Minority Journalists: Media Does Poor Job Covering Race Issues

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While minority journalists view the historic election of the U.S.’s first Black president as a positive step for race relations, many believe that their own industry has fallen down on the job in its coverage of race relations, according to the 2010 Journalism in Color Survey on Race and the Media.

The Journalism in Color Survey tracks the views of professional journalists of color on issues of race and media. Commissioned by theLoop21.com, an Black economic and political news website, in collaboration with UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., the survey provides a unique perspective on racial coverage in the Age of Obama. The survey, conducted last month, received over 400 responses from a racially diverse group of media professionals.

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Journalists were surveyed on a variety of topics, including the quality of coverage of issues affecting African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans following the 2008 Presidential campaign as well as their professional experiences in mainstream media, perception of opportunities for advancement in their news organizations and suggestions to improve and increase coverage of issues that are important to people of color.

Among the findings:
– 95% of respondents did not think mainstream media adequately covered stories regarding racial issues in a multiracial society. Those who agreed with that assessment most often cited a lack of diversity in newsrooms and “lack of understanding by editors/producers” as reasons for the inadequacies.

- Speaking from personal experience, only 14% of survey respondents felt that their own producers or editors were very knowledgeable about the minority group that they were covering.

- Only 1 in 7 believed that coverage of racial issues by the mainstream media had improved U.S. race relations while nearly twice as many believed it had worsened race relations. And, with all the discussion of a post-racial society since the election, this year’s panel of journalists indicated that racial coverage by the mainstream media was just as likely to be “detrimental to the reality of a post-racial society” as it was to further that reality.

- A majority of respondents indicated that while “racial and cultural issues are more likely to be covered” the overwhelming majority do not believe that “journalists of color cover more high profile stories,” or that additional coverage translates into creating opportunities for newsroom advancement for journalists of color. Similar views applied to women and gender issues.

“The persistent lack of confidence in the journalism industry is startling,” said Darrell L. Williams, PhD., publisher of theloop21.com. “At this critical juncture in U.S. race relations, there is a need for discussion of standards for unbiased racial coverage. What decision-makers in media choose to report, how they report it, and what they choose to ignore affects racial perceptions.”

David C. Wilson, Ph.D., a political scientist and public opinion expert who worked on the project, noted that the inadequacy of the media’s coverage of race is not unique to the Obama era.

“It’s nothing new,” Wilson said, citing President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 Kerner Commission. The commission, put together to determine the causes of the race riots that plagued major cities in the 1960s, reported that the mainstream media at the time failed to adequately cover issues of concern to Black Americans, instead maintaining a “white perspective” that failed to improve race relations.

Today, while a more diverse range of issues are more likely to be covered, Wilson said, “It’s possible that Americans, particularly African Americans, are generally fed up with the highly politicized and sensational nature of how racial issues are portrayed.”

Part of the problem may be the increasingly blurred lines between news and entertainment, fact and opinion.

“The entertainment line is kind of blurry now. Journalists tend to understand the difference, but the public doesn’t,” said Wilson. “And if the pub doesn’t, you lose control of the narrative, so you don’t know what’s fact and what’s not.”

As a result, media consumers are left with a choice between trusting the news they from increasingly polarized sources, or doing independent research to seek unbiased coverage. The former, Wilson says, is much easier and less-time consuming. However, he believes that if the public demands more from its news outlets, we may begin to see less politicized and more unbiased coverage of race relations in this country.

“I think it’s very important to hold the media accountable,” Wilson said. “It’s is a market-centered industry, and the public has to do the voting with their dollars.”

After all, as journalists of color indicated in the survey, poor coverage of diverse groups can actually be harmful to race relations.

Media images and language can prime subtle thoughts and beliefs related to stereotypes that can lead to bias and support faulty beliefs, Wilson said. Greater sensitivity through diversity of ideas among producers and editors is the key to improving the current situation.

“Diversity is not about ‘sheer numbers,’ it’s about highlighting the different takes on different issues,” he said. One of the goals of the survey was the give journalists of color a chance to join the discussion about how the media needs to move forward.

Other findings from the survey:
– Journalists also rated news outlets and selected types of media regarding objectivity and trust to provide “fair and unbiased reporting” of racial and cultural issues. CNN was the most trusted news outlet by journalists of color to provide “fair and unbiased reporting on racial and cultural issues” with 69% indicating that they “somewhat trust” or “highly trust.” FOX was the least trusted with only 3% indicating that they “somewhat trust” or “highly trust. Ninety-one (91%) percent distrusted FOX to provide “fair and unbiased reporting on racial and cultural issues.”

- Public Radio is the most trusted media type to provide “fair and unbiased reporting on racial and cultural issues” with 80% of journalists of color surveyed indicating that they “somewhat trust” or “highly trust.” Cable news (31%) and Internet bloggers (10%) were least trusted to provide “fair and unbiased reporting on racial and cultural issues.”

For more from the Journalism in Color Survey, click here.

To make your own voice heard on these issues, vote in TheLoop21.com’s “Truth in Media” Poll here.

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