Race in America: Journalism, the Media and Race

The media has long confronted issues involving race. From minority ownership of media, to the marketing of racially insensitive products, media professionals have struggled to handle race in a way that is both sensitive and just. This post on Media Ethics Report is the first of a number of posts done in cooperation with Creighton University’s Kingfisher Institute as part of a Magis Core Curriculum Course Development Grant. Each post will approach different racial issues in the media.

First will be posts that examine racial issues in journalism. We will begin by viewing race from a macro perspective, looking at race and media ownership. Worth a discussion will be a 2011 interview done by NPR’s Tony Cox (as host of the network’s program, “Tell Me More”) with Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres, authors of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Gonzalez and Torres discuss the history of minority-owned media outlets and some of the barriers in overcoming what the authors see as a media eco-system dominated by a white majority.

Beyond journalism and media ownership, advertising is no stranger to racial problems. Not long ago, Dove came under fire for airing an ad that appeared to be racially offensive. The ad, seemingly intended to show that Dove soap was sensitive to all skin types, depicted an African-American woman taking off her brown-colored shirt to reveal a white woman wearing a white shirt underneath (see “Dove Messes Up…Again”). Such racial insensitivities have extended to the marketing of offensive products themselves, such as a line of blackface clothing produced by Gucci and sold by Prada (see “Fashion Brands Capitalize on Blackface and Nooses”).

Like advertising, public relations is not immune to racial issues. Among them is how public relations professionals have handled the Black Lives Matter movement and how they have dealt with their Black colleagues who have supported BLM. PR professional Jo Ogunleye wrote about her own experiences in a post on Medium.com. According to Ogunleye, although PR professionals may talk a good game when it comes to race, the reality may be quite different.

This is, of course, a starting point. Future posts will dive deeper into the tenuous relationship between the media and race, taking a closer look at race in journalism, advertising, and public relations. Like Media Ethics Report itself, this conversation is part of a course at Creighton University on media ethics.

Can a ‘Clusterf––k’ Become One?

Recently, editors for the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel decided to use profanity in an editorial critical of the university’s handing of COVID-19 on campus (see above). Not long after in-person classes resumed at UNC, editors for its student paper wanted to express their concerns for clusters of COVID-19 springing up on campus, and how the university was handling the reporting of them. In an interview with the Journalism Institute of the National Press Club, Tar Heel editor-in-chief Anna Porgarcic explained that the newspaper felt that it shouldn’t mince words about how the COVID-19 spread was being handled and reported to members of the university community. “My opinion editor suggested [the word] to me, and I thought it was the perfect way to describe what’s happening,” she said. “There were so many questions surrounding the announcement of the clusters […] which wasn’t helped by the University’s lack of transparency about exact numbers, that we felt [the] editorial warranted something outside of our usual style. I mean, people’s literal lives — our safety, our health — are at stake because of the decisions this institution and the UNC System are making. I was unsure at first if it perhaps was too unprofessional, but it’s not our job as journalists to sugarcoat what’s going on.”

The different sides to this case are interesting. On one hand, the word might have accurately described how UNC was handling the reporting of virus numbers, if not the spread of COVID-19 on campus itself. If nothing else, the editors clearly felt that the word accurately expressed how they felt about the university managing the situation and that the word play was appropriate. On the other hand, the use of the word begs the question if the use of profanity is ever warranted in journalistic practice. This was, of course, an editorial, not a straight news story; so perhaps the use of the word fittingly tapped into the views and emotions shared among the paper’s editorial staff. If the headline was part of a news item, then the use of the word might seem more outwardly inappropriate, unless it was expressed by a source used for a story and not a term used by a journalist covering a story.

Though it may seem trivial, this case brings to mind discussion of best practices. Is it ever appropriate to use profanity in a headline or in the body of a news story? Or in a news editorial? Under what circumstances may it be done? Or should it never be done? Thus far journalism organizations such as the Poynter Institute and the Society for Professional Journalists have yet to weigh in on the case.

What do you think?

Sources: Journalism Institute; Washington Post