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Media Falls Flat in Covering Race Relations, New Survey Says

New America Media, Cristina Fernandez-Pereda Posted: Feb 19, 2009

Editors Note: Journalists of color say the lack of diversity in the newsroom is affecting how race relations are being covered in the media, according to a new survey by The Loop 21 and UNITY. The coverage of the Obama campaign was a classic case of a missed opportunity, reports NAM contributor Cristina Fernandez-Pereda.

The 2008 elections gave the media a chance to talk about race. But journalists of color think that while the coverage was largely fair, the media is still not effectively covering race relations.

"Black and white people have a different notion of the need to talk about race," noted Clarence Page, former Chicago Tribune reporter who spoke Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington to mark the release of the survey, called Journalism in Color.

The Loop 21 and UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. conducted the survey.

Page, who took part in the panel discussion, said the Obama camp 'de-racialized' the campaign in its attempt to get votes from different communities and through new media, something that the journalism community followed without doing a deeper analysis. Journalists are by and large still cautious about the effect of the Obama administration on the media's coverage of racial issues.

The survey found that 92 percent responded that when it came to covering race relations, the media was not doing its job effectively. In addition, 45 percent of participants attributed the cause of this ineffective coverage to a lack of diversity in newsrooms, while 33 percent considered it was due to a lack of understanding by editors and producers.

"The problem is that the leading conversations are overlooking diversity in newsrooms and how content needs to be reflecting the new America, said freelance writer Amy Alexander. If you don't have a leadership aware of these issues, you can't help to wonder how are we going to fix this."

For Clarence Page, the media coverage of the election responds to what he called the 'gaffe culture': "We only talked about race when a gaffe allowed us to. We talked about gender with Hillary's tears, about race when Joe Biden mentioned Obama was 'articulate' or when Obama himself said he didn't look like other presidents in the dollar bills."

Moderator Ed Gordon asked the panelists if they thought the presence of journalists of color and women on television, during the presidential campaign coverage, has helped to raise awareness of issues previously ignored by mainstream media.

For CNN Political Contributor Leslie Sanchez, "the more richness you can bring, the better you can help." Sanchez described how when it comes to talk about the Latino community, immigration issues are the only ones coming up, leaving aside the fact that Hispanics are a big part of the evangelical community too.

"This only takes us back to who makes the content decisions," she said.

The survey also showed a major consensus among a majority of respondents, who considered the media did a "fair to poor" job covering issues of interest to people of color during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"People are looking at coverage of what affects their lives better than what mainstream media are doing," said Matt Kelley, a USA Today reporter.

That is the reason why local and ethnic media is growing in the United States, even in times of crisis, and mainstream media is struggling, Kelley said.

"We cannot separate the crisis in journalism from the lack of diversity," added Joe Torres, Free Press Director of Government Relations, denouncing how newsrooms' value depends now on profits, and not the diversity of their staff.

More than 60 percent of the respondents strongly or somewhat disagree that people of color and female journalists will be promoted to senior positions in the wake of the 2008 campaign, a sentiment shared by Alexander. Not having true inclusion of minority journalists in management positions was a large part of the problem.

The higher folks don't want to give up their power, they only want to talk to the same folks they are comfortable with," Alexander said.

Other panelists agreed, justifying the lack of coverage of race issues during the presidential campaign to reporters and editors' unwillingness to talk about the very same issues affecting their own newsrooms.

For Angie Chuang, assistant professor of journalism at American University, part of the population wants to talk about race, but there's another part that's really uncomfortable with the topic.

Chuang described the difficulty: the media grappled with how to categorize President Obamas multicultural background.

"We didn't know how to approach Obama, and that drove us crazy," Chuang said.

Kelley of USA Today added: The Obama campaign did their job about hiding the race issue and I think some people felt relieved about that, but we also missed the opportunity to start a deeper conversation about topics that need to be talked about.

In order to bring those stories to light, panelists agreed that diversity in newsrooms is necessary to engage the public discussion of race issues, something that could only improve the quality of journalism.

"The more diversity in newsrooms and the more coverage we do, the better it will be both for the health of journalism and for our democracy," Kelley said.

Related Articles:

On 100th Anniversary, NAACP Challenges First Black President

Black Journalists, Bloggers Discuss the Future of News

Obama: Face of Americas Mestisaje

Obama Speaks to Ethnic Journalists at UNITY Convention

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