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March 5, 2009

Mass media not all black & white, P-G staffer says

“I’ll cut to the chase and address why an aging white guy is talking to you about race and the media,” said Mark Roth, senior staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at a Center on Race and Social Problems Feb. 17 lecture.

Roth, who has more than 30 years of experience as a newspaper writer and editor, explored three broad themes as reasons for listening to what he had to say: America’s shifting racial demographics; the dangers of judging newspapers solely on the number of race-related stories they publish, and the responsibility of established journalists to keep the lessons of history alive in the public consciousness.

“I and all of us are in the midst of a rapid sea change in the racial makeup of this country, and I don’t think we’re at all prepared for it. We’re riding the crest of this wave and trying to stay balanced, but without knowing where it’s going to take us,” said Roth in his lecture, “Not All Black and White: The Challenges of Covering Race in the Mass Media.”

According to a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau report, Caucasians are expected to be in the minority of the American population by 2042, Roth noted. “Even more interesting is that a tipping point will occur in 2023, when Caucasian kids who are 18 and under in 2023 will no longer be in the majority of that cohort.”

However, that growing minority population is not reflected adequately in the racial makeup of news journalists, Roth maintained. In 1978, about 4 percent of the 46,000 journalists nationally were minorities. “That’s even roughly a decade after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, when a push began to get more diversity in the newsroom,” he said.

“Come forward 30 years, and in 2008 we have 56,600 full-time journalists — a number that’s grown, but nowhere near as much as the overall population — and minorities are up to 13.5 percent, still not achieving a proportional representation of the country as a whole.”

One of the positive ramifications of this continued imbalance is that the news media have altered the longstanding perception that stories dealing either with the black community or black issues have to be covered by black journalists, Roth maintained. “I believe I need to be able to explore these issues in my job as a journalist, just as much as I believe that black journalists need to explore issues in the white society,” a lesson black journalists by necessity learn early on, he said. “They are consistently put in situations where they are the minority because most stories are about white people, and they have to deal with that. In newspapers, traditionally, when you’re starting out the first assignments are suburban or even rural coverage. In western Pennsylvania that means the person covering a meeting may be the only black person there. Black journalists have to get used to that very quickly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

The imbalance also means more white journalists are covering black issues, he said. “Unfortunately, part of the reason we have to keep doing it that way is that our record as an industry, while it has improved, is still nowhere near the ideal. We still have a long way to go on that,” Roth said. “In the meantime, we have to think about stories and write about them no matter what our racial makeup is. The issues of race and class not only are not going away, they’re going to become increasingly important and increasingly complicated and nuanced.”

He cited as an example a recent Post-Gazette story on two young biracial friends reflecting on Barack Obama’s election. “One friend wanted to be known as being biracial and was willing to fight anyone who called her either black or white. She was a little angry that Obama hadn’t declared himself to be biracial rather than black; she felt he ought to be leading the way for her perspective on things,” Roth recounted. “The other friend wanted to be known as black, even though physically she appeared less black than her biracial friend. There are all kinds of complicated issues swirling around in this story. I think these kinds of conversations and complex issues are going to continue on into the future.”

Roth noted that many of his generation of news journalists are leaving the profession, partly due to age and partly because the industry is in trouble economically. “I’m in a generation of journalists that, when we started out, lived through the civil rights struggle,” he said. “We are populating our newsrooms with younger reporters who by-and-large did not live through those years. So one reason I personally feel a strong motivation to stay in touch with these issues is because it’s important to bring a perspective of somebody who, even as a white person who was very new to these issues, lived though those times.”

When riots broke out in major U.S. cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the news was covered almost exclusively by white reporters because of the dearth of black journalists. “For many reporters this was a transformative experience. They had been in journalism, their newspapers had done some coverage of the black community, but a lot of these folks had never had to deal with something so traumatic, so disturbing, so important, and for many of them it changed their lives forever,” Roth said. “So I think we have a responsibility to pass on that legacy to younger journalists, some of whom come into their jobs expecting certain rights and privileges who don’t really have any idea — whether it’s the issue of race or of gender or of gays — what some people in previous generations had to go through to allow them to have the opportunities they have.”

Roth also defended the news media against the perception that news coverage targets African Americans for negative stories.

“When we’ve talked to community groups about this issue, what’s often mentioned is how often we run crime stories that only talk about blacks, that only show black faces,” he said. “First of all we [at the Post-Gazette] rarely explicitly mention race unless there’s a suspect who’s being hunted, or in rare cases where race seems to be a relevant cause of the crime. People think the stories mention race more than they do, because the stories mention location and readers make their own inferences. If you write a crime story, you have to say where the crime took place. Neighborhoods can act as a proxy for race in these inferences,” especially in heavily segregated Pittsburgh, he said.

Roth said his accounting of P-G stories in the first half of February showed exactly the opposite: The vast majority — 41 — of all stories that mentioned African Americans or blacks were positive versus nine he would categorize as negative and three as neutral.

“This may be somewhat skewed because we’re in the middle of Black History Month, but let me tell you that this kind of proportion is not atypical at all,” he said.

In the nine negative stories, four were crime stories with a suspect at large. “The rest I labeled as negative, although they were actually stories about ongoing discrimination,” Roth said. “One story, for instance, was the lack of blacks and Latinos in chamber music groups, an arts story. These kinds of stories are really negative only in the sense of holding the majority society up to scrutiny. The 41 that were positive were everything from listing documentaries to profiles of people. At any rate, this kind of pattern is pretty consistent. This surprises people and some may debate whether that’s actually true.”

Perceptions can be deceiving, Roth maintained. “There are research studies that find in a scientific way that our memories of bad things far outweigh our memories of good things. That’s just a common human condition not particular to anybody of a certain race,” he said. “So when people see the negative stories about race, even though there are many fewer of them, they remember them more.”

On the flip side, reporters also will feel a backlash from readers who object to the relevance of certain race-based stories. Roth cited the example of a story he wrote on Larry Davis, dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems.

“When I did a profile on Dr. Davis, one of his primary themes, part of his ongoing research, is the legacy of slavery and how it’s never gone away,” Roth said. “He talked about that in a very articulate way, and I wrote down what he said. Any reporter at the Post-Gazette who’s ever written about racial discrimination and the ongoing impact of it gets ‘the calls,’” as Roth termed the complaints that invariably follow. “It’s angry white men who get on the phone and say they’re sick and tired of reading about this. Their grandparents immigrated after slavery; their grandparents never owned slaves; they get along fine with black people; they have lots of friends who are black people. Why don’t we get off this hobby-horse? The fact of the matter is I don’t think we do half as many stories as we ought to on these important issues, but every time we do, we get that set of calls. This goes to the ongoing challenge of trying to change public attitudes and getting more progress going in the best way we can as journalists,” he said.

“Part of the challenge to covering race issues is not just to never forget the civil rights struggle. We have to go back much further than that. We have to never forget slavery; never forget the Civil War; Reconstruction, Jim Crow. Without that, we won’t really know where we came from. We won’t really understand not only how much things are changing, but how much they’re still the same. It is so important for us to write the kind of history stories where people in the past tried to achieve the same kind of justice we’re trying to achieve today, and to remind us of how far we still have to go.”

—Peter Hart

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