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On Diversity, or Lack Thereof, in Media Criticism and Newsrooms

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The Poynter Institute, a journalism-education organization, announced this week it hired Andrew Beaujon as a reporter to cover the media, taking over where Jim Romenesko left off. Beaujon (who is a former colleague of mine from TBD) said he plans to devote more coverage to ethnic media outlets than is seen in today’s current media criticism.

“It’s barely covered at all,” he told DCentric. “If you read about, say, [black newspaper] the Chicago Defender, it’s only ever about its financial troubles. And I’m certainly interested in that, but I’m also curious about how those papers and websites connect with their communities.”

Although Beaujon plans to report on ethnic media, the appointment of another white man as a prominent media critic inspired Washington City Paper‘s Shani Hilton to ask: is media criticism a white boys’ club? She lists off prominent media critics including Howard Kurtz, Erik Wemple, Richard Prince, Jack Shafer and David Carr, all of whom, except for one, is a white man. (Another exception is Eric Deggans, Wemple notes).

The lack of diversity among prominent media critics is somewhat reflected in print media outlets. In 2011, racial minorities made up 12.79 percent of newspaper newsrooms, a decline of about half a percent from the previous year, according to the American Society of News Editors newsroom census.

But while it’s easy to measure the diversity, or lack thereof, in a newsroom, gauging diversity coverage is a different matter. Hiring more minority reporters can help improve coverage of minority communities, but it doesn’t guarantee it. News judgement decisions aren’t always left up to reporters; editors and managers are also involved. And not all minority journalists want to only cover their own ethnic communities. On the flip side, a white journalist can aim to improve coverage of minority issues. Which is what Beaujon appears to want to do.

Explaining the Coverage Gap for Missing People of Color

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A reward poster near television news trucks in San Diego, Calif. advertises the reward for finding Danielle van Dam, 7.

A new TV show premiered this week on TV One, focusing on cases of missing African Americans. One of the first featured stories was about a missing D.C. black woman.

The show, “Finding Our Missing,” aims to correct the disparity in coverage of missing African Americans. For years, critics have blasted media outlets for devoting significant airtime to cases of missing white women, while not devoting similar coverage to cases of missing blacks or Latinos.

Why is there such a disparity, or “coverage gap?” Our sister blog Multi-American pointed to an interview with Poynter Institute faculty member and media ethics expert Kelly McBride. Here is an excerpt:

It’s possible that the people making decisions in newsrooms have a default assumption about what’s normal (functional) and not normal (dysfunctional) for white families. And it’s possible that they have a default assumption about families of color that are the opposite of what they assume for white families. Maybe some of that is true or all of it is true. But it plays into how editors make news judgments.

McBride continued, saying that it’s easier to fix the coverage gap on a local level. She suggested a few strategies:

.. Journalists simply need to make sure they are examining all murders and missing people and giving them similar coverage. (That’s actually really hard to do, but it’s easier than the national solution.) And because local journalists are loyal to their local community, they are generally motivated to serve that audience well.

On a national level, journalists are not accountable in the same way. So there’s less motivation to change the dynamics that lead to tilted coverage. It would take a significant act of leadership at a place like CNN or Fox to break out of this cycle. And I’m not sure there’s enough accountability to make that happen.

You can read the entire Q&A here.

‘We’re a Culture, Not a Costume:’ Racist Halloween Costumes?

Halloween is finally here, and if you plan to dress as a “Mexican” tonight, you may want to reconsider it. That’s according to  a group of Ohio University students, who started the “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign last week to raise awareness of what they deem to be offensive costumes.

The students are members of the group S.T.A.R.S., and their treasurer Stephanie Sheeley spoke with Colorlines’ reporter Jorge Rivas about some of the criticisms of the campaign. Sheeley told Rivas that its offensive to wear a costume that’s meant to represent a marginalized group rather than dress up as an individual person who happens to be of another ethnicity:

Many of you had a lot to say about the campaign when we wrote about it last week. We also polled readers as to whether it’s racist to dress up in a costume that’s meant to represent an entire race (you can still cast your vote). Most people who responded didn’t have much problem with such costumes:

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‘We’re a Culture, Not a Costume’ Raises Halloween Debate (Poll)

Is it racist to dress up as a Mexican for Halloween? Yes, according to a group of Ohio University students who launched the “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign now gaining national attention.

Sarah Williams, president of the Ohio student group STARS, said on CNN: “During Halloween, we see offensive costumes. We don’t like it, we don’t appreciate it… The best way to get rid of stereotypes and racism is to have a discussion and raise awareness, which is what we want to do with this campaign.”

Why is it problematic to dress up as a Mexican for Halloween? Jelani Cobb, African studies professor at Rutgers University, explains to CNN:

“To treat a character like Batman or Superman as a Halloween costume is one thing, but to treat an entire ethnicity as a costume is something else. It suggests that people conflate the actual broad diversity of a culture with caricatures and characters.

But not everyone agrees; negative comments flooded Melissa Sipin’s blog, which first reported about the campaign on Sunday before national media took note. Critics feel the campaign is a hyper-sensitive reaction to people who simply want to have fun on Halloween, a time to relax and check all the seriousness at the door. Sipin responds to such critics:

This poster campaign isn’t about being overly sensitive to costume choices, it’s about perpetuati­ng prejudices and negative stereotype­s through these choices. All we’re asking people is to stop perpetuating those prejudices and to realize that you’re crossing a line when you strap fake bombs to your chest to portray a Middle Eastern man or if you paint your face black.

What do you think of the question raised by the posters? Take our poll:

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Are African Americans Part of Pat Buchanan’s America?

Earlier this week, we asked conservative commentator Pat Buchanan how he proposes eliminating D.C.’s economic racial disparities. Buchanan, who firmly believes diversity hurts America, suggested stopping immigration to combat high national black unemployment, and general national unemployment. “We’ve got to start putting our own people first,” he said.

The Root’s Nsenga Burton takes issue with Buchanan’s rhetoric:

“Our own people?” Since when did blacks become “our own people” to folks like Buchanan? Invoking the Willie Lynch strategy of dividing and conquering those who would benefit from coming together (African-Americans and immigrants) as opposed to functioning separately is foul. Buchanan and his cronies who try to pretend that they give a damn about black folks, need to stop the shenanigans. This is not a plantation lullaby — this is real-life. Pretending that immigrants are having a greater impact on black unemployment as opposed to the perpetuation of racist ideology that works in tandem with dominant power structures invested in the continued oppression of marginalized groups, is disingenuous… Pat Buchanan needs to go back to the drawing board because pretending that he thinks of black people as part of his version of America is downright insulting.

Buchanan, known for controversial remarks, has once again come under heat; black political advocacy group Color Of Change is petitioning MSNBC to fire Buchanan as an analyst for what they deem as his “white supremacist ideology.” He has said that blacks and whites in his hometown D.C. were more united under segregation than they are now. “America has been the best country on earth for black folks,” Buchanan wrote in 2008. “It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”

Pat Buchanan on How to Lower Black Unemployment

Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

Political commentator and former presidential adviser Pat Buchanan.

Conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan discussed his views on how diversity harms America this morning on WAMU 88.5′s “The Diane Rehm Show.” After the show we caught up with Buchanan, who is a native Washingtonian, and asked how he proposes addressing D.C.’s wealth disparities that break down along racial lines.

Buchanan said that D.C. is one of the wealthiest places in America, in part because of federal government jobs. “D.C. has problems, but I don’t think D.C., with its unemployment rate and things like that, is hurting as bad as some of the other cities and states around the country,” he said.

D.C.’s unemployment rate is 11.1 percent, which is higher than the national rate of 9.1 percent, but still lower than some of the hardest-hit states, such as Nevada. The District is also home to extreme poverty. Some nearly all-black wards of the city face Depression-era unemployment levels. Buchanan suggested a solution to the disproportionately high national unemployment rate among African Americans, now at 16 percent:

“One thing I would do is stop immigration into the country until all unemployment is down to 6 percent,” he said. “We’ve got to start putting our own people first.”

The notion that immigrants take jobs from out-of-work African Americans is the subject of recent debates in D.C. where 13 percent of the population is foreign born. Critics have raised the issue in response to Mayor Vincent Gray’s signing last week of an executive order that prevents police officers from inquiring about the immigration status of those arrested. Leo Alexander, 2010 mayoral candidate, told the Washington Examiner that Gray was “blowing the opportunity to make sure undereducated populations have jobs.”

Overall, Buchanan said “a lot of these things demand national solutions rather than local ones.”

Two Americas Coexist in D.C.

D.C. is a microcosm of national class disparities, and the country saw the gulf between the rich and poor widen during the recession. Theo Balcomb, production assistant for “All Things Considered,” writes about these “two Americas” she saw while helping produce stories on the economy.

While in Spartanburg, S.C., Balcomb met a diabetic pregnant woman on disability, “struggling to sort through cereal and pork patties in her food pantry box.” Balcolm witnessed the other America when reporting from New York’s Upper East Side, where, while visiting a seven-story mansion, her “biggest concern was not getting winded as I carried a bottle of wine, a corkscrew and a cheese plate up to the roof.”

And that’s what’s confusing: That America is a place where these two worlds can coexist, often without knowledge of each other. One where a pregnant woman has to wait in line for frozen pork patties, and one where I’m in New York being offered goat cheese and fig spread and crisp gluten-free crackers and low-fat string cheese.

The contrast has always been there, but it’s looking stark right about now. The 27-year-old woman working in the grocery store lit up when she had this thought: Those people in Washington, those people with all the money who make all the decisions, they should have to live a week in our shoes. It could be a new reality show, she said brightly. Just a week. Just a week in our shoes.

Victor Cheung / Flickr

The U.S. Capitol isn't far from some of D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods.

Many around the country view D.C. as the power capital of the world, but the District’s disparities are some of the starkest. The D.C. region has the highest incomes and lowest poverty rates in the nation. But 1 in 5 people in the District proper live below the poverty line. In Ward 3, 49 percent of people have incomes higher than $100,000 annually and unemployment is about 3 percent. A few miles away in Ward 8, 41.1 percent of people have incomes below $25,000 and unemployment is at about 25 percent.

Those “people in Washington… with all the money who make all the decisions” are presumably politicians and lobbyists on Capitol Hill. They don’t need to travel to South Carolina to see poverty or hardship. They can drive 10 minutes away to see it.

When to Capitalize ‘Black’ and ‘White’

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Author Touré will be discussing his new book “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V streets, NW tonight. The book is an interesting read delving into what it means to be black in America today, but even before you get to the meat of it, Touré includes this author’s note:

I have chosen to capitalize the word “Black” and lowercase “white” throughout this book. I believe “Black” constitutes a group, an ethnicity equivalent to African-American, Negro, or, in terms of a sense of ethnic cohesion, Irish, Polish, or Chinese. I don’t believe that whiteness merits the same treatment. Most American whites think of themselves as Italian-American or Jewish or otherwise relating to other past connections that Blacks cannot make because of the familial and national disruptions of slavery. So to me, because Black speaks to an unknown familial/national past it deserves capitalization.

Capitalizing “black” goes against the typical standard used by media outlets and outlined by the AP Stylebook (which DCentric abides by). But some believe both “black ” and “white” should be capitalized to defer respect and equity — Hispanic and Native American are capitalized, after all.

Such grammatical standards aren’t set in stone; it wasn’t that long ago that “Negro” was the preferred term. Sometimes popular word usage slowly evolves, and other times, specific movements seek to influence word usage. For instance, the “Drop the I-Word” campaign is pushing media outlets to stop using the term “illegal aliens.” (The Society of Professional Journalists recently joined their call).

What’s your take: do you believe “black” should be capitalized? What about “white?” Does it even matter?


Courtland Milloy, DCist Bike PSA?

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A year ago, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy penned his now infamous column after Mayor Adrian Fenty’s defeat, in which he described white gentrifiers as bike lane-loving, “myopic little twits.” Washington City Paper reporter Rend Smith asked Milloy to “reflect on his contribution to the District political dictionary.” He responded:

Yeah, another year and the Myoptic Twits are older, blinder and wise-asser. I did notice that a few volunteered to help spruce up some DCPS buildings before classes began. So miracles do happen. The rest of them seem more interested in bringing a 19th century flava to the city, with their gas lamps and trolley cars. Then again, when you’re on their side of the wealth gap, inheritance gap, employment gap, education gap, you can act like landed gentry. But Im not hatin’. In fact, what I’d like to do in this next year is team up with DCist for a Myo-Twit public safety campaign. Tell these folks that if they want more Bike Share they could at least learn how to ride the damn bike, stop weaving in and out of traffic. Car bumpers are harder than their butts if not their helmetless heads. Hey, I just want them to live to see another birthday.

To which DCist editor Aaron Morrissey writes: “Since we’ve been so far unable to connect via Twitter, feel free to drop us a line when you’re ready to film that public service announcement, good sir.”