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The Trust

Restoring the Trust
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Can You Have Trust if You
Practice Censorship by Omission?
Why People of Color Don’t Read the Mainstream Media

Dori Maynard, President, Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education

‘Given the track record historically of censorship by omission...and the ongoing
distortion of news about minority populations, leaders and issues, the
mono-perspective content, the press has long failed its mission to inform.’
—Dr. Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, interview, May 2005

I would argue that the new media, the old media, whatever the medium, it doesn’t really matter, if we continue to ignore so many people in our communities. Actually, I think it’s quite fitting that we’re meeting today, the day after the death of John H. Johnson. As many of you may know, Mr. Johnson was the founder of Johnson Publications, which published Ebony and Jet. In 1942 he took out a $500 loan to start his organization, which last year had sales close to $500 million. It was actually 498; I hope you’ll forgive me for rounding up a little bit.

I think in many ways John Johnson was the foundation of and the precursor to the huge explosion of ethnic media we see today. Readership in Hispanic media has gone from 440,000 in 1990 to 1.8 million today. You see the same explosion in the Asian press, and, of course, in the African American press, we have not only Jet, Ebony, but we have BET and Essence.

But before I go any further, I’d like to ask how many people here read Ebony or Jet.

So, for the vast majority who don’t read it, can you tell my why you don’t read it...Okay, everyone’s heard of it. But so very few people actually read it. And I would argue, although it’s just my guess, that many of you don’t read it because you think it has very little to do with your lives and it’s not very relevant to you. And I think that that same issue that you see with relevance to Ebony and Jet is what’s happening to many people of color with the mainstream media. It just doesn’t seem that relevant anymore.

Content audit after content audit shows that people of color are overrepresented in stories about crime, about entertainment, and sports, and are underrepresented in everyday stories—business, lifestyle, politics. If you want to see a great example of that, you don’t need to go any further than today’s paper.

Here, on the front page of USA Today, a very large second-day story on Peter Jennings, and a small refer to John Johnson. It tells you to go to the business section. You go to the business section of USA Today, and he’s certainly not on the first page. There he is, on the bottom of page 4B. The man who started a multi-million dollar empire, an icon in the African American community, couldn’t even get a corner in the front of the business section.

So, when you look at that, you begin to see why mainstream media is becoming less and less relevant to people of color. Now, the reasons for that, I think, are fairly clear. We can go over them really quickly.

One is, if you look at who’s working in our mainstream media, you know, 13 percent of newspaper journalists are journalists of color. The numbers are only slightly better in broadcast—22 percent. But then if you look at the experience of most journalists, it becomes clear that not only are the numbers small, people don’t come to our newsrooms equipped to do credible cross-cultural coverage. Despite the fact that our country is more diverse today than ever, we still lead largely segregated lives. An analysis of the 2000 census by the State University of New York at Albany found that your average white urban/suburban resident lived in neighborhoods and communities that were 80 percent white. And people of color did not live in communities that were much more diverse. So when we walk into our newsrooms, we walk in ill-prepared to cover communities other than our own.

Examining Diversity Of Race, Class, Gender, Generation And Geography

Now, the good news in all this is that, at the Maynard Institute, we do think that we have something of a framework that can help newsrooms do better cross-cultural coverage. My father, the late Robert Maynard, former owner and publisher of the Oakland Tribune, spent a great deal of his life thinking and working on these issues. Shortly before he died, he came up with what he called the faultlines framework, which is how we look at diversity. We look at diversity through the prisms of race, class, gender, generation and geography. We say that those five things not only shape our perceptions of ourselves, each other, and events around us, but they are the five things that divide us as a nation. And it’s really time for us to admit that those faultlines exist and begin to think of ways that we can cross those faultlines.

A few years ago, the fact that we do see things through those faultlines became very clear to me. I was at the Poynter Institute; we were doing a seminar on race and the media. During the course of the seminar we watched a clip of Ted Koppel interviewing some white residents in a Philadelphia neighborhood who did not want people of color moving into their neighborhood. They said when that happens, crime skyrockets and housing prices plummet.

I’m sitting there looking at that, and I had to say, when the clip was done, that there was no context. I kept expecting Ted Koppel to say, you know, in all due respect, that there are African American neighborhoods in this country that are more affluent and safer than some white neighborhoods. When I made that comment, it was a large group and no one really listened. About five minutes later, a white male participant raised his hand and he said, there’s no context. He said that without context, that clip made all white people look as if they were racist.

So there we were, we saw the exact same clip, we had the exact same concern, that of context. But because of our faultline perceptions, what we meant by context was completely different.

So we argue that in our newsrooms we need to begin to have conversations that expect that there are going to be those differences of opinion, but that we need to have these conversations with the goal of understanding each other and not necessarily agreeing with each other. We think that these conversations, while I focused on race, really do need to include the other faultlines.

Journalists as Occupying Forces in Communities They Cover

One of the ones that’s largely overlooked is geography. And I think that’s extremely important because, as our career paths go from market to market until we hit that destination market, the people we talk to the most are the people in our newsrooms. And so we don’t always learn the morés and the nuances of what’s going on in the communities we cover. We’re almost like occupying forces. We come in for a little while, we tell people what’s going on, and then we move off. And then we wonder why people in our communities say, “You don’t get us.” And we say, “Well, we gave you the facts.” But we didn’t put them in the context of your particular community.

Discovering Journalists’ Blind Spots

Lastly, we argue that with faultlines, we need to understand that we all have blind spots, areas where our five faultlines come together in such a way that we simply don’t see something.

This was made very clear to me when we went and we worked with a paper, we gave them some faultlines training and we told them to go out and to ask people in their community how they could cover them differently. And a group came back who had talked to some immigrants. And they said, you know, you can stop covering us from your middle-class point of view. You look at us and you see two families sharing one house, sharing one car, and you call us poor. And we say, we have a house. We have a car. We are not poor. And it was a blind spot on our part.

So what we hope that we will be able to do is use faultlines sort of as a checklist.

Not only will you have your conversations that understand that you really will see things differently, but that you will have conversations that will help you understand each other, not necessarily agree, but you also have a checklist, like you have who, what, when, where, how, why, you have race, class, gender, generation and geography.

And the last time I did some faultlines training was actually at the University of Nevada, Reno. I used, as a foundation for the training, a story that the New York Times had done on advances in lung cancer treatment. And I asked the group to use that as a foundation and then to figure out angles that they could include in that story that looked at issues pertaining to race, to class, to gender, to generation, to geography.

And when they were done, they had angles that looked at the disparity and treatment across class, the difference in effectiveness in drugs across race, the differences in community rates of cancer, both local communities and regions. They looked at disparities between women and men, and they looked at the difference in aggressiveness, depending on your age and generation.

And in the two days since Peter Jennings has died and we’ve seen a number of stories on lung cancer, we have yet to see a story that was so complete, that took a disease that affects us all and covered it in a way that we all saw ourselves.

So today, when we think about the death of John Johnson and how he showed us how profitable covering people of color could be, I hope we will also see how possible it can be.

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