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How Does The Media Shape Ideas About Diversity?
Oscar Gandy, Professor of Communications, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania


How has press coverage of diversity issues changed over the last decade? What are the dominant frames that journalists and readers might use in making sense of diversity news? These are a few of the questions my colleagues and I attempted to answer in a research study I recently completed with support from the Ford Foundation.

Examining newspaper coverage from 1991, 1995, and 1997, I focused on the ways in which the press has covered issues of diversity and affirmative action. Of five themes identified (including diversity, diversity education, affirmative action, political correctness, and race relations), affirmative action was the leading topic in 1997. A comparison of three major newspapers in 1991 and 1995 found that affirmative action was surpassed only by political correctness in 1991. Otherwise, affirmative action remained the primary focus throughout the latter part of the decade.

The Framing of Diversity and Preferences

In general, diversity was framed as a good thing. Diversity "opens doors to all." Diversity was something to be celebrated, demanded, fought for, and preserved. Diversity was also seen as an instrumental resource; it was an aid to education. Campuses were also generally honored for their diversity efforts and achievements. On only rare occasions did headlines suggest that diversity was something that might be questioned or debated.

This positive coverage of "diversity" was in sharp contrast to the coverage of "racial preferences," which was almost uniformly presented as something bad. Preferences were something to be shunned or to steer clear of or to shun.

Clinton and One America

President Clinton and his efforts in the area of race relations were also subject to evaluation within many headlines. Clinton's name was, in fact, included in 10 percent of all headlines covering diversity topics. Generally, Clinton was associated with action. Most frequently his actions were presented as forceful and generally interpretable in a favorable light. The president urged, or defended, or kicked off, or condemned, or stressed, or tried again. On rare occasions, Clinton's actions were explicitly framed as being problematic, or even reprehensible. Clinton muddied the waters, skirted issues, or muzzled his opposition.

Who Journalists View as Authorities

Several significant patterns emerge when one examines the characteristics of those who are quoted in the press. Men were more than three times as likely to be quoted as women (1204 vs. 362 quotes). There is a continuing controversy regarding the appropriateness of racial identification in news stories and the standards for such identification are far from uniform or clear. From what one can tell, of those speakers quoted on matters of diversity and affirmative action, 118 were Black or African American, 21 were identified as Asian, and 37 were Latinos or Hispanics. In these data, one also finds support for the charge that the news media treat whites as raceless. Whites are identified by race in these stories in only 14 quotes.

Another traditional charge-that journalists tend to rely heavily on official sources--also finds support in this study. College administrators are quoted more frequently than are faculty members (420 vs. 240 quotes). Government sources are used more frequently than other experts or policy actors (408 vs. 247) and far more frequently than ordinary private citizens (77 quotes).

Framing Our Understanding of Affirmative Action

It has been suggested that the press tends to frame the affirmative action story as a matter of concern primarily for African Americans, rather than for women, or for other segments of the population. Some 20 percent of the paragraphs in articles mentioning affirmative action included references to minorities. Somewhat more (23%) mentioned Blacks or African Americans. Far fewer mentioned whites or Hispanics (14 %) and only 9.2 percent mentioned women.

Critics have also suggested that the meaning of affirmative action has been transformed over the years to mean "racial preferences." Our study seems to support this view. Use of the term preferences was relatively rare in 1991 (19%), quite prominent in 1995 (53%), and somewhat less in 1997 (40%). Preference was explicitly characterized as racial nearly half the time that the term was used in an article. On the other hand, we found a reduction in the use of the term discrimination. Use of this term dropped from 47% of the articles in 1991, to 45% of those in 1995, to 36% in 1997.

Other Framings for Diversity Issues

Several framings of diversity issues seem to dominate news coverage. Pipeline stories or stories that focus on programs and projects designed to introduce minority students into the academic mainstream are common. These stories frequently have the mark of a press release or public relations effort. With a few minor exceptions, these stories generally present the message that outreach is a necessary and legitimate response to concerns about diversity.

A number of reporters and their sources have reacted with alarm to the suggestion that re-segregation might be the likely outcome of opposition to affirmative action. Another group of stories, however, was framed around the issue of "white loss." These stories focused on the assumed harm or loss that was being suffered by whites as a result of affirmative action or other efforts to achieve diversity. These articles frequently emphasize what authors and sources see as an inherent "unfairness" or "injustice" which results from the admission of "unqualified" minorities, and denying admission to more "highly qualified" whites. Many articles suggest that race was the only determinant of who would or would not be admitted to particular institutions. Most of these articles failed to examine what fairness and qualifications actually mean in a broad and historical context.

In a similar vein, there were many stories framed in terms of "Black loss." The argument presented in these stories is that affirmative action programs have done more harm to African Americans than they have helped them. The authors or their sources suggest that African American students face a higher risk of failure because they are admitted to programs for which they have not been prepared, and are subsequently unable to compete.

These findings confirm that it remains essential for diversity practitioners to hone their own communications skills, offer themselves to journalists as expert sources, and work to interject their voices, opinions, and frameworks into the journalistic arena.


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