Racial Profiling in the Newsroom

Article excerpt

This article examines patterns of story assignments at a metropolitan daily newspaper. The study's content analysis documents a form of racial profiling in which African American reporters write stories mostly about minority issues, while white reporters write stories mostly about government and business. Interviews with journalists documented the widespread belief that experience as a member of a racial minority helps the newspaper provide better coverage of minority issues. However, journalists of all races spoke of racial diversity only when they were talking about minority reporters and minority-oriented topics. The hegemony of whiteness was such that none of the journalists appeared to have thought about the role of whiteness in the coverage of the largely white realms of politics and business.

Although journalists of color continue to be vastly underrepresented in American newsrooms relative to the proportion of people of color in the U.S. population, much progress has been made in the past two decades. Minority journalists were 9.5% of all U.S. journalists in 2002, up from 8.2% in 1992 and 3.9% in 1982.1 Minorities accounted for 12.95% of daily-newspaper journalists in 2004, up from 10.49% in 1994 and 5.75% in 1984.2

Increasing the proportion of minority journalists in American newsrooms is an increasingly important subject within the news industry,3 with wide agreement that racial composition of news staffs should reflect the communities they cover.4 However, the discussion within the industry focuses almost entirely on hiring and retaining journalists of color. Little attention has been given to the ways news organizations use minority journalists after they have been hired, making it difficult to assess the validity of critical-race theory as it applies to diversity initiatives.

This article offers data about the role that race plays in the topics reporters write about at a metropolitan daily newspaper. Content analysis compared the kinds of local issues minority and white reporters wrote about at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and interviews with journalists and editors shed light on differences we found. The results, which show that race influenced the kinds of topics journalists covered, have important theoretical implications, suggesting that the hegemony of whiteness can persist even in a newsroom with a relatively high level of racial diversity.

Theoretical Context

jne dominant argument for proportional representation of minority journalists in the newsrooms of mainstream American news organizations (i.e., that such representation will lead to more sensitive, more accurate coverage of African American, Latino, and other minority communities)5 has never been tested systematicaly.

Implicit in the argument that more journalists of color will lead to better coverage of minority-related issues is a second assumption: That coverage of such issues will be, and perhaps should be, accomplished principally by minority journalists. From one point of view, this assumption makes sense-who better to write about historically marginalized groups than members of those groups? From another point of view, though, the assumption threatens to legitimize a form of racial profiling in which journalists of color are disproportionately assigned to cover minority-oriented issues, while white reporters cover the white-dominated arenas of government and business in which decisions are made about distribution of power and resources.

Having minority journalists writing mostly about relatively powerless segments of society, while white journalists write mostly about powerful institutions, may have a certain logic, given that people of color are overrepresented among the powerless and whites overrepresented among the powerful. To the extent that such practices exist, however, they both reinforce white dominance in newsrooms and shed light on the social processes by which white dominance is perpetuated. …