Editor’s Note: This column was Excerpted from “News in a New America” and reprinted with permission of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The book is the third in a series of publications by Knight Foundation that examine key issues facing the news media. For more information, visit www.knightfdn.org
In the book, Lehrman offers analysis of news coverage and newsrooms in a rapidly changing nation. Based on more than 150 interviews of journalists, social scientists and media analysts, the book addresses such issues as how to identify unconscious stereotypes and bias in coverage and newsroom practices.
By now, many journalists know to avoid obvious blunders such as dressing disrespectfully in a mosque or describing a person as “wheelchair-bound.” We tend to notice wrong-headed word choices, as when The Seattle Times wrote that Californian Michelle Kwan was competing against “Americans” in the 2002 Olympic figure skating competition. We cringe at a Chicago Sun-Times story that referred to a 2,250-member tribe in Oklahoma as “ghosts of the past” who were troubling the descendants of local German settlers.
But the most dangerous of mistakes usually go unnoticed. They are sins of omission and emphasis, errors that can have life-or-death consequences. Look at the missing pieces in most medical reporting. If heart-disease stories don’t mention African-Americans, how will people in that group know the extremely high mortality rate they share? How often have you seen a report on diabetes featuring American Indians? And yet they are more likely to have the disease than anyone else.
Gaps in coverage and off-base story frames, of course, aren’t limited to health topics. They show up in news about schools, crime, politics and all the stories of the day. Usually they result from journalists’ shortage of background knowledge and a surplus of assumptions. Why would one in five news stories about Native Americans, for instance, focus on reservation life when most native people live in cities?
These problems –- while solvable –- go deeper than the choices we make in research and reporting. They begin with the very way we perceive the world. If we have never faced discrimination, for instance, we are less likely to notice the problem. On our beats, we may be less likely to check for discrimination in school funding, corporate hiring or real estate lending. We may see medicine only through the experiences of our own family and friends, not even guessing that others may get different standards of care.
Each of us, of course, is a unique mix. But patterns can develop when people who work in a newsroom are a lot alike. Most mainstream American journalists are well-educated, male and white. The news we notice and the sources we consult have led to a statistically provable national media tilt toward the white world. Shaped by newsroom traditions and shared personal backgrounds, a powerful, unconscious belief system has come into play. The less we notice it, the more that system influences choices about whose stories are deemed important and whose are overlooked.
Can we undo our natural inclinations? Yes, social psychologists say. Some very simple strategies work, they have found. First, we can pay attention to these tendencies and notice what triggers them. Over time, they are likely to have less influence. And we can do what we already know how to do. We can spend time with the people who make us feel uncomfortable. We can visit community gatherings, cultural events, observe and ask questions. We can learn how others do things, and why they do things the way they do.
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman.