September 29th, 2011
Tracie Powell

New Media Looks a Lot Like Old Media: Not Very Diverse

This entry was submitted by Tracie Powell. We invite you to join the conversation by responding in the comments or submitting your own issue to ONA issues. 

Print publications and television news outlets have long come under fire for the limited way in which they report on people of color. But a study published this week by The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard shows that online media isn’t doing much better. With exceptions for the occasional celebrity, person of influence or athlete, there was little to no coverage of the everyday lives of blacks, Hispanics or Asians, according to the report titled, Familiar Patterns of Minority Exclusion Follow Mainstream Media Online. “Legacy news organizations have struggled for decades to widen their coverage to include people of color in all aspects of their lives. There are the ubiquitous A-list celebrities, of course, and the crossover musicians and the athletes, and those stories with an emotional punch that transcend the usual norms, but neither print nor broadcast media have consistently portrayed minorities in all facets of American life and culture,” states Jean Marie Brown, a former managing editor with The Forth Worth Star-Telegram, who penned the report. “But the Web is supposed to be different, right? Space is unlimited. The ability to aggregate copy gets around staffing concerns. The institutionalized habits (and excuses) that hamstrung the legacy newsrooms aren’t part of online culture,” Brown said. “Couple this with the notion that we’re said to be living in a post-racial society and the result should be rich, vibrant reporting that represents the life experiences of all Americans. It should not be coverage that is stratified by class, race, geography, generation and gender.” What Brown found instead is that the so-called mainstream websites are just as limited in including people of color in daily coverage as their legacy counterparts. She also found that the minority online media not only did a better job of reflecting people of color, but were also more inclusive in their coverage. Brown compared the home pages of eight websites, once a day for a year: Four mainstream websites that include The Huffington Post, The Daily Best, Slate, and Salon as well as four websites that target minorities. They include TheRoot, theGriot, Loop21 and MarioWire.

Same Story, Different Take

For example, Brown pointed to coverage of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick who, in April, joined with the Humane Society in speaking out against dog fighting. By all accounts a good deed for Vick who had served jail time for abusing dogs. The Huffington Post used an Associated Press wire story pairing it with a menacing photograph of Vick, Brown said, while thegriot posted the same wire story with an image showing Vick smiling. Instead of better, more inclusive coverage of people of color, Brown said mainstream online media are caught in the same loop that ensnared legacy outlets. “Their view of minorities is limited, and that in turn hinders their ability to broaden their coverage,” she said. “The parallels between the legacies and online media are as stark as they are disheartening. Rather than fostering understanding that might help us find common ground, mainstream online media maintain the divisive “us vs. them” mentality that is evident in many of our contemporary conversations about race.” Diversity in news coverage, or a lack thereof, seems to be receiving quite a bit of attention this week. On Thursday the National Association of Black Journalists will release a report that shows when it comes to diversity inside television stations, news executives have a lot of work to do. Also, organizers of the Online News Association’s annual conference dedicated a special session on the topic that is scheduled to take place on Saturday, just days after news executives met in New York earlier in the week to discuss diversity in newsroom leadership at a meeting convened by the American Society of News Editors. Media bias and a failure to adequately cover the lives and issues of people of color has been widely discussed and documented in research studies, books and articles over the past 60 years. Most recently a Chicago TV station aired an interview with a four-year-old boy, and deliberately took his quote out of context to completely distort its meaning. The TV station made it seem as though the African American child idolized guns and criminals when, in fact, the child said he wanted to be a police officer. The station edited out that part of the interview.

Diversity Inside Newsrooms 

The ethical breach was roundly condemned by journalism organizations, including NABJ. The Chicago station had no people of color in management roles. If they had, things might have gone differently, according to Bob Butler, a reporter at KCBS Radio in San Francisco and NABJ’s Vice President of Broadcast. “If you have people of color in there, people in decision-making roles who can say ‘wait, we shouldn’t do this,’ then you have a better chance of getting it right,” Butler added. In Washington, D.C. this week to present NABJ’s findings on newsroom diversity to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Butler said it is important to know who is calling the shots because that affects news coverage and because these are the people who can hire and set the news agenda. “New media looks a lot like old media when it comes to diversity in terms of who’s running the websites. They have the same issue,” said Butler, echoing other NABJ leaders. “We would like to think that a station, newspaper or website reflects the diversity of the community it serves. In the case of TV stations, the faces on air might be diverse but that doesn’t reflect the shot-callers. That’s what we’re trying to address.” Speaking at the American Society of News Editors conference on leadership in diversity, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The New York Times, this week challenged the news industry “to embrace diversity and take action to transform your organizations” in the face of tremendous changes in technology, demographics and the economy. ASNE has been hashing over this topic for years and had even set benchmarks for newsrooms to reflect the diverse communities they were trying to serve. After consistently missing the benchmarks year-after-year, ASNE issued a report in April showing the ranks of people of color employed by U.S. newspapers actually declined three years in a row. The report found that people of color accounted for 12.79 percent of full-time newspaper employees last year, down .47 percent from 2009. Of the 1,389 newspapers surveyed, 441 employed no people of color at all in the newsroom. “The U.S. Census numbers clearly tell us that people of color populations are growing while our newsrooms aren’t reflecting that growth. This should be a concern to all who see diversity as an accurate way of telling the story of a new America,” said Ronnie Agnew, co-chair of ASNE’s Diversity Committee, in the organization’s press release. In Harvard’s report Brown found that the four minority news sites, particularly theGrio and The Root, tend to provide more bi-cultural coverage in how they treat leading news stories of the day as well as in enterprise stories that the sites tell from an African American perspective. For example, Brown documented the difference in how the mainstream and minority-focused websites handled the news of the acquittal of Casey Anthony, a mother accused of killing her toddler daughter. “The Root didn’t bemoan the jury’s verdict in Casey Anthony’s acquittal; instead its post suggested that those wanting to reform the justice system should focus on matters such as racial profiling and incompetent counsel,” Brown writes. “Meanwhile, on the mainstream sites, debate raged on about whose acquittal was the bigger travesty— O.J. Simpson’s or Anthony’s.” While both The Root and thegriot are owned by mainstream news organizations — The Washington Post and NBCUniversal respectively — those running the websites are people of color. “The Web has provided a welcomed platform for minority viewpoints and opinions that had all but fallen silent after the civil rights movement prompted newsrooms to seek journalists of color,” Brown said. “The Root, theGrio, MarioWire, and Loop21 give voice to stories and feature issues that might otherwise be ignored by the other news organizations or given not much more than the occasional glance. With their microphone aimed at amplifying minority points of view, these sites—well suited to the Web’s fragmented niche environment—add valuable discourse on national issues.” At the same time, Brown notes that these minority-run websites might also be letting mainstream media organizations off the hook in terms of being more diverse and reaching a broader audience.

Tracie Powell is Vice Chair of the NABJ Digital Journalism Task Force and an ONA member.

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