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Dori J. Maynard Headshot

It's Time for the Media to Integrate the Race Beat

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During the debate over health care reform, some white protesters hurled racial epithets at black elected officials and even spit on one. Later that same week, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported on a movement to have people write in "Confederate Southern American" as their race on the 2010 Census. Most recently, the governor of Virginia declared April Confederate History Month, initially issuing a proclamation that failed to mention slavery.

At the Maynard Institute, the nation's oldest organization dedicated to helping the news media accurately and fairly portray all segments of our society, our framework for examining diversity includes race, class, gender, generation and geography. When it comes to race, we have always said white counts, too.

It is time for the "mainstream" media to mirror that model and incorporate coverage of the white population into the race beat. That beat emerged during the 1960's civil rights and black power movements. Prior to that time, people of color were largely ignored by white-owned media.

While purposely covering communities of color was meant to make up for the sins of the past, in many instances it has meant that those media have often looked at people of color solely through the prism of race.

CNN proudly trumpets both its two series, Black in America and Latino in America. Other media outlets have done stories on everything from how African Americans felt about President Obama's historic election to how black women felt about the fact that Tiger Woods' mistresses appeared to have been exclusively white. Asian Americans still tend to be largely invisible, and Native Americans are found mainly in coverage of casino gambling.

Whites, on the other hand, except in rare exceptions usually around the presidential election cycle, tend to be covered in stories that are race neutral. That is, at least in the mainstream press. The ethnic press has covered white people through the lens of race, as evidenced by Ebony Magazine's "The White Problem in America," an August 1965 special edition that looked at racism in this country. Whatever the initial rationale behind "mainstream media" leaving white people out of the race beat, recent events argue that it's time to reexamine that decision.

When white protesters call black elected officials "nigger," they are bringing their own race to the argument, and the American public deserves to understand why. When what appears to be an all-white group asks Southerners to put down Confederate Southern Americans as their race, they are making a statement steeped in our ugliest racial history. Again, the American public deserves, some might argue needs, to know what is at the heart of this movement. That the AJC piece did not address race at all supports the argument that we need to include Caucasians in the race beat. We need a structure that will remind us that it is just as important to understand the role race plays in the way white people act as it is in the way people of color act.

At the same time, it's also time to redouble, not rebuff, our efforts to diversify the nation's news organizations.

About six months into President Obama first year in office, Howard Kurtz wrote a piece in the Washington Post wondering whether the African American women covering the African American first lady could truly be objective.

"...are the beat reporters inadvertently invested in her success?" he asked. In his 1,600-word article, Kurtz failed to note that with newsrooms being between 77 percent and 87 percent white, depending on whether you're talking broadcast or print, even if those journalists had an unconscious bias toward Michelle Obama, the rest of the team working on the coverage could act as a check and balance.

And while he noted the double standard when he wrote, "After all, no one raises questions when an Irish American male reporter covers a pol named Murphy," recent coverage makes one wonder if a basically all-white newsroom shouldn't be held to the same scrutiny when it comes to covering white people.

If all-black marches were being held across the country with participants screaming racial epithets, spitting on elected officials and demanding their country back, it would be treated as a black issue and there would be countless stories about unrest in the African American community.

For the sake of all of us struggling to understand how we have come to be a country so deeply divided, that same level of focus needs to be brought to bear now.

Just a year ago, there were those who proudly proclaimed ours to be a post-racial country. Today, it is doubtful you could find many people making that claim. But closing our eyes to the role race played isn't going to make it go away. It just means we're going to have less of an opportunity to understand it. Before we can get to that post-racial place, we have to admit that we are racial. Honest, open and respectful coverage that looks at race from everyone's point of view is one of the best chances we have of getting there.