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Newsroom diversification not silver-bullet solution

While diversifying the newsroom, or hiring more journalists of color, is a frequently suggested remedy and a positive first step to better coverage of race and ethnicity issues by mainstream journalists, Sue Robinson said it is not enough.

Robinson, a former journalist and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, studies media discourse around race and ethnicity, especially focusing on conversations about inequalities.

“We have to get more representation of all our communities in newsrooms so that all of our communities have a bigger voice in our mainstream dialogues,” she said. “That said, the danger with merely relying on hiring more people of color is that it absolves everybody else in the newsroom from doing the hard work of understanding their own implicit biases and privilege.”

Additionally, relying on newsroom diversification can create token race reporters, she said.

“They get pigeon-holed into writing about issues of race for a lot of different reasons, some of which are very logistical,” she said. “At the same time, those journalists might want to be an education reporter or they might want to do politics. It ends up almost being racist because you discount the full experience that those people might have.”

On April 29, the final panel at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics’ Conference on Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics will begin to address next steps. What are some solutions? And how can they be implemented?

But even if diversifying the newsroom were a silver bullet solution, implementing such changes is not without challenges.

For Phil Brinkman, city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal, it starts in the hiring pool.

“We feel the real lack of diversity in our newsroom,” he said. “We live in a very white community, a very white state and we’re just not getting the candidate pools that we need.”

The State Journal has received only a handful of applications from journalists of color over the last couple of years, he said, noting that it will take a combined effort from both newsrooms and journalism schools.

“I would like to do whatever we can to increase our hiring of candidates of color, but j-schools need to make that a priority, too,” he said. “We need a better pipeline.”

Jordan Gaines, UW-Madison senior and editor of the Black Voice predicts that relatively non-diverse cities do not appeal to young journalists of color who are applying for jobs.

“I think the obvious considerations when applying are probably quality of city and then the presence of other people of color,” she said. “And it’s not that realistic for Madison.”

Fortunately, Gaines sees other areas where local outlets could enhance coverage.

“The big one that I think of is diversifying the people journalists contact,” she said. “A lot of times, we have these go-to folks, especially when we’re talking about marginalized communities. Because of that we don’t have intersectional people that we talk to who represent different types of identities.”

Journalists will need to do a better job of getting into communities to expand this contact list, she said.

In addition to diversifying the workforce and sourcing, Robinson said the responsibility rests on individual awareness.

“Most newsrooms do a diversity training – and that’s good. That’s all really good,” she said. “But I also think that we need privilege training beyond that. We need the personal understanding of one’s own role in the complicitness of reinforcing white supremacy within structures that are in place today.”

But it can’t stop after the workshop name tags are tossed. The training and discussion must be built into newsroom practice and culture more permanently, she said.

“It has to be ongoing, so that it’s not just a yearly workshop, but an ongoing conversation that happens in the newsroom,” she said. “Just like how many sources you need, how many inches you have and what the deadline is. It has to be part of that structure.”

Less mainstream media privilege benefits race justice in crime reporting

The way people sound when they speak, chatter, and laugh may lead to discrimination, police investigation.

Jennifer Stoever, a media and literature scholar at Binghamton University, called this phenomenon “sonic color-line” in a recent book. That is, people in color are often stereotyped and mistreated in turn by their vocal or audio traits.

Stoever said sound-based discrimination is particularly problematic for crime reporting, as such attitude has its deep root in the source most relied on in crime reporting — the police.

African-Americans  are often accused of being loud in public spaces for example, she said. A loud car stereo was once used as an excuse for the police to stop the drivers and investigate other crimes, Stoever found in her study.

On the other hand, after interviewing many people of color, Stoever found that the “authoritative voice” the police are trained to use when they are talking to people in high-crime rate communities actually sounds aggressive. The police tone and posture sometimes can escalate the situation, she said.

If adopted by journalists in their reporting, such authoritative voice, together with the stereotype image of less disciplined people in color, can circulate fears, said newly elected Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell.

Mitchell, also a pastor, is concerned about creating a healthy relation between the offenders and victims after a crime. People who committed a crime should be given a second chance and be able to be accepted back in their communities after the rehabilitation, he said.

The disparity in criminal justice system has been existing for generations in Dane County, with more prosecutions in certain communities, Mitchell said. Those communities are particularly hurt if the restoration of crimes is not going well.

Also, even crime rates sometimes do not give the full picture, said Leland Pan, Dane County District 5 Supervisor. Some communities may have a “suppressed crime rate” because of their reputation for safety.

According to Pan, District 5 has a large student population, which is overwhelmingly white and consists of people from wealthier families.

“Crimes by white males are under-discussed,” Pan said. White students feel more liberty in grey areas as their misconducts are less likely to get reactions from both the victims and the supervisory forces on campus.

Even though on-campus crimes tend to get a lot of media attention, rarely is that coverage about white aggression toward people of color, Pan said. Students of racial minorities sometimes are unwilling to report hostility to them because they are prone to be associated with offenders instead of victims.

As the newsroom demography gets less racially diverse and more socially privileged, journalists’ source network clings more tightly around the established power center, Hemant Shah, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a talk.

The mainstream news media also hold the prejudice toward alternative media promoting ethnic or racial voices, excluding them from professional journalism, Shah said.

For example, The Capital Times published an opinion article by Paul Fanlund, executive editor, in February about how the mainstream news media in Madison had been greatly contributing to the conversation about racial issues in the past few years.

A few days later, Madison365, a progressive non-profit media, aired a radio program criticizing the Cap Times article for its condescending tone and mainstream limitation.

“There have been only certain groups of people that are able to talk about these issues when it comes to the mainstream,” one of the hosts said, pointing out that the increasing coverage mentioned by Fanlund in his column was predominantly about the advocacy groups the mainstream media found worth reporting.

The mainstream media always have a patronizing gesture as if they “discover” those long-existing racial inequality problems, even though we have been covering the same issues for ages, said the hosts, who are also from communities of color.

This border between professional journalism and progressive journalism needs to be eliminated to include more minority voices in mainstream media, Shah said. He also encourages NGOs and other public agencies to coordinate between minority media and advertisers to form a more sustainable financial model for minority media.

Shah will moderate a panel for race and crime reporting during a journalism ethics conference held by the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 29. Register for the conference here.

Conversations on representation can benefit, learn from self-representation

Patty Loew, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said discussion about how journalism can better represent communities of color often leaves out those who are already using media forms to self-represent.

“Mainstream media doesn’t always stop to ask how communities of color are self-representing,” she said. “Many are making space to create their own representations.”

Loew is a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and affiliated with American Indian Studies.

When journalists try to address misrepresentation and misguided reporting on communities of color, this discussion is often geared toward how the professional industry, predominantly white, can do a better job of reporting, she said.

But, the Native youth she works with through the Tribal Youth Media Initiative produce their own work. Loew and the initiative coordinate with Don Stanley, Life Sciences Communication faculty associate.

“Tribal Youth Media gives youth the chance to represent themselves through digital storytelling,” Loew said. “It’s a really powerful thing to be apart of.”

The initiative brings together a team of graduate students who work with Native American teens to produce video stories about their tribes and communities during the summer. The project runs annually and involves week-long instruction on digital media production.

Ahpahnae Thomas, a junior at Mellen (Wis.) High School participated in the program several times.

“We go out and sort of have a lot of adventures in the wild around the Bad River Reservation,” he said. “Then we make short videos about things we experience.”

Participants like Ahpahnae not only shape content, but they also have the opportunity to interact with media forms they are passionate about.

“With the video production, we had to add music to it, and we created our own music,” Ahpahnae said. “That’s what I like to do. That’s my thing.”

Shania and Ahpahnae

Ahpahnae Thomas composes music while Shania Jackson films. Photo courtesy Patty Loew

Since its inception, the Tribal Youth Initiative and its participants have produced award-winning films which feature community-generated representations of Native communities.

Ahpahnae’s mother, Jean Hahn-Thomas, had the opportunity to chaperone one film festival invitation. She accompanied members of the Tribal Youth Media Initiative in 2013 to Arizona where the participated in the Human Rights Film Festival at Arizona State University, as well as other local showings.

The film featured the natural wildlife that would be affected by the construction of a proposed four and a half mile open pit iron ore mine in Northern Wisconsin, located directly over the Bad River Watershed.

The question and answer session following a showing at a local Arizona school stuck with Hahn-Thomas, in particular.

“Because in Arizona there is a lack of water, the students in the audience were interested in what they could do help to stop the mine from going up which would have polluted the water and dried up the artesian wells,” she said. “It was really good for the kids – both those in the audience and those from Wisconsin.”

The mine project was put on hold in spring of 2015.

“This project shows the kids that you can, with simple things, produce something that people will care about, and it just gives them a completely different perspective on what they can do,” Hahn-Thomas said. “And no matter what the outcome of their short video is, it’s theirs. It’s what they put into it.”

The Tribal Youth Media Initiative is just one of many organizations that are amplifying  the self-representation of communities of color.

Simpson Street Free Press on Madison’s South Side is a neighborhood-based nonprofit that trains young students, often from diverse backgrounds, in journalism. Young writers have the opportunity to write from their own experiences and interests.

Similarly, Lussier Community Education Center is working with University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism students to development and launch a low-power, community FM radio station at 95.5 and online, which will in part highlight the experiences and interests of communities of color on Madison’s west side.

Among others, these organizations are participating in recent conversations on representation of race in the media – not necessarily through letters to the editor, but through the creation of their own media content. And while this does not address all of the work that must be done in media industries to better represent communities of color, it is one step that should be recognized.

“It was nice to be able to share what we learned and have other people see things from our perspective – a different view from our situation,” Thomas said. “And I know was it was really fun to do.”

Loew will appear on a panel addressing media representations of race and ethnicity during a journalism ethics conference held by University of Wisconsin-Madison. Henry Sanders of Madison 365 and will also speak on the panel, moderated by University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Lindsay Palmer. USA Today writer Alan Gomez will also join the panel.

More inclusive reporting needed to combat racial disparity in education

When a report from a state nonprofit revealed a racial disparity in Dane County schools, journalists adopted the term “achievement gap” to describe the problem.

But Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, a scholar in education policy, doesn’t think the widely used term  accurately describes the problem. Although intended to label the phenomena, it potentially puts wrong blames on black youths, suggesting that they fail to “achieve” as much as their white peers, she said.

It is the education system that fails young African-Americans, in turn creating the gap, Winkle-Wagner said. Even after the racial segregation in public schools officially ended in 1950s, the negative stereotype of black students has long been perpetuated in the education system, she further explained.

“Teachers have lower expectations for black students,” Winkle-Wagner said. And when the students do turn out to achieve less, discriminatory treatments are not reflected on, but rationalized instead, she said.

Nearly half of black high school students in Madison, Wisconsin, did not graduate on time for the 2010-11 school year, according to the  Race to Equity Report from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, which focused on racial disparity issues in Dane County.

White students were three times as likely as black students to graduate on time, the report also revealed. Additionally, in 2011, African-American children were four times more likely to be not reading-proficient in their third grade, six times more likely to be arrested in their teenage, and five times more likely to be unemployed later.

But as a substitute for  describing the problem as “achievement gap” when reporting on it, Gloria Ladson-Billings, a fellow scholar of Winkle-Wagner, proposed the term “education debt.”

The way racial disparity is framed in the news matters because it affects where funding goes and how the public evaluates the current policies, Winkle-Wagner said.

“Journalists decide how people start to talk about the problem,” she said.

However, most news stories are told from the perspective of white establishment, said Jennifer Stoever, a Binghamton University professor with expertise in race representation in literature and media.

“People in color are presented as outsiders,” Stoever said. Journalists tend to have predisposed ideas of what to hear from racial minorities even when they actively seek for their voices, she said.

When covering education issues, white journalists often adopt a simple “good-versus-bad” binary and use few prominent activists of color to represent the whole minority community, said Sue Robinson, former journalist and current professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Robinson studies media discourse of racial disparities.

Also, news media rely very much on the school institution itself for story ideas and narrative frames, Robinson said in an email. This professional norm further strengthens the voice of the school boards and officials.

These privileged voices have their own bias in Stoever’s opinion. School teachers and supervisors are predominantly white, and, with the stereotype of “louder black students” in their minds, they have double standards for what constitutes misbehaviors, Stoever said.

In 13 southern states, nearly half of suspended or expelled K-12 students were African-American in 2011-2012 academic year, while African-Americans only constituted 24 percent of the enrolled students, according to a report by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania.

A police officer was suspended for violently slamming a 16-year-old black girl onto the floor and dragging her across the classroom after the videos of his conduct went viral online in 2015. The police officer was called to arrest the student for refusing to leave the classroom while keeping using her cellphone.

Robinson said journalists should challenge themselves to find sources of color, as racial minorities in difficult situations may not be willing to speak on record.

As a result, current news coverage about racial issues in education focuses more on individual issues rather than the systematic reasons behind racial disparities, she said.

Journalists need to include voices from a wider range of backgrounds and demographics, and to locate current problems within historical context, Robinson suggested.

Robinson will appear on a panel for race and education reporting during a journalism ethics conference April 29. Winkle-Wagner will moderate the panel, which will also include New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Register for the conference here.

Nikole Hannah-Jones to address conference

Award-winning New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will deliver the keynote address to open the 2016 Center for Journalism Ethics conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 29.

This year’s conference focuses on “Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics.” The event runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Union South on the UW-Madison campus. The keynote will begin at 9 a.m. Registration is now open at the center’s website. The cost for early bird registrants is $20, including a buffet lunch, but increases to $25 April 9. Registration is free for all students and UW-Madison faculty and staff.

Hannah-Jones has reported on the history of racism and inequality and its legacy in modern policies that have maintained racial injustice. She has written personal reports on the black experience in America to offer a case for greater equality.

Earlier this spring, she earned a George Polk Award for radio reporting for “The Problem We All Live With,” broadcast on “This American Life.” For that story, she investigated the Normandy School District in Missouri, from which Michael Brown had graduated just before he was killed in nearby Ferguson. The two-part series examines school integration and the impact of resistance by largely white communities.

Building on the keynote, four panels will address the ethical challenges journalists face when dealing directly and indirectly with issues of race and ethnicity. Session topics will include:

  • Journalistic representations of race: language, imagery, sources and their effects
  • Journalism ethics and race in education coverage
  • Journalism ethics and race in criminal justice coverage
  • Solutions to the issues raised throughout the conference

“We’re looking forward to a challenging, stimulating and productive day of candid discussion,” Professor Robert Drechsel, director of the center, says. “Whether the context is politics, criminal justice, education, sports, the economy or national security, journalism inherently plays a critical role in framing issues and images of race and ethnicity for the public. The question is not whether journalism does this, but how and with what impact.”

Also during the conference, the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics will be presented to the Associated Press for its handling of ethical issues encountered in the reporting of a series of stories revealing the use of slave labor by the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. The stories resulted in the freeing of 2,000 slave laborers. Two of the reporters who did the stories will participate in a panel discussion of the ethical issues they faced and how they resolved them.

This is the eighth annual conference of the Center of Journalism Ethics, housed in UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Founded in 2008, the center’s mission is to foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism.


Conference tomorrow: Find schedule here

Online registration for the conference is now closed. But, we will accept registration at the door. The registration desk will be near the doors of the Varsity Rooms of Union South’s second floor.

The conference runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 29 in Union South, Madison, Wisconsin.

The cost is $25, and includes lunch.

The full program booklet is available.

Registration for all students and UW-Madison faculty/staff is free. Email questions to the Center at

8:30 Breakfast and registration
8:50 Opening remarks
9 Keynote address Nikole Hannah-Jones New York Times Magazine
10 Panel — Representing Race: Language, Imagery, Sources and Issues for Journalists Sue Robinson, moderator UW-Madison SJMC
Henry Sanders Madison365
Patty Loew UW-Madison Life Sciences Communication
Alan Gomez USA Today
11:15 Panel — Education Matters: Covering Racial Dynamics and Examining Journalism’s Role Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, moderator UW-Madison Education Leadership and Policy Analysis
Sue Robinson UW-Madison SJMC
Nikole Hannah-Jones New York Times Magazine
Lisa Gartner Tampa Bay Times
12:15 Lunch
12:45 Shadid award presentation Jack Mitchell, Shadid committee chair UW-Madison SJMC
Nada Shadid, award presenter
Robin McDowell Associated Press
Martha Mendoza Associated Press
1:45 Panel — Questions of Justice: Crime, Inequality and News Media Hemant Shah, moderator UW-Madison SJMC
Katy Culver UW-Madison SJMC
Mike Koval Madison Police Department
Matt Braunginn Young, Gifted and Black
Jaweed Kaleem Los Angeles Times
3:15 Plenary Session — Tomorrow’s Work: Moving Forward on Race and Journalism Keith Woods, moderator NPR
Maria Len-Rios University of Georgia
Brent Jones USA Today
4:30 Closing remarks

Rewriting history: Anniversary stories, shared memory and minority voices

by Meagan Doll & Steven Wang, CJE fellows

“What is often a winner is a story that the audience largely finds familiar with perhaps a palatable twist in it,” Mascall-Dare said. “What I found is that if I go into a story with a framing strategy that my audience finds very comforting and that basically fits the grand narrative, and then I smuggle in the new, interesting, controversial, challenging stuff, they can better go along with it.”

Events like this week’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day bring a predictable onslaught of anniversary and remembrance stories.

The events of the past are memorialized, recreated and retold in the age-old practice of the anniversary story.

“Though the stories are about the past, we are building memories for the future generations,” said Carolyn Kitch, a journalism professor at Temple University.

But, there’s an ethical problem with accepting the truth that’s been told before as the only version of the truth.

Re-purposing the same narrative year after year can reinforce the marginalization of previously unheard voices, said Gregory Favre, a former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee and vice president for McClatchy Newspapers.

Journalists have ethical responsibilities to both their audiences and people who lived the events to dig deeper, Kitch said.

Today, journalists and scholars need to do more to analyze how anniversary news stories can perpetuate stereotypes, said independent journalist and media ethics scholar Sharon Mascall-Dare.

“When we’re thinking about journalism in the context of racialized anniversary stories where journalists have to interrogate narratives and think carefully about how stories are told and the shaping of collective memory and the ethical responsibility that goes with telling that story well and accurately.”


For those who believe journalism to be a first draft of history, anniversary stories provide a second (or 100th) opportunity to explore, amend and reinforce collective memory associated with high-profile events.

Stephen Ward, a media ethicist now based in Madison, Wisconsin, said it is difficult for journalists to construct an accurate memory.

But, particularly when these anniversary stories have an element of race, the collective memory may not be accurate. Ward said reporters and audiences default to subtle biases that are particularly problematic when the coverage is about minority groups.

“We accept certain narratives,” Ward said. History as told in news coverage tends to reinforce the established mainstream view, or a white man view regarding stories including racial minorities.

Anniversary reporting amplifies a certain social memory because journalists  spread one version of the events to those who aren’t eyewitnesses, she said.

“Social memory is about the public constructing shared meanings,” Kitch said.

Journalists should also be sensitive to ideologies embedded in stories commemorating historical events, Ward added. Anniversary reporting of events like Sept. 11 attacks and D-Day can easily take on a patriotic perspective.

For example, anniversary coverage of Sept. 11 generally emphasizes patriots and heroic events, while downplaying the ethic discrimination toward “the enemies,” Ward said.


Favre, who in addition to working for the Bee and McClatchy wrote about remembering  Hurricane Katrina for Poynter, said said anniversary stories play a part in preventing similar tragedies to those which are often commemorated.

“The function of anniversary stories is to rekindle memories, of course” he said. “But it is also to make sure people don’t forget – if things can be prevented in the future, perhaps this is another step to prevention.”

But even the decision about which stories to retell is made without marginalized voices in mind.

Mascall-Dare, who is based Adelaide, South Australia, said there has been a historic focus on reader figures, influencing whose stories are magnified.

Editors and journalists choose to commemorate with news coverage the stories and events they think will attract the largest audience.

“Often, reader figures, click figures, listener figures come first,” she said.

Mascall-Dare said the consequence of this reality is that the stories of racial minorities often go unheard.

She points to a national day of remembrance for military veterans in Australia and New Zealand as an example. The day was originally created to specifically honor the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

“The Anzac story has essentially become a national defining narrative,” Mascall-Dare said. “And race comes into that narrative because [ANZAC Day] tends to be dominated very much by a narrative that privileges an image of the iconic anglo-saxon Australian soldier, to the exclusion of indigenous soldiers and other migrant nationalities.”

While Mascall-Dare’s research challenges racial inequities present in some anniversary stories, she also warned that journalists must proceed with caution when writing about pre-conceived racialized stories.

Journalism, which counts conflict among its central news values, will often highlight the controversy of racial diversity as a storytelling technique, Mascall-Dare said. Reporters can tell more accurate stories by listening to sources rather than inserting their own narrative, she said.

“It’s important when engaging with people in a cross-cultural context that we allow the people we’re engaging with to set their own terms about what they do or don’t think is appropriate and to decide whether the subject matter is even race related,” she said. “Sometimes a story that may have a race connection may turn out that race is not even the crux of it.”


Embed from Getty Images

When journalists set out to report an anniversary story, they often begin by returning to the breaking news published at the time of the event, said Kitch. Kitch, who is also chairwoman of Journalism and Mass Communication at Temple’s School of Media and Communication, has long focused her research on journalism history and public memory.

“Try to put a fresh face on stories,” Favre said. “The problem is some people just recycle the same old, same old and that doesn’t advance those stories or look at them in a different way.”

Bringing in minority voices is a delicate balance, Mascall-Dare said, admitting that the odds may feel against those trying to challenge the dominant narrative.

“You’ve got to be very strategic about how you go about it as a communicator,” she added.

Favre said he tries to make anniversary stories into contemporary reflections.

“I always like to look forward. Where are we now? What has taken place to make sure the levees won’t break again in New Orleans?” he said. “Looking back doesn’t always serve your reader well.”

Ward said a self-indulgent sentiment is the first thing to avoid. The interpretation of past events should have a critical emphasis on their social impacts, he said.

The focus should be about  how audiences can understand the present problems better by looking back at them. Mascall-Dare had similar advice for journalists: Adopt a challenging perspective within a largely familiar story.

What is often a winner is a story that the audience largely finds familiar with perhaps a palatable twist in it,” she said. “What I found is that if I go into a story with a framing strategy that my audience finds very comforting and that basically fits the grand narrative, and then I smuggle in the new, interesting, controversial, challenging stuff, they can better go along with it.”



Mascall-Dare said anniversary stories can add depth to simplistic grand views of history.

“The  beauty is that by exploring other perspectives which might be seen as alternative or irrelevant or confusing, surely that’s where you can add to the richness of understanding around that event,” she said. “You can aspire to a far more inclusive and socially and ethically responsible representation when you’re not privileging some voices over others or marginalizing particular perspectives.”


Moving toward these goals, Mascall-Dare encouraged journalists to do their part to teach and not simply entertain.

“I would argue that this is where journalists need to think about their role as not just feeding a hungry animal,” she said. “In order to challenge audience perspectives and bring them onside with new and alternatives ways of thinking about that narrative, you do need to be prepared to step into that role of an educator.”

Favre encouraged journalists to do more than rehash the past.

This can involve telling people “what they don’t necessarily want to hear,” Favre said, suggesting that journalist can become too dependent on entertainment value and audience statistics.

Kitch said journalists should lead public attention to work still needed to be done and provide the political and economic context for racial inequality.

Ward suggested a more-diverse newsroom as solution to combat racial inequities especially.

“You need people who really understand the culture,” he said. “You’ve got to take time and effort to know those people, without taking out your threatening notepads at first.”

Mascall-Dare added that change can begin with one’s own moral conscience, encouraging journalists to call out unethical reporting in the newsroom.

“For any young journalist in the profession today, that’s what they need to be aspiring to – brave, courageous, outspoken, challenging, confronting journalism,” she said. “If we’ve gone into the job for the right reason, you should have no qualms about standing up and calling out cliche or unethical reporting when you see it. At the end as journalists, isn’t that what we’re all meant to do?”

This story is one in an occasional series about Race, Ethnicity and Journalism Ethics. These stories will culminate in the center’s annual conference April 29.

Ethics in the news – Dec. 8

The group representing black journalists is in serious financial trouble, according to a Huffington Post story Monday.

The National Association of Black Journalists is in such dire straights, it is considering using a Ford Foundation grant designated for strategic planning to pay the bills, the story said. The 40-year-old organization, which is the largest representing minority journalists, may have to shutter its physical location in College Park, Maryland.

Journalism ethics and their formalized codes often talk about interactions with the public through interviews, publishing, and responses to what is published. But, racial representation with the newsroom is an ethical consideration of the same importance because it helps news organizations seek and report the truth. Representation in the newsroom is reflected in those public interactions.

Kathleen Culver, associate director, wrote about how a lack of representation in the news for decades and centuries has lead to distrust among racial and ethnic minorities of traditional news organizations.

It’s an issue news media have talked about for decades without much improvement. Newspapers under 50,000 circulation have median of zero minority reporters. Even top-circulation papers like The New York Times recognize their need to diversify.

Because reaching diverse audiences can boost revenues as well as connection with communities, some see reader demands for more diverse newsrooms as a way to change numbers that have been stagnant for years. But, the pipelines to professional newsrooms – student media – are still mostly white as well.

Nieman Labs this summer asked Twitter for ideas and solutions.

Read the ASNE newsroom survey that tracks diversity.

In other ethics in the news this week:

Ethics Center in the news:

A Different Lens on Race, Media and Ethics

I never thought I would write this: I was troubled by something, and Donald Trump helped me figure it out.

Coming off the recent confrontation between protesters and journalists at the University of Missouri, I felt unsettled. My social media feeds — loaded with journalists, educators and students — almost immediately dissolved into a binary. Many in my circles decried attempts to deprive reporters of their rights to be doing their jobs in a public space. You were either for the free press rights of journalists or you were against. I couldn’t even raise questions about the protesters’ perspectives in comments without being derided for not giving the First Amendment a full-throated defense.

Kathleen Culver

Kathleen Culver

So here it is: of course journalists have a right to report in public spaces if people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The prof was wrong, and yes, it was particularly regrettable on a campus housing one of the world’s most noted journalism schools.

But as I told my students in discussions of the controversy, if we’re going to move forward on race, we need to do better than a binary. We need to take a serious look at the protesters’ lack of trust in news reporters and concerns about having their narratives misconstrued by media that all too often get race wrong. And we ought to think about how locking media out of movements has power to perpetuate and expand the wrongs we’re already not righting.

Yet I was still troubled.

Enter: The Donald.

When the GOP candidate recently said of a black protester at one of his campaign events “maybe he should have been roughed up,” it called to my mind Trump’s security earlier removing Univision reporter Jorge Ramos from a press conference. My concern then crystallized for me. News media and citizen protesters both deeply need their rights to free expression and assembly when taking on powerful forces like Trump, who have tapped into racial discord for political advantage. Yet Mizzou demonstrated that many do not see the union in that struggle. Both sides seemed irreparably wedded — to quote Nat Hentoff — to “free speech for me, but not for thee.”

Screenshot of CNN interview with Jorge Ramos.

The struggle is shared

The thin understanding of the First Amendment among media friends and colleagues in the wake of Mizzou stunned me. First and foremost, they equated freedom of “the press” with freedom of “established news media.” But a look at free expression case law in the 20th Century (there’s almost none before that) shows a U.S. Supreme Court skeptical of that reading. The amendment’s ban on “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” refers not to press as institution, but as instrument, scholars argue. It does not cover individual speakers via “speech” and news media via “the press.” It covers spoken and written expression.

It’s critical to remember that the Bill of Rights, including the speech and press clauses of the First Amendment, are individual rights, not institutional ones. And the fight for those rights has been long, convoluted and often tightly tied to social upheavals of the time. It should be lost on no one that one of the nation’s most important cases upholding freedom of the press was actually a civil rights case.

In 1964, the Supreme Court held in New York Times v. Sullivan that public officials had to prove what is known as “actual malice” when bringing libel suits related to their official conduct. The particulars of that standard are not important here. What’s key is that the decision made it far more difficult for public officials to win libel cases.

Leaders of the March on Washington pose at the Lincoln Memorial , Aug. 28, 1963. (Photo courtesy of the Archives Foundation and used here under Creative Commons license.)

How is this related to civil rights and the struggle for racial equality? In the case, Sullivan and others had sued the Times over an ad titled “Heed Their Rising Voices,” which sought to raise funds to help defend Martin Luther King Jr. Libel litigation had been an incredibly effective weapon for Southern officials trying to intimidate journalists, and the national media in particular, from reporting on the civil rights movement. At the time the Sullivan case was decided, news media faced hundreds of millions of dollars in libel judgments in cases brought by politicians and authorities to silence coverage critical of their behavior.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sullivan overturned these outstanding judgments, finding that public officials can successfully sue for false statements that damage their reputation only when they can show the publisher knew those statements were false or had reckless disregard for the truth. This standard is tremendously protective and liberated national media in reporting on civil rights and racial prejudice in the South.

Learning lessons

This history lesson is important for both journalists — including all the pals in my social media feeds — and protesters to bear in mind. Let’s start with those student protesters on the quad at Mizzou. I understand the lack of trust. Decades (centuries, actually) of flawed and biased reporting, intractable stereotyping and newsrooms that are anything but racially and socioeconomically diverse. These are the things that rightfully prompt these students of color to see established news media as yet another institution that furthers white power and squelches progress on race.

King and his fellow civil rights leaders might have felt the same way. After all, where was the New York Times during what Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative justifiably called the “racial terrorism of lynching” throughout the South after the collapse of reconstruction? Where were local newspapers fighting back against poll taxes, literacy tests and other attempts to deny voter rights? The answer: Nowhere to be found.


Yet no matter how flawed or how late these news media were, civil rights leaders recognized them as an essential tool in the struggle. It made strategic sense to stay open and connected, regardless of prior and current poor treatment. And indeed, I cannot imagine the historic resignation of top University of Missouri administrators without the pressure brought by international media coverage of the protests and statements by the school’s football team.

Protests have emerged at campuses nationwide. (Photo by Max Goldberg on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.)

An alum recently asked me how in the world student protesters at Yale and Princeton could reject the Bill of Rights as inventions by white men to preserve their own power. I answered, “Two words: Jim Crow.” In the U.S., we have never come to terms with the legacies of legalized segregation and the lasting effects of suppressing the rights of some citizens based on their race. The protesters’ viewpoints are easily apparent to me even though, as a white woman, I have never lived their reality. Yet it was national media coverage of their protests that informed me last week that President Woodrow Wilson was responsible for a disastrous resegregation of federal employees. I’d certainly never learned that before.

In the main, preserving access for news media will further these students’ causes, even when coverage overall can rightfully be attacked.

Rights and responsibilities

But most of the media-focused commenters in my feeds would have it stop there. It is up to the protestors to understand that we have a right to be there and it’s ultimately in their own interests. It’s up to citizens to appreciate the protections of the First Amendment and see how vital a free press is to democracy.

I couldn’t disagree more. Those of us involved with news media — whether as journalists, students or educators — have a duty, an ethical obligation, to build trust with our communities and help ensure that understanding and appreciation.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin (who I now know is also a favorite of Nicholas Kristof’s) poses an interesting pairing of our freedoms — one that I’ve always found especially applicable to news media. The first concept is the one we all think about when we consider liberty, what he calls “negative freedoms.” This liberty depends on freedom from interference by others. In journalism, this means government is restrained from meddling in our activities – the press is “free from” interference.

But we often ignore Berlin’s twin concept, a positive or affirmative view of liberty. This tells us that people also have freedom to make decisions and serve as their own masters. The press is “free to” serve the public’s interest and build trust. It’s this second obligation that seems to get lost in cases like Mizzou. We’re so busy defending our “freedom from” that we forget to maximize our “freedom to.”

This kind of moral certainty, the absolute defense of a value we hold, troubled Berlin, who wrote, “Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving of certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past.”

And I think, in the end, it’s what troubled me. In so staunchly defending our rights, many of us overlooked the question of our responsibilities. In demanding to know why we were kept out, we failed to ask why people didn’t trust us enough to let us in. And that, to me, is the most important lesson Mizzou can teach us.

This piece originally appeared on MediaShift. Reposted here with permission.