Racism is a hard truth in American society. It is our inheritance, built into America’s history of slavery, lynching, and unequal treatment in law enforcement. And it is our present, through the unspoken, unacknowledged biases we may abhor but unconsciously still carry with us.
With such words, FBI Director James Comey spoke frankly to an audience at Georgetown University about the disconnect between police officers and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. His remarks remind us of the shortcomings of journalism as well.
We live in what is supposed to be a post-racial era. As a result, many reporters seem to have accepted the ideology that the best way to be even-handed is to ignore race altogether. And yet, as Comey says, bias is a daily, crystal clear reality in the lives of much of America. Why don’t white people often read, see or hear about it?
To be fair, in recent months we’ve seen smart stories in The New York Times on the added difficulties African American graduates face in finding jobs, for instance, and in USA Today on the racially lopsided pattern of arrests around the country. But even as protestors continue to take to the streets, we still see relatively little reporting on documented racial gaps in education, health, employment and accumulated wealth.
Journalists have a responsibility to do more than report on the latest news developments, relying on whatever sources are handy. We should weave a web of information that ties people together across the demographic spectrum, supporting everyone’s involvement in the democratic process.
Newsrooms have made an earnest effort to change over the past four decades. But they remain nowhere near representative of the U.S. population and struggle to cover it. While the country is 37 percent racial minority, newsrooms are 14 percent non-white, according to the American Society of News Editors. This may be why some outlets had difficulty expressing the black community’s sadness and distress following police killings of unarmed black people. Instead, Americans received reports of anger and fear, which unfortunately could have fueled even more destructive anger on the streets.
Diversity advocates have pushed for better cross-cultural reporting, which can be a double-edged sword. A 2010 Washington State University study of one newspaper’s coverage of Native Americans, for instance, found that it focused mainly on poverty, poor health, alcoholism and crime. It’s not that these stories are wrong. But when they dominate, they can worsen stereotypes and sharpen divides.
Black, Latino, Asian and Native American voices should be common in executive profiles, government and police coverage, in the society and style sections, and in commentary by public intellectuals. Instead they are barely present. In a study of local television news in Louisiana, 76 percent of the experts cited were white. In coverage of Hurricane Katrina, 79 percent of scenes involving looting showed African American actors, but 71 percent of the speakers in those scenes were white.
The overemphasis on white voices diminishes the public’s opportunity to understand today’s events, their implications and the forces at play.
A new effort I’m involved with at my university, called the Trust Project, aims to harness digital technology in order to make it easier for audiences to assess journalism, now that most coverage comes our way through computer searches or news aggregators. How many sources were interviewed? What was their stake in the story?
News outlets can be transparent about their commitments, too. Is diversity written into this organization’s mission statement? Does this radio station employ non-whites in its leadership? Is this TV station bringing diverse voices to its cameras and microphones?
Details about a reporter’s experience can help audiences evaluate what they’re seeing. Does the reporter specialize in intercultural reporting? What education does she have in American social history, politics or criminal justice? Did he rely on multiple documents and materials, or just one? Voices from within the community, or outsiders who claim to be expert on it?
Still in its infancy, the Trust Project cultivates transparency, integrity and accountability in newsgathering through the leadership of editors who pride themselves on quality news. Americans see race as the most important issue in our country, according to a recent Gallup survey. By bringing values such as accuracy, integrity and inclusion to the surface, news organizations can step up to the challenge.
Sally Lehrman is a senior fellow in digital journalism ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The Center is working with news organizations to develop the Trust Project, which is promoting best practices and developing new tools to enhance transparency and integrity in the newsgathering process.
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