The Enduring Whiteness of American Journalism
May 26, 2016 4:21 AM   Subscribe

What three decades in journalism has taught me about the persistence of racism in the US [slGuardianLongRead].
The intersection between America’s age-old race problem and the crisis of race in journalism takes two forms. The first is a simple failure of integration: the news organisations that have traditionally comprised “mainstream” journalism have done little to welcome or encourage African-Americans, who are substantially underrepresented by comparison to their numbers in the overall population. This problem is obvious to anyone who cares to look – and it has become sufficiently embarrassing for a number of publications to make sporadic but ultimately ineffectual efforts to redress it. As soon as one or two hires are made, attention inevitably shifts elsewhere, much as the focus of the press drifted away from racial bias in the criminal justice system once a whiff of the campaign season could be sensed in the air.

But the second and more subtle issue is a persistent problem of typecasting – a deeply embedded view that regards certain topics as “black” and the rest as “white”. Those black people who make their way into the business are heavily concentrated in stereotypical roles. This has meant sport, entertainment and especially what is euphemistically called urban affairs, often meaning reporting on black people. By contrast, there are very few black journalists writing about politics and national security, international news, big business, culture (as opposed to entertainment) or science and technology – they are essentially absent from large swaths of coverage, and even more sparsely represented among the ranks of editors. This is not a trivial matter, or a subject of concern solely to journalists: the overwhelming whiteness of the media strongly but silently conditions how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.
posted by ellieBOA (12 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
This is currently under discussion on our heavily African timeline in twitter - its an issue that seeps into global affairs and media headlines. It impacts headline framing and positioning. It ends up with this man* representing every single innovator across an entire continent, due to lazy/ignorant photo editors or whatever their reasons, and diminishing and undermining the value created by peoples of colour everywhere and anywhere covered by the English language newsmedia. I struggle against this every single day.

*unknown, unnamed Maasai moran, photo taken by Oxfam and available free to use. Not an excuse to replace entire swathes of developers and tech innovators with the single regional tribesman still holding on to their cultural dress. Gross misrepresentation.
posted by infini at 4:28 AM on May 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

Do an image search to understand how that man and his photograph do daily damage to an entire continent's technology sector.
posted by infini at 4:30 AM on May 26, 2016 [7 favorites]

This tbh is not just a US media problem, given teh prevalence of American soft power projection globally through pop culture, news media, and the curators of the internet's algorithmic feeds.
posted by infini at 4:32 AM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

When you add up all the jobs I've had over 11 years in journalism (holy shit, time flies) and all the newsroom changes those jobs have gone through while I was there, I've worked with five black reporters or editors, three non-white-presenting Hispanics and so many white people that I can't begin to count them. That is ridiculous.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:00 AM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

" It ends up with this man* representing every single innovator across an entire continent,"

The article is all about how smart phone and data network penetration into the more rural parts of Africa will help its growth. The man in the photo represents not innovators but the users in rural communities that the article talks about.

"Do an image search to understand how that man and his photograph do daily damage to an entire continent's technology sector."

I can understand blaming a photograph of somebody for misrepresentation. But why blame the man in the photo?
posted by I-baLL at 5:09 AM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

My English as a second language grammar fail along with incoherent ranting. The photo editors who use that man's photograph to represent end users who don't resemble the minority community he is from are the ones to blame. Lazy journalism fail. Note the asterisked nota bene
posted by infini at 5:19 AM on May 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well that read was painful and poignant.

I considered sending it to some staunchly republican in-laws who have vehemently debated that anything socially or systemically, overt or covert, negative to black people abruptly stopped sometime around 1963, or possibly 1863 even.

Then I realized I haven't had my coffee yet and that I was being a complete idiot to think that anything or anyone would have an impact on their predilections and subsequent prejudices.

Something, something, mud, getting in, pig, only pig enjoys it, something.
posted by RolandOfEld at 5:33 AM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

The article touches on so many important points, and I'm still digesting it. One of the main takeaways for me is about categories of speech acts and who gets to perform them. Newspaper feature articles, magazine pieces, and op eds are one form of speech act. They are authoritative, persuasive. Their claim to truth status depends upon a set of complex grammatical and rhetorical performances—the ability to write in accordance with a "house style" or deploy a distinctive personal style of one's own. These stylistic criteria are the means by which one performs seriousness. Then there are other forms of speech act that are, shall we say, for entertainment purposes only. The segregation of speech act performers across racial lines—who is allowed to occupy each performance space—is still pretty stark, perhaps even increasingly so.

The other issue, of course, is in-group hiring and sorting practices. Although she's talking about race, class, and gender in a British context, journalist Dawn Foster does an excellent job of laying out some of the problems involved in this interview with Open Democracy:
I'm from a working-class background, and I'm a woman, and it's taken me years to get over a lot of my own hang-ups that come from class and come from gender. But I find recruitment really fascinating as a feminist issue, as a class issue, because when I first graduated and I was speaking to my friends who were all trying to find jobs, I started noticing – and then I did some research and found out it was borne out by social studies – that if there was, say, a job that had 10 points in the essential criteria in the job description, my male friends would apply if they hit two or three of them, especially if they came from Oxford. My female friends, or my working-class black male friends, would only apply if they met every single one of those criteria.

I don't see why an institution should not think, why is everybody at the highest level, white, male, and from a certain university? What can we do to change that? So if every single study in the world shows that if you write down 10 essential things that might not be essential, and then more men will apply than women, if you know that’s going to happen, then why not change your recruitment?

We end up hiring somebody who looks like us sitting across the table.

And obviously the more confident you are because you come from a certain background, the more confident you will come across in an interview. Again, when you look at recruitment, everybody thinks that interviews are the best way of getting to know somebody. But actually if you do a number of verbal reasoning tests, and various other tests, you actually get the best candidate. But because we're human, we err massively, and end up hiring somebody who looks like us sitting across the table, because we see ourselves in them, and we think we can mould them in our image.
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:01 AM on May 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

With the top down structure of news organizations, increasing diversity among rank and file reporters will make no difference without editorial board changes, and as the ultra wealthy scoop up newspapers to influence the political discourse, that change will not happen. Right now people of color are exploited by news agencies, sometimes with their own complicity. Sanitizing the pain of the poor and people of color is easier with reporters like Charles Blow, who dispassionately describes the Black Lives Matter movement and is otherwise politically indistinguishable from Tom Friedman. That just seems to give more cover to an unsustainable and unfair status quo. And if you don't toe the line, like Melissa Harris Perry, you get canned. Like he writes in the last section, the editorial board is what matters. Black America, poor America, etc is not helped by the perpetuation of our current news media, even if their participation is increased.
posted by tomtheblackbear at 9:54 AM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've referenced this before, but can never find the original source - J-School students have the 3rd highest parental wealth of any pro-fac student body, after med school and architecture. And big part of that is the requirement of unpaid (or grossly underpaid) internships, both during school and after graduation, to get your foot in anywhere. To get into journalism, you've got to have the means to just not make any money in your post high school and post grad years, and pay for a degree while you do it. So before you even get to the point of hiring journalists, or editors, or anyone in a professional media capacity, your talent pool has already been winnowed down to be richer, and whiter, than the rest of the population.
posted by thecjm at 9:59 AM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Within the cardboard boxes and reams of microfilm that hold the last century of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism lies a troubling story about a group of journalistic underdogs: the women and people of color who are being shut out of American journalism’s most prestigious award.

As the graphics in these pages show, the ranks of Pulitzer winners have grown more diverse, but progress has been so slow that the percentage of non-white winners over the last decade is essentially identical to the percentage over the last 100 years. The news is better for women, who, while still a distinct minority, are at least gaining ground faster, and winning Prizes in a range of categories often thought to be heavily male-dominated, such as investigative and international reporting.

posted by infini at 9:41 AM on May 31, 2016

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