Going Public: Diversity in the Media

Aug 26, 2016

This summer’s coverage of police involved shootings triggered public outrage nationwide. Social media blew up with a slew of criticisms, some of which were targeted towards the mainstream media, ranging from stories lacking context of deeply rooted social issues to alleged race-baiting.

Now the media is having to rethink how it’s covering the news. KRCU's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Dr. Tamara Zellars Buck, an associate professor from the department of Mass Media at Southeast Missouri State University, to talk about the challenges of diversity in the media.

Lewis-Thompson: For the last few summers the media has really had to shift the way it handles coverage on issues of race and diversity. Recently it’s come in the form of breaking news. There were the police involved shooting deaths of two African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota. And on top of that attacks on police officers in Dallas and Louisiana. As a journalism professor, what’s your take on how these breaking news events were covered by the mainstream media?

Zellars Buck: Wow that's a huge place to start because these issues have not been addressed in mainstream media this way since I think the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s, and it's only because our mainstream society has been confronted with the issue. People are not backing away from talking about it in mainstream places now. And so, our mainstream media has had to respond. And they're starting to address things in a more upfront way, because they're being held accountable for it in a more upfront way. This is not something that you can push back to page six any longer when everyone's talking about it everywhere that you look on social media. It's not contained in the coffee shops anymore. So we've had to see mainstream media address it in a new way. And it's jarring, because they're not ready for it. We're not ready for that. And we're having to scramble to catch up. In terms of how we're doing, better than expected I think. Only because the response has been okay we do need to address this. Let's try something. So better than I would have expected, but not nearly as well as we need to.

Lewis-Thompson: Coverage of those events sparked a ton of outrage from viewers, listeners and readers. Is the outrage warranted?

Zellars Buck: I think they're absolutely correct. This is what happens when you don't have a newsroom that is diverse and able to tell diverse stories. You need both, because the diversity within the newsroom enables you to identify stories and place them in the right context, because you're talking about that as a story is being written. But the ability to tell diverse stories means that you know how to go into a community, and how to engender trust among the right people so that you get the right types of responses. And the right response means truthful responses and a variety of responses that reflect the depth and complexity of these issues. Because none of these issues [are] two-sided or one-sided. There are always multiple sides. And you need people who are trained to recognize that complexity and work within that complexity as they gather the news. And then to go back and talk about that as they're constructing their actual stories for publication with other folks who have different experiences, so that you can identify your weaknesses prior to publication as opposed to being called upon it afterwards.

Lewis-Thompson: What is the role of the mainstream press?

Zellars Buck: I'd like to think that they should be there in the same way alongside the alternative press. They can't address every story related to diversity. So, the mainstream press because it is broader in scope is not going to be as thorough in telling diverse stories. Should they still attempt to tell diverse stories or at least include a diverse perspective in the stories that they choose to tell? Absolutely. That's their role. Include a diverse perspective. Include why this is important: the black or the brown or the yellow or the red. Why those cultures may have a different stake in this story that we're telling. That's the mainstream press's job. Now the alternative press's job is going to make sure that more of those stories get told. And I think they do work hand in hand. There's a place for everybody at the table, and it's not at a kids table. We can all sit at the same table because we have different jobs. The alternative press is also going to hold the mainstream press accountable. You got this wrong and we got it right. Now go back and say that you did a bad job. I think that's part of the alternative press's role also. And they're in competition. Let's never forget that. These are business enterprises.

Lewis-Thompson: The black press played a crucial role during the civil rights movement, showing images of a disfigured Emmett Till, which introduced the world to the harsh realities of the segregated south. Does the black press still have a role?

Zellars Buck: Absolutely. I like to think of the minority press or the alternative press, I like to think of them as a local press in a lot of ways. The same reason we still need local radio stations and local newspapers, we also still need those alternative voices like the black press [and] the Native American press. The Native American press right now is extremely strong. And one of the reasons that they are so strong is because their voices are totally lost in mainstream press. Similarly, I think the black press is represented the same way. We are able to tell those local stories in ways that are meaningful to our audience in a way that the mainstream press can't. Even when it tries to be diverse. They are unable to get the level of complexity or get the level of trust that enables sources to tell them their story. Mainstream press is unable to get that. Whereas your alternative press, those people live in those neighborhoods. They live in those streets and they have that trust there. I trust you to tell my story the right way. The honest way. The full way. In ways that have not been told in the mainstream press even when mainstream press is trying.

Lewis-Thompson: I want to play a clip from an episode of NPR’s Code Switch called “Reporting While Brown in the Summer of Trump.” This is political reporter Pilar Marrero from La Opinion, a spanish language news outlet. She talks about objectivity while covering the Donald Trump campaign.

Marrero Soundbite: "I recently did another interview where a reporter also asked me the same thing you know. 'Are you covering Donald Trump fairly, because you seem to be focusing so much on his rhetoric on immigration?' And I'm like, 'well what else is he saying? This is the bottom line of his campaign. The day he launched his candidacy he started railing against Mexicans. I mean there's no way to you know put a lid on that. This is who he is. And this is how he's made his campaign. So the fact that we are pointing it out, we are saying he's a racist.' We're not covering it up and saying 'oh some people say he might be saying racist things. No, you know we said he's a racist because here, here, here. This is the statement. This is the statement. This is the proposal. This is the statement. This compares to things that racist in the past have done. This you know is getting the support of  David Duke.' You know, isn't our objective to tell the truth? So we're telling it."

 

Lewis-Thompson: Is what she said problematic?

Zellars Buck: Not when you consider that her publication is alternative press. She is speaking to hear audience about things that her audience cares about. And she's doing so in a factual way. That's the role of [the] alternative press. That's the role of press in a lot of ways is to speak truth, or to share truths with our audience. That's the role of press. Alternative press though has a smaller demographic that they're serving and they are much more purpose driven in the way that they share their stories. So, there are going to be times if there is a race issue on the table where the alternative press is going to come up and say this is what we see. This is the truth for us as a people. So, could she do that in mainstream? No. But because of who her audience is and her publication I think she can.

Lewis-Thompson: Why couldn't she do it in mainstream?

Zellars Buck: I don't think she would be allowed to. Now what we have seen--now I have seen mainstream press do this, but they are quick to push it over to the opinion page. They are quick to label it and contain it in ways that don't happen as much in the alternative press. They are telling those stories. I have seen some organizations come out and say we're just going to have to call this one. This is what we see. And I don't think there's anyway to do it, but it's almost reluctantly done or begrudgingly done. Whereas it is very purposefully as you heard her say this is it. We're claiming this and it's adamantly done in the alternative press.

Lewis-Thompson: Do we hold minority news outlets to a different standard? And what I mean by that is, are there things that minority outlets can do that mainstream media can’t do?

Zellars Buck: Wow that's great question. And I don't think we're holding them to a different standard. It's just different.

Lewis-Thompson: Explain. That's a big one. That's a meaty thing to say.

Zellars Buck: [Laughs] For me I don't think the audience is saying you're lesser, because you're an alternative press. We expect less of you. I think the same standards of journalism are expected out of alternative press that are expected of mainstream press. Those standards are the same. However, you serve your audience in different ways. And that's another set of standards. Your service to your audience when you're the alternative press is really social action in a lot of ways. And social action and a positive a change coming from the black press means--or from the brown press-- means that we have to step up and empower and protect our audience in a lot of ways. Now when we're in the mainstream media you don't see as much social action as you see community partner. So, I think newspapers are much more about serving their audience. So that the communities are thriving. And thriving communities don't always mean thriving minorities.

Lewis-Thompson: Here’s another clip from that episode of Code Switch from Wesley Lowery, a reporter from the Washington Post again talking about objectivity as a journalist of color.

Lowery Soundbite: "People always want to ask this question. 'Can black reporters cover this stuff fairly--objectively? Can they remember they are a reporter for --no one ever goes: well can Jimmy White our white reporter cover police effectively?' No one ever asks that. Like race affects everyone. Whiteness is a construct as well. I'm like you benefit from the privilege of it. And you see your life through those lenses, right?' But we very often only we share that conversation, or we save it only for reporters of color. And we don't ever interrogate the potential motives or biases of white reporters covering these same things?

 

Interviewer: So what is your definition of objectivity? Do you have one?

 

Lowery: Well, I don't even like the word objectivity. When we talk about trying to be objective we begin the conversation with a lie. Like we begin the conversation with a lie that we don't have biases and that we don't perceive the world certain ways, right? I strive to be fair. And that fairness means that I have to interrogate my own biases. That fairness means I have to go out of my way to make sure I'm giving a fair good faith hearing to people who I know I disagree with. I think that sometimes like the idea of objectivity can be this cloak that we put on ourselves as a means of slipping in all types of bias into coverage, right?"

Lewis-Thompson: What are your thoughts on what he said?

Zellars Buck: I've actually never considered a difference between objectivity and fairness. And I certainly have not considered objectivity as a cloak for injecting these ideas. But I can see some merit in the things that he says. I absolutely agree with him that bias exists. I teach a diversity class in addition to the journalism classes that I teach. I teach a diversity in media class for all of our mass communication majors. And it's what I start with day one. Anyone who tells you they have no bias is lying either to you or to themselves. We all have biases inherent biases. Inherent in everything that we do based upon our experiences. And what I strive to teach my students is to recognize those biases in themselves, and then to work past them. When you know you have a bias you have to work harder to be fair. So I certainly understand Wes's point in saying that fairness may be a better descriptor for what we need to strive to be. When I think of objectivity to me that just means bringing in different perspectives. Making sure that you are not seeing something as black and white and missing all of those shades of gray in the middle. And you know my students like to go out  and say 'I interviewed someone.' 'You interviewed someone?' is my response. 'You talked to one person? There were 6,000 people there and you talked to a person.' And then they'll say 'well I talked to two or three.' That's not enough. You need to strive to be representative of the opinions that may be present. And that means trying to get a real feel for the complexity of an issue, again. And getting around and moving around and talking to multiple people that's objectivity to me. And not just talking to them, but trying to infuse your writing with all those different perspectives. That's objectivity to me. If you can get a variety of perspectives that will help to overcome your bias and then you have to trust the people around you to call you on it. I have worked in newsrooms where I have been called by a white colleague and he or she--it's been both--have said 'hey can you read this?' It may have been a crime story. Or a court story where they wanted to make sure, because there was a racial element involved. They were wanting to make sure that they were overcoming their bias. I have had my own work called into play for bias. And had an editor to tell me you're better than that. And I appreciated the editor for reminding me that I couldn't get out of my own way in that story. And it was a gut check. But I was better for having been checked on it. That's what I think Wes was really trying to get to. Making sure that you recognize that you've got some prejudices. You've got some biases, but you still have to do your job.

Lewis-Thompson: The school year is creeping up on us again. And this year you’ll have a new crop of aspiring journalists. How do you plan on addressing the this summer’s events with your students?

Zellars Buck: I have a reputation I believe among my students of keeping it real. And being willing to have the difficult conversation. And I will have that conversation whether it's something that's been building over the summer, or if it's something that arises hours before a class--minutes before a class in the case of the World Trade Center bombing. It was 10 minutes before class when that happened. And I immediately recognized that as a teachable moment. And we started covering it. When the young man was suspended for bringing a clock to school that took precedence over anything I was going to talk about that day in my diversity class, because that was a diversity moment. We could look in real time and see how the media was covering that story. That's how I handled things. So, I have been collecting information all summer and saying 'oh saving that for whichever class needed it.

Lewis-Thompson: That’s all the time that we have. A special thanks to our guest Dr. Tamara Zellars Buck, an associate professor in the department of Mass Media at Southeast Missouri State University.