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Home > Publications > Quill > Grappling with diversity and journalistic privilege


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Friday, February 2, 2007
Grappling with diversity and journalistic privilege

By Andrea Lewis

As co-host and producer of a daily radio talk show in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m frequently reminded of the privilege I have as a journalist. Every day I’m able to cover different topics, speak to a variety of guests, and help to shape public discourse through the segments we present.

I also try to remember that with journalistic privilege comes the potential to misuse the power of our positions. It’s easy for all of us — even well-meaning journalists who strive to be fair and impartial — to get comfortable and even complacent with our personal perspectives and assumptions. Those assumptions can influence our coverage in subtle and even insidious ways.

Privilege operates on many levels, including class, gender and physical appearance. Perhaps the most prevalent forms of journalistic privilege, however, involve race and ethnicity.

Over the years, numerous writers, activists and journalists of color — including myself — have expressed dismay at the ways that privilege and the lack of diversity in the white-dominated major media have influenced coverage of news stories — from Hurricane Katrina, to the Duke lacrosse scandal, to the recent death of Sean Bell, the unarmed African-American bridegroom who was shot and killed by New York City Police.

How can members of the news media educate ourselves about individuals and communities who may be different than our own? And how do we ensure that our personal privilege doesn’t negatively affect our coverage? I recently spoke to three experts about the issues of diversity, privilege and journalism to get some of their thoughts.

Pamela Newkirk is associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.”

Newkirk believes that an inability to deal with media diversity and privilege can have serious consequences.

“In many of our cities where you have a lack of diversity in news and news organizations, you can have a complete breakdown in communication. And often times that breakdown can be dangerous. Not many African-Americans were surprised with the disparity that was uncovered so glaringly in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” Newkirk said.

She wrote “Within the Veil” in 2002 because at the end of the 1990s, nearly 30 years after the Kerner Commission Report highlighted the need for diversity in the news media, she and others began to notice what she calls diversity fatigue.

“There was the sense that enough had been done and that there wasn’t any need to talk about news diversity because we did in fact have African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and others working at mainstream news organizations — albeit in small numbers.

“I thought it was important to shift the focus away from numbers and look at the actual experiences of African-Americans within mainstream or mainly white news organizations. You can have news organizations that seem fairly reflective of the population in terms of numbers, but the whole challenge of getting a message through that goes against the grain of the mainstream white perspective remains a really, really uphill battle. I think that often times it’s more difficult to present the reality of black life to white audiences because there’s a belief that the stereotypes have more validity than the reality.”

Shakti Butler describes herself as an African-American woman of multiracial heritage. Her work as the executive director of World Trust Educational Services includes producing and directing videos that can serve as catalysts and context for conversations about oppression through the lens of race.

“Not only do Americans have competing realities,” Butler said, “but we are mired in a lack of consciousness or awareness of who we are as individuals, communities and as a nation. As human beings we often have a need to find single truths or simple answers to complex questions. We don’t have time to process, examine or question the belief systems which inform our respective world views.

“Denial, expediency and a lack of curiosity become married to embedded assumptions about the United States being a white country that belongs to white people, who are superior, and ‘others’ who must fully assimilate in order to be accepted.

“When I think about racism — or any other ‘ism’ for that matter — I feel like the media completely misses the opportunity to present information that will allow us to investigate a set of ‘norms’ that are invisible and at the core of a problem that diminishes our past, delimits our present and handicaps our future.”

Before Robert Jensen became professor of journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, he spent 10 years as a working journalist. His most recent book, “The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege,” is a personal look at his efforts to confront his own white male privilege.

“Look at dominant media that provides the majority of folks with their news,” Jensen says. “Some people are uncomfortable talking about white media by identifying the racial character of our dominant media, though we frequently hear about the ethnic media or the black press as if it’s OK to mark the race of nonwhite media. But when we talk about the dominant media, it’s somehow impolite to say it’s a mostly white power structure that’s approaching a mostly white audience and reflecting a mostly white cultural norm.”

Jensen, like Newkirk, says that newsrooms must do more than simply attempt to achieve numerical parity of journalists of color.

“The institutions and their norms have to change,” he said. “This is where I see the most resistance — not only in newsrooms but in our institutions more generally. The people who run things — the predominantly white men, but in general white people at the top are very resistant to shifting those norms — to actually giving up a sense of control and power to shape those norms. That’s where we really see the tension.

“Journalists do, in good faith, try to bracket out their opinions,” Jensen says, “but even committed journalists fall into some of the same problems. It’s not just the evil Klan member who is damaged. You can have the best of intentions but be so shuttered by your lack of experience. One of the things about privilege is that it makes you stupid. It allows you to be stupid because you’re protected from the consequences so often.”


Andrea Lewis is co-host and producer of “The Morning Show” on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She is also a regular contributor to the Progressive Media Project.

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