Coverage of Affirmative Action: Too Simplistic, Lacking Context

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Nadra Kareem Nittle
October 25, 2012

Illustration by Roberto Delgado

When the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Oct. 12 on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, affirmative action was thrust back into the news.

Abigail Fisher, a white applicant to the university, alleges that the institution’s affirmative action program caused her to be denied admission. The outcome of the case will determine the extent that college and universities are allowed to use race as a factor in admissions policies.

A major concern for civil rights and social justice advocates who support affirmative action is how media cover the issue. Frequently, experts say, the coverage is simplistic and fails to put affirmative action in the proper context. They say news outlets can improve reporting by clarifying affirmative action, how it functions and who benefits from it.

“The media [have] a lot of control over how they frame affirmative action,” says Laura Stoker, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. “Affirmative action is both a symbol people react to and a set of policies that are carried out to promote diversity.”

These policies range widely and include diversity in hiring and in awarding government contracts to underrepresented groups, says Stoker, who has conducted research on the public’s views of affirmative action. She says the concept of affirmative action tends to vary from one person to the next and adds that Americans oppose or support affirmative action based on what their view of what it is.

The public largely supports affirmative action in some circumstances, such as when a company that has discriminated against blacks is ordered to diversify personnel, Stoker says. More opposition arises, however, when affirmative action is used as a broad remedy to level the playing field among the races. Stoker says the media must be specific when discussing affirmative action cases.

Defining affirmative action isn’t Stoker’s only concern. She says it’s also important that the public understand why affirmative action policies exist in the first place.

“The bigger issue is the rationale behind the character of the program,” she says. “What the heck is the program, what the heck are the different programs, what are their rationales?” Stoker says equipping the public with this information prevents people from having a knee-jerk reaction when hearing the term “affirmative action” in the news.

Gregory T. Chambers, president of the American Association for Affirmative Action in Washington, D.C., cautions the media not to rely heavily on negative terms such as “reverse discrimination” and “preferential treatment” when discussing affirmative action.

“It actually has to do with access and opportunity and outreach,” he says. “How do you bring people into your organization that are diverse, and once you get them there, what do you do to keep them? Affirmative action has more to do with access and opportunity and inclusion. Those are positive words.”

Chambers says the media could also improve reporting on affirmative action by talking to experts in the field rather than to pundits. He recommends that the media reach out to professionals who have implemented affirmative action plans or work for institutions of higher learning. He also suggests that the media refrain from presenting affirmative action as a partisan issue.

A Republican, Chambers says he supports affirmative action. Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser and secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, is among high-profile conservatives who publicly back affirmative action. Bush himself said he favored affirmative action programs that assist women and minorities but don’t offer an outright advantage over others.

Thomas Pettigrew, research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says the media should also paint a nuanced portrait of affirmative action’s beneficiaries. African-Americans and other people of color aren’t the only ones who benefit from the practice. “Women have benefited more than some other groups, but you almost never hear it discussed more in gender terms than as a black-white issue,” he says. Some companies owned by women, for example, have won government contracts, thanks to affirmative action.

Too often when affirmative action is discussed in the media as a racial issue, Pettigrew says, the assumption is that people of color in the equation are “all incompetent.”

Chambers says beneficiaries of affirmative action constitute an eclectic group. “It is about people of color,” he says. “It’s also about veterans. It’s about the disabled. It’s a little more broad than they make it look.”

Racial groups affected by affirmative action are also broader than the media typically report, says Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity and youth rights project at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.

For far too long, she says, Asian-Americans have been ignored when mainstream media discuss affirmative action. “I think the media has traditionally looked at affirmative action from a majority/minority perspective, which I think has traditionally been black versus white,” she says.

Now, Aung says Asian-Americans have received more coverage related to affirmative action, but she disagrees with how they have been featured.

“There’s been an effort by Fisher and her supporters to paint Asian-Americans as victims of affirmative action,” she says. That’s because Asian-Americans largely excel in higher education, but Aung says some Asian subgroups remain underrepresented in the nation’s colleges and universities and would benefit from affirmative action programs.

“Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders face much higher educational disparities than other Asian subgroups,” Aung says. “They have low college attainment, closer to blacks and Latinos.”

Because of this, she says the media should not lump Asian-Americans with whites when affirmative action is involved. While a few Asian groups support Fisher’s efforts to ban affirmative action, far more Asian organizations support the practice, she says.

Chambers says that as long as discrimination exists, affirmative action will be an issue. He says the media sometimes ignore existence of racial bias when reporting on affirmative action. Reporters discuss discrimination as if it’s a relic from the past rather than an ongoing problem. “Race still matters,” he says.


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