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Home > Publications > Quill > Getting past a ‘white, middle-class’ America



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Tuesday, March 5, 2002
Getting past a ‘white, middle-class’ America

Extreme responses to SPJ’s diversity guidelines emphasize the need for broader coverage of American society.

Sally Lehrman

When SPJ released its guidelines to help journalists avoid racial, ethnic and religious profiling, the response from some quarters was vehement. After a conservative publication ridiculed the statement in October, the SPJ office in Indianapolis received about 20 angry e-mails in one weekend.

“Islam needs a reformation ... not an ass-kissing,” wrote one.

“Head for the Middle East and stay there!” another admonished.

“Members of these suddenly protected groups want to slaughter Americans and wipe out our culture,” objected an online publication.

I’ll admit I was shocked at some of the reaction. The guidelines, taken as a whole, simply ask the media to work harder to make a distinction between terrorists and mainstream Muslims or people who “look” Arab American. But the sometimes angry response to our recommendations helped me realize how important it is to place them more concretely at the center of media’s role in society.

The SPJ ethics code describes our mission to “seek truth and report it.” By doing so, it says, we help the public create justice and maintain democracy. It’s an awesome responsibility. Each time we choose what to cover and who to quote, we influence our readers’ perceptions of the world they live in.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, we were forced to ask ourselves how well we’ve made these choices in recent years. Have we chronicled the rise of mainstream Islam in the United States, particularly among African Americans? Have we covered certain religious minorities with a long history in the United States, such as Sikhs and Hindus? Have we shown the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, including new immigrants to the Midwest from Eastern Europe and South Asia, or long-established populations of Arab Americans in California, Michigan and New York?

Events over the past few months suggest not. A poorly informed public can act stupidly and violently. People across America confused Sikhs, mainstream Muslims, Arab Americans and all kinds of brown-skinned people with terrorists. A Sikh gas station owner in Arizona, a Sihk grocery store owner in Long Island, and a Pakistani grocer in Dallas were killed; an Indian American in San Francisco was stabbed; a 7-11 owned by a Sikh in Long Island was burned down; a Pakistani candy store owner in New York was beaten by five teen-agers. Six months later, the list of beatings, stabbings, harassment and other attacks continues to grow.

Analyses of the news find over and over that certain groups get left out. Journalists repeatedly make the error of portraying America as primarily white and middle class.

Even though Hispanics make up the nation’s largest racial or ethnic minority, the television networks and CNN featured them in only about .5 percent of stories on their evening news broadcasts in 2000. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists surveyed 16,000 reports on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN and found that just 84 were about Latinos – and even those were often stereotypical portrayals, the association said. In the “News and Race Models of Excellence” project at the Poynter Institute last year, researchers found that almost half of the people of color featured in the newspapers they surveyed were sports figures or entertainers. “Framing people of color so predominantly as athletes or entertainers reduces them to curiosities or sources of amusement,” wrote authors Edward Pease, Erna Smith and Federico Subervi.

To me, it is our simple duty as journalists to cover all kinds of people fairly and accurately. Our “Guidelines for Countering Racial, Ethnic and Religious Profiling” could just as well be called “Guidelines to Counter Sloppy Reporting.” They aim to give the media some tools to make informed distinctions and remind us to cover all aspects of a complicated and emotional situation.

There are still very few resources for journalists on covering Islam and Arab Americans, aside from the excellent Detroit Free Press 100 Questions and Answers About Arab Americans. The Newswatch Project at San Francisco State University is now at work on a journalists’ guide to covering Islam. “It is a challenge in reporting that’s going to continue,” said Erna Smith, who is advising the effort.

The guidelines focus on doing the kind of reporting that helps ensure accuracy. Among other things, they ask journalists to:

Although the complaints about these suggestions came faster and more furiously, we also received expressions of deep appreciation. The SPJ recommendations were posted on many journalism Web sites, including those of the ethnic media associations, the Freedom Forum and the Poynter Institute. “I found the guidelines informative, challenging and specific in their instruction,” wrote in Keith Woods, director of diversity programs at the Poynter Institute. “Each point, I thought, was justified – even demanded – by the most widely held journalistic values of accuracy, fairness and balance.”

Some critics of SPJ’s guidelines have suggested we were either advancing some political agenda or were merely duped. Some suggested we were distorting the news and pandering to a subset of society. Some complained we were anti-Semitic. Others accused us of being biased against Christian fundamentalists and racist against anyone who wasn’t Muslim.

These responses taught me that there are many other groups who also feel marginalized or stereotyped by the media. Clearly, the need is great to broaden our scope and think this way about covering all parts of American society.

As Woods put it, “A multitude of factors – as base as prejudice and as complex as societal structure – conspire to keep many people and their opinions out of the news.” It’s our job to make sure we include them.


Sally Lehrman is a free-lance writer and chair of SPJ’s Diversity Committee.

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