Aug 10, 2019

The media struggle to talk about race, too

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The role of race in the recent hate-fueled violence — along with President Trump's increasingly brazen embrace of racist stereotypes and language — has highlighted the news media's struggles in talking about race, hate and other painful issues of divisiveness.

The big picture: News organizations are expected to stick to the facts and avoid taking sides, but they're under growing pressure not to mislabel statements and actions that most Americans would consider racist. And the lack of diversity in newsrooms means many have blind spots on issues of race that become obvious in their coverage.

Driving the news: The New York Times came under fire on Tuesday for running the headline "Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism" on an article on the president's remarks on mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

  • While the article itself was largely considered fair, the headline was criticized for focusing solely on Trump’s remarks and disregarding the hostility of his previous tweets and statements. The Times changed the headline online and in the next print edition.

Why it matters: While the Times was the latest center of attention, they are not alone. Across the board, newsrooms have drawn backlash for their coverage of recent events.

  • The Atlantic notes that many newsrooms failed to fully address the shooting in El Paso as it relates to hate, because they neglected to identify those targeted: Latinos. While mass shootings have become alarmingly common, ones where the victims are hunted because of their ethnicity are less so. The shooter admitted to police he drove 650 miles to the Texas Walmart to shoot Mexicans, and coverage has been rather light on placing his motive within the sphere of anti-immigrant rhetoric our country is facing.
  • Politico was criticized for writing that Trump's tweets attacking Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and his Baltimore district, which is primarily black, were a continuation of his "racially charged drumbeat." As many on Twitter noted, racism is not a song.
  • ABC's World News Tonight ran "racially charged" in a tweet of their own talking about Trump's tweets telling 4 Democratic congresswomen to "go back" to where they came from, despite 3 being American born and all being American citizens. ABC's language dismayed some viewers.
  • And we've been wrong as well. In our coverage, Axios first dubbed the tweets against the congresswomen a "nativist attack." After internal discussions, we decided to characterize such comments as "racist" in future coverage.

The other side: In contrast, NPR got backlash for calling the tweets racist, saying their inbox was filled with "passionate (and yes, often angry)" reader and listener responses against the decision.

Between the lines: The standards of journalism require us to avoid emotional judgment in order to provide a factual report. Describing statements or actions as racist when they are is part of factual reporting.

Some media critics say that watering down descriptions of those racist comments is inadequate in the current climate. Columbia University's Bill Grueskin, a former journalist, told AP that the stakes now are similar to the civil rights movement, a moral issue that was so clear that some reporters abandoned their usual reluctance to suggest who was right and wrong.

Newsrooms could improve in several ways:

  • Newsrooms are still overwhelmingly white. While there's been improvement, a 2016 study from the American Society of News Editors found that the minority workforce in traditional print and digital news publications only reached 17%. When underserved voices are not given a role in coverage, that coverage suffers.
  • What makes journalists different, be it sexuality, gender identity, race or ethnicity, can often be seen as a bias. In fact, these differences strengthen coverage and make news stories more accurate.

Our thought bubble: Axios has room to grow in this regard, too, and we are always looking for ways to evaluate our own coverage. We welcome your feedback at news@axios.com.

Go deeper: America's hate problem

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Data: Real Clear Politics for polling average through 8/30, Sprout Social for tweets, NewsWhip for article mentions through 8/25, and the Internet Archive's Television News Archive for cable news mentions through 8/28; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

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Biden: Racism in the U.S. is a white man’s problem

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at the Iowa Federation Labor Convention on Aug. 21. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

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What presidents say matter … They can make markets rise and fall. They can send people to war. They can, in fact, also appeal to the worst damn instincts of human nature."
— Biden's remarks to reporters, according to USA Today
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