Journalists and Stereotypes — Next Stop, the Super Bowl

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By: Steve Hallock

A recent piece by New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts touched on a topic that continues to plague mainstream media reporters and correspondents: treatment of ethnic and racial minorities by journalists.

Roberts joined numerous other media analysts discussing the historic significance of not just one, but two African-American coaches leading their teams in the Super Bowl. She also, though, entered the realm of how the media might treat these coaches, compared to attitudes regarding anglo coaches.

A league “forever led by an ant trail of white coaches would finally find a comfortable seat aboard the Soul Train,” she wrote for the Times’ Jan. 21 Sports Sunday cover. She predicted that in the networks’ coverage of the conference championship games that same day, “Somewhere today, a voice from a TV booth will celebrate Smith and Dungy for their motivational skills but not their mental acuity, leaving the thinking-man’s adjectives for Belichick or the Saints’ Sean Payton.

“It’s not purposeful, or meant to be disrespectful, but think of it as black quarterback stereotyping when applied to coaching,” she wrote.

Despite all of the efforts of media organizations to deal with this kind of stereotyping — from striving to bring more minorities into newsrooms to working harder to include ethnic and racial sources in their coverage — the problem of racial stereotyping persists in this business.

A writing assignment that I give to basic news writing students at my university requires them to interview an authority figure, such as a professor or government of business official, who belongs to an ethnic or racial community (including asking minority students finding subjects other than members of their own minority). The topic of the assignment is whether these interview subjects believe that American media adequately and fairly cover their cultural group and issues pertaining to it, and to provide and discuss examples of such coverage.

The purpose of the assignment is to develop these future journalists’ interviewing skills, to encourage them to interact with cultures and attitudes other than those they know, and to get them thinking critically about how the media perform when it comes to diversification and inclusion in their coverage.

I kept a tally one semester of the responses these students received. It was not a scientific poll but one I took just out of curiosity. The results were troubling, nonetheless. In their responses to student reporters’ queries regarding the accuracy and fairness of mainstream media reporting on ethnic and/or racial issues and events, the interviewees responded by a more than fifteen-to-one ratio in the negative.*

For example, an official with the alumni association at my university cited the same sort of problem raised by Roberts regarding attitudes about mental ability. The official said he was bothered by television sports commentators who “send the message that white athletes are favored for cerebral skills. Most people know that Larry Bird was incredibly talented on the basketball court, and most remember him for being a smart player, but so was Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.” The official added that anglo community leaders “get the upper hand to be interviewed in television or for radio. There are not just African-Americans, but many other minorities, that hold positions in the community too.”

A political science political professor cited the images of looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as an example of media stereotyping that included depictions of African-Americans as criminals or welfare clients. One picture, shot by an Associated Press photographer, showed a black man wading in water carrying a case of soda and pulling a full garbage bag. The cutline labeled him a looter. The other, provided by AFP/Getty Images, was of a white man and light-skinned woman, also in the water, toting goods that the cutline identified as having been “found.”

Following allegations of racial insensitivity on the part of the Associated Press, a wire service spokesman explained that the photographer had witnessed the man identified as a looter taking the goods from a store. In the other photo, a Getty spokesperson explained, no looting had been witnessed, so editors chose to identify the goods as having been “found.” So apparently no racial insensitivity was intended.

But the initial suggestion of negative stereotyping was what this professor remembered.

“Generally, I feel that the media waits until something negative happens in the African-American community,” he said. “There is very little positive stuff that you see about African-Americans. Ironically, the most positive stuff you see about African-Americans is probably on ESPN as opposed to one of the major networks or newspapers.”

A South Korean graduate teaching assistant in journalism told a student journalist that while stereotypes may be unintentional in media coverage, they nonetheless are unacceptable.

“When stories about Asians are covered from an American point of view, stereotypes and prejudice are inevitable,” he said. “This is the same in Korea when covering Americans. There can be no absolute reality. Just as the U.S. sees the world from its point of view, so does Korea see America and the rest of the world from its point of view.”

Still, he cited media coverage of Asians being arrested in the United States for trafficking in bear organs, which he said is a traditional activity in Asian cultures because of the healing attributes believed to be found in the digestive juices of bears.

“You can have one hundred Koreans in an area in the U.S., and ninety nine respect American culture,” he said. “One does something wrong because of cultural differences, and a reporter has to write a story; it’s nothing personal. But the news often leaves out the majority and the fact that it is an important cultural activity.”

Most industry analysts and insiders will agree that stereotyping and insensitivity are problems yet to be solved by American media. The problem is fueled not only by old-fashioned attitudes but also by a basic lack of understanding of and interest in diverse cultures. This sort of knowledge gap fosters superficiality, stereotyping and shallow reportage.

Many of those interviewed by the students suggested that media companies invest in educating their reporting and research staffs, including sending them overseas to gain first-hand knowledge and understanding of foreign cultures. The same sort of cultural immersion and effort to gain knowledge and understanding of ethnic and racial cultures here at home is vital, if the media are to meet their responsibility of in-depth reporting of American society.

Other ideas include regular daily coverage of minority and ethnic affairs and communities, getting to know these communities, developing multicultural sources, taking coverage beyond the stories focusing on negative and troubling aspects of ethnic and racial communities, increasing staff diversity, and understanding the expanding diversity of this nation.

From my perspective as an educator, I think teachers could help that last aspect by placing more emphasis on assignments that focus on varying and minority cultures and communities, as proposed by Arizona State University journalism professor Sharon Bramlett-Solomon and cited in Bruce D. Itule’s and Douglas A. Anderson’s journalism text, “News Writing & Reporting for Today’s Media.”

“If future journalists are to understand better their culturally diverse society, and if they are to meet the challenge of improved coverage of minority Americans, training in cultural sensitivity is imperative,” Bramlett-Solomon wrote in Journalism Educator. Such training can teach students “not to rely on long-held impressions about particular social groups,” she wrote. “Instead, they learn the value of double-checking the validity of earlier impressions, both through their own eyes and through the eyes of participants.”

In short, then, they need to learn that understanding is requisite to good reporting — a lesson with journalistic applications beyond diversity in sources and topics.

* Student interviews were verified by this author. Forty-five of forty-eight of those interviewed gave negative responses to questions regarding media coverage of their ethnic or racial cultures.

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