.

“We wanted to understand the following: How do white reporters conceptualize their roles in covering issues that have racial components, and how do they meet what they see as their obligations?” the authors write. Reporters interviewed mostly said they covered issues having to do with race through a traditional journalism lens of passive objectivity, “such as deferring to official sources and remaining separate from communities,” Robinson and Barzen Culver explain. Many of the reporters had trouble getting Black sources on the record and turned to personal connections, fell back on existing contacts with Black leaders, or turned to Black sources who had contacted their newsrooms. Some reporters asked sources trusted in Madison’s Black community to review their stories to flag potentially insensitive wording.

Black community leaders, for their part, wanted white reporters to be physically present in the community before newsworthy conflicts happened. “Reporters should not just show up in neighborhoods looking for comment without building trust: attend community events, develop long-term relationships with individuals, and cover community positives: ‘Trust is earned. It is not just handed over,’ said one prominent Black leader in town,” the authors write. Robinson and Bartzen Culver conclude that journalism institutions should aim for active objectivity, in which they “detach from power, emphasize social/historical/cultural contexts in stories, question explicit and implicit biases, build trust among communities via neighborhoods not often visited, and invest efforts over time to build relationships with people other than go-to leaders.”

“Challenging assumptions about ownership and diversity: An examination of U.S. local on-air television newsroom personnel.” By Amy Jo Coffey in International Journal on Media Management, January 2019.

Amy Jo Coffey, associate professor of communication at the University of Florida, examines the on-air diversity of 232 local television stations, representing about one-third of television markets in the country, and whether the organizational structure of those stations affects on-air diversity. “Of the 73 total markets analyzed, 15 were among the top African-American markets, 16 were among the top 50 Hispanic markets, and 16 were among the top Asian markets,” Coffey writes.

She explains that TV news journalists “who physically resemble the members of the communities they serve, signal to their constituents (the audience) that they are being represented in the newsroom and in the coverage of their community.”

Local news stations are, by and large, affiliated with major networks, like CBS, NBC, FOX or ABC. They’re typically owned and operated by a network or have shared services agreements under which stations share studio and office space under managing partners like Raycom Media or the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Network owned-and-operated arrangements are more common in larger markets while shared-service agreements among news stations are more common in mid-sized markets, according to Coffey.

When it comes to on-air diversity Coffey finds “ethnic composition within the market seems to be a stronger predictor of diverse on-air talent than ownership structures.”

“African American women in the newsroom: Encoding resistance.” By Marian Meyers and Lynne Gayle, Howard Journal of Communication, July 2015.

Marian Meyers and Lynne Gayle interviewed 10 television and newspaper journalists, all of them Black women with between three and 40 years of experience in a major U.S. city that is majority Black. Meyers is a communications professor at Georgia State University. Gayle was a doctoral student there.

Meyers and Gayle asked the journalists whether their presence as Black women changed coverage and newsroom culture, and if they actively tried to improve racial and gender diversity in their outlets’ coverage. Participants included three anchors and four reporters from three local network-affiliated television stations, and two editors and one reporter from the city’s major newspaper.

These journalists said they tried to amplify Black images and voices in the news, and corrected colleagues when they portrayed Black sources in negative or stereotypical ways. But they didn’t focus on amplifying voices and images of women, the authors found.

One broadcast journalist “commented that she had ‘given people an opportunity to comb their hair, to pull themselves together, to put on a more appropriate shirt — things like that.’ She added that her white colleagues might not make the effort to help their news sources look better on camera, with the result that their stories would be inappropriate or exploitive. ‘I’ve seen my colleagues do that before,’ she said.

Although the TV journalists were concerned with visuals, the newspaper journalists dealt with grammar and whether to quote or paraphrase a source. For example, a newspaper editor said she would paraphrase the words of some news sources rather than use a quotation that was grammatically incorrect if ‘there might be a dead giveaway as to the person’s race that will lead readers to form some type of stereotype about the person.’ However, this editor also stated that she would not correct the grammar of the city’s African American mayor because ‘he should know better.’”

Despite deadline pressure, participants strove to “include white voices and faces in stories that are frequently associated with African Americans, such as those involving poverty and crime,” in order to show that Black and white populations alike are affected by those issues.

“Revising legacy media practices to serve hyperlocal information needs of marginalized populations.” By Letrell Crittenden and Antoine Haywood in Journalism Practice, May 2020.

The authors track the efforts of two nonprofit news outlets — PhillyCAM Voices in Philadelphia and Public Source in Pittsburgh — to provide coverage reflecting their cities’ demographic makeup. Letrell Crittenden is an assistant professor of communication at Thomas Jefferson University. Antoine Haywood is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers conducted nearly a dozen in-depth interviews with paid and volunteer staff across both news organizations, which differed in terms of their mission and reporting strategies. PhillyCAM, a mostly volunteer-run public access television network, has for years offered a platform for citizen voices. The network had extensive experience engaging diverse audiences, but not much journalistic polish. It hired a longtime television journalist to “inject a more professional focus” into its Voices community news program, launched in 2015.

Public Source was founded in 2011 as an investigative outlet before shifting to hyperlocal news coverage. It launched with strong journalism fundamentals, but lacked diverse community voices. To broaden its perspectives, Public Source began publishing first-person accounts alongside reported articles. Its 2018 series “Let’s Talk About Race,” for example, included a reported story on Pittsburgh’s low conviction rate for hate crimes and first-person essays on racism from Pittsburghers, including a Black couple who were victims of a hate crime.

“Given the different origins of both PhillyCAM Voices and Public Source, the needs of each organization were often mirrored,” Crittenden and Haywood write. “Thus, it would make sense for organizations with a greater connection to communities to partner with newsrooms that have a greater foundation in traditional journalism narrative practices.”

Clark Merrefield covers economics and inequality for Journalist’s Resource. This article is republished from Journalist’s Resource under a Creative Commons license.

Newsroom illustration by Malte Knaack on Behance.

POSTED     July 22, 2020, 9 a.m.
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