Unequal Terms p. 28

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez NABJ cautions against using 'preference' to describe affirmative action programs sp.

IN A CHILDREN's rhyme, names may never hurt you, but when it comes to reporting on affirmative action programs, words can be prejudicial.
A new report from the National Association of Black Journalists shows that phrases such as "racial preferences" and "preferential treatment" in news reports can influence opinion against affirmative action programs.
The NABJ's Media Monitoring Committee examined newspaper reports after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision involving set-asides in the construction industry and again, about a month later, after President Clinton's speech about affirmative action programs.
Overall, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, NABJ immediate past president said, "we found many news media outlets using [the terms] affirmative action and racial preferences interchangeably."
Affirmative action, however, is not synonymous with preferential treatment, racial preferences or similar phrases, noted Gilliam, a columnist for the Washington Post.
Using the term "preferences," NABJ reported, "in this context betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the reason behind affirmative action: that it is intended to counter the built-in, systematic 'preferences' for white males that still exist."
"When the media use these terms interchangeably, they play into the hands of [affirmative action] foes" and do not exercise the objectivity they are supposed to employ, Gilliam said.
There needs to be an "assumption of responsibility by news organizations in this country for the language they use," she commented, adding that such phrases "lead to public misunderstanding."
Richard Prince, co-chair of the monitoring committee, noted that after repeated use by affirmative action opponents, the phrases are picked up and used by the media ? sometimes without realizing it.
The NABJ report found that of the 15 newspapers studied after the Supreme Court's June 12 decision in Adarand Constructors v. Pena, only two did not use the term "preferences" to describe the issue ? even though some of the stories indicated use of the word was polarizing.
The two that did not use the term "preferences" were the Baltimore Evening Sun, which compiled its story from wire reports, and the Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville, which ran an Associated Press story.
"The Associated Press was the one organization that was most consistent in avoiding these terms," said Prince, a former editorial writer and columnist for Gannett Co.'s suburban New York newspapers, who now works for a non-profit organization in the Washington area.
Prince speculated that since the AP is supported by members, it "has to keep from turning off members with its language."
The committee also looked at 18 newspapers after President Clinton's July 19 speech about affirmative action, and found that only four did not use "preferences" to describe affirmative action. They were: USA Today, the New York Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Newsday.
While pointing to examples from the study, Prince also showed instances where the body of the story had not misused the terms but the headline did.
In some cases, news stories and editorials showed a "split personality" about using the terms as synonyms.
The problem with interchanging terms that are not synonymous is that their use worsens existing racial polarization, Gilliam explained.
Further, Gilliam said, it is important for the media to put racial discrimination into context, to portray it as a continuing problem, not a relic of the past.
Adding "distorted language to the debate worsens the tension," she said.
The difference is noticeable in polling questions that use the terms interchangeably, as NABJ discovered in surveys in which people said they opposed racial preferences but supported affirmative action programs.
A recent report from the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press confirmed the finding.
When asked whether they supported or opposed affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and educations, 58% of respondents favored the idea and 36% opposed it.
But when others were asked about affirmative action programs that gave special preferences to qualified blacks, women and other minorities in hiring and education, respondents split, 46% for and 46% against.
Three years ago, in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, pollster Lou Harris cautioned against interchanging terms such as "preference" and "racial preference" with affirmative action.
"His warning went largely unheeded," NABJ's report stated.
"When the media use these terms interchangeably, they play into the hands of [affirmative action] foes" and do not exercise the objectivity they are supposed to employ, Gilliam said.


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