Familiar Patterns of Minority Exclusion Follow Mainstream Media Online
Jean Marie Brown
September 21, 2011
This story is from the Fall 2011 issue of Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.
Legacy news organizations have struggled for decades to widen their coverage to include people of color in all aspects of their lives. There are the ubiquitous A-list celebrities, of course, and the crossover musicians and the athletes, and those stories with an emotional punch that transcend the usual norms, but neither print nor broadcast media have consistently portrayed minorities in all facets of American life and culture.
I remember once telling a fellow editor that I had stopped reading a certain section of the paper because I so rarely saw my life or myself—a working black mother—represented in its stories or photographs. Through the years the excuses I heard for these lapses ranged from "we just didn't think about it" or "we didn't have anyone to send" to "there was no space" or "we had to make deadline."
But the Web is supposed to be different, right? Space is unlimited. The ability to aggregate copy gets around staffing concerns. The institutionalized habits (and excuses) that hamstrung the legacy newsrooms aren't part of online culture. Couple this with the notion that we're said to be living in a post-racial society and the result should be rich, vibrant reporting that represents the life experiences of all Americans. It should not be coverage that is stratified by class, race, geography, generation and gender.
At least that's what I expected to find in March when I embarked on a yearlong project for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. My assignment was to examine the content of the homepages of eight websites once a day, Monday through Friday, with an eye toward diversity. Four sites—The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Slateand Salon—were selected to represent mainstream online media. (The word "mainstream" might seem a bit misplaced given its more common reference to legacy media, but for this comparison it makes sense.) Four others—The Root, theGrio, Loop21, and MarioWire—were chosen as minority online media.
Comparing the content of their stories in this way is not unlike what a similar exploration of newspapers might have looked like in the 1950's when black-owned papers still thrived in segregated America. Back then, the minority population was relatively miniscule and more separated in homes, neighborhoods and schools than today. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report, minorities are 36 percent of our population, with Hispanics being the largest group, followed by African Americans. With this percentage in mind, it seemed reasonable to believe more opportunities and motivation would exist for inclusive coverage—for stories and images that reflect people of color in all walks of life.
Yet inclusiveness is not what I've found. After several months of regular weekday screening, I can confirm that mainstream online media are caught in the same loop that ensnared legacy outlets. Their view of minorities is limited, and that in turn hinders their ability to broaden their coverage. The parallels between the legacies and online media are as stark as they are disheartening. Rather than fostering understanding that might help us find common ground, mainstream online media maintain the divisive "us vs. them" mentality that is evident in many of our contemporary conversations about race.
The Huffington Post's homepage, by far, features the greatest diversity of stories, followed by The Daily Beast, where too often the Beast's representation is little more than a link to a celebrity slideshow that includes minorities. Salon and Slate are hit and miss, but mostly miss. Although Slate links to its sister site, The Root, this tangential connection to diversity is stilted, and does little to promote understanding. African Americans are the minority most often covered on the homepage of these websites. When Hispanics appear, it is primarily in episodic stories about immigration. On most days it's a total miss for every other minority group.
Most of the stories focused on African Americans fall into one of three categories: A-list celebrity, person of influence, or athlete. Coverage of the crimes and misdemeanors of sports figures so dominates this space that it's clichéd. Even when a story might seem headed in a positive direction, the slide toward the negative seems almost inevitable. Tracking this was easy when the topic was Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
In April, Vick, who had served jail time for his abuse of dogs, joined with the Humane Society in asserting that the Dog Wars phone app promoted dog fighting. Vick's decision offered an opportunity for a story about a good deed done simply for the doing—without payment or legal ramifications. The Huffington Post headlined The Associated Press story with this in mind. Above the article, however, appeared a menacing photo of Vick; my eyes were drawn to it immediately as it reminded me of the infamous Time cover of O.J. Simpson, his facial skin darkened for effect. In comparison, theGrio, using the same AP story that day, paired it with an image that showed him smiling.
In July, Nike re-signed Vick to an endorsement deal. Salon noted this with a post in support of Nike's decision. But its headline "Why Is Michael Vick Shilling for Nike?" likely left those scanning the page with a very different impression.
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