MAINSTREAM news media are shortchanging the public -- especially women -- in their coverage of affirmative action. Consideration of affirmative action's impact and meaning for women of all colors is largely missing from news stories, and women are severely under-represented on opinion pages.
Worse, with few exceptions, major media are reporting the debate on affirmative action without reference to the continued existence of racist and sexist practices. Severed from the context of discrimination to which it is a response, affirmative action is presented as a confusing, "hot-button" issue.
The persistent use of the problematic term "preferences" or "racial preferences" as synonyms for affirmative action programs underscores mainstream media's distorted presentation of the issue. (Either term is rarely used to describe the ingrained and pervasive discrimination favoring white males in U.S. society.)
These are the main findings of a survey of news media coverage of affirmative action during the first six months of 1998. The survey included all news stories in 15 major outlets (dailies, news-weeklies and TV news) that addressed the general topic of affirmative action or any affirmative action policy, program or legislation.
Where are the women?
Although women are major beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, the survey found that only seven of 314 stories (2 percent) focused on affirmative action's impact on women. In fact, only 19 percent of mainstream news articles on affirmative action addressed its impact on women at all by listing the number of women represented in an industry or by mentioning programs that affected women. For example, a March 7, 1998, Washington Post article about a "program that helps women and minorities win highway construction contracts" noted some Republicans' concern that opposition to the program might [impede] GOP efforts to close its 'gender gap.'"
Reporters might be surprised to learn that the majority of articles on affirmative action left women out. That's because most stories mention women in their definition of the term, usually with a phrase such as "race and gender preferences" or "programs benefiting women and minorities." But then an odd thing happens: Having mentioned women, media accounts proceed to erase them from the discussion. For example, the Jan. 3, 1998, Washington Post declares that "petitions against race, gender preferences" make Washington state "the next battleground in the war over racial preferences," and the May 31, 1998, Los Angeles Times counterposes "affirmative action" in education with a "colorblind system."
Skewed opinion pages
Much affirmative action coverage was simply too short and superficial to engage the issue in any depth, consisting of brief reports on the results of a referendum or a court ruling, perhaps supplemented with a few quotes.
Of those news articles that discussed the matter in greater detail, most followed an "opponents say/proponents say" format, with little room for independent investigation or historical analysis.
Unfortunately, in this kind of coverage, claims about a policy's effects or intentions might be reported, but they go unquestioned, as when the March 9, 1998, Atlanta Journal & Constitution included a state official's provocative assertion, in support of anti-affirmative action legislation, that his "son was told 'No whites need apply' when he went to the Atlanta Police Department for a job." No verification or denial from the police department was included.
Such articles leave the unsettling impression that some news media have all but given up the idea of reporting affirmative action as an actual set of policies and programs, with discernible intentions and measurable effects, treating it instead as a field of emotional claims and counterclaims.
As a result, a good deal of the substantive discussion of affirmative action is consigned to commentary, op-ed or opinion columns. (At least one outlet, U.S. News and World Report, featured more "opinion" than news on the issue during the study period.) Given that op-eds are where much of the debate on affirmative action takes place, the gender imbalance on the nation's opinion pages is striking.
Of 101 opinion columns from January through June 1998, only 22 were written by women. The skew varied among outlets: The San Francisco Examiner found as many women as men to write commentaries on the topic, while the Washington Post ran 13 op-eds, only one of which had even a female co-author.
Nor was affirmative action's significance or meaning for women usually the subject of the commentary: Only three of 101 opinion columns addressed the topic from this angle. (Two of the three were written by women.
Lost in the mix
It isn't only women who are poorly served by mass media's affirmative action coverage. Little coverage pays attention to the varying impact of affirmative action on members of different ethnic groups, especially nonwhite groups such as Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans.
Of 314 affirmative action stories during the survey period, 117 -- or 37 percent -- could be considered to address varied ethnic impacts. But this number is inflated by the large proportion of the coverage devoted to the impact of the elimination of affirmative action on admissions at the University of California.
Media reports on California's universities tended to mirror admissions or enrollment data released by the colleges, which generally included information on Latinos, Asian-Americans, as well as on blacks and whites. (Examples are "Fewer Blacks and Latinos Enroll at UC," in the May 21, 1998, Los Angeles Times, and "Fewer Minorities Entering U. of California," in the same day's New York Times. If articles on the University of California were excluded from the survey, the percentage of affirmative action coverage that considered varying impacts on different ethnic groups would drop from 37 percent to 19 percent.
Long after widespread recognition of the importance of language in the affirmative action debate, nearly a quarter of the stories -- 23 percent -- continue to use the terms "affirmative action" and "preferences" interchangeably.
The Atlanta Journal & Constitution was the worst offender; 21 of their 34 articles on affirmative action used the two terms as synonyms. For example, a Jan. 15 story was headlined, "Anti-Affirmative Action Advocates See '98 as Theirs," with the sub-headline, "Court Decisions Bolstering Anti-Preference Legislation Movement." The article's lead sentence continued the confusion: "Amid the national conversation about affirmative action, some Georgia lawmakers vow the time has come for a statewide ban on set-asides and quota systems in government hiring and contracts that benefit women and minorities." In this story and others, little effort was made to distinguish between such disparate concepts as "affirmative action," "preference," "set-aside" and "quota."
It seems clear that defining a program or policy as a "preference" implies that the status quo, before the intervention of the policy, did not represent a preference. In the case of affirmative action policy in the United States, this is simply untrue. The invidious effects of this terminology cannot be overlooked; a 1995 Harris poll found, for example, that while 68 percent say they support "affirmative action," only 11 percent responded positively to "preferences."
Journalists might claim that they substitute "preferences" for "affirmative action" without any ideological intent, but simply for euphony, to avoid repeating the phrase "affirmative action" throughout a story. But there are less problematic options ("equal opportunity" measures, "anti-discrimination" policies), and variations among outlets suggest that some reporters were able to find them. What's more, to the degree that a report is focused on a particular program or policy -- and it is just this kind of concrete reporting that is lacking -- there is less need for such generic labeling.
Context of discrimination
Not only is the term "preference" almost never used by the press to describe the de facto favoritism given to white males in hiring, promotions, lending and contracting, this easily documentable discrimination is only infrequently acknowledged in the context of debate over affirmative action. Only 15 percent of articles referred to inequity or bias (past or present) against women or people of color.
These included a June 25, 1998, USA Today article on a new federal policy that noted that "minority-owned firms now sell only 2.2 percent of the textiles ... the government buys, while they have 8.3 percent of the general market for such goods."
Of 314 stories, only 11 addressed race or gender discrimination as their main topic. Five of these were in a single newspaper -- the Seattle Times. These included Tom Brune's February 10 data-driven report on hiring and layoffs at Boeing and Microsoft, which found disparities in the companies' treatment of women and people of color. Brune also wrote a historical profile, dated March 2, 1998, of the Washington State Board Against Discrimination in Employment, which included one agency's experiences in the 1950s. He remembered how a department store official explained his policy toward blacks: "Oh, we don't discriminate. We just don't hire 'em."
Media do not have to become advocates for affirmative action to report the realities of discrimination. Those articles that took on issues of the "prevailing bias" were among the most complex and concrete treatments of affirmative action in the sample.
Looked at individually, many mainstream news articles on affirmative action appear to be evenhanded in that they might include comments from both proponents and opponents of the policy.
But observed as a whole and over time, the picture is different. With few exceptions, major media continue to be careless about the actual scope and definition of affirmative action, content to treat the issue as more of a "political football" than a specific set of historically grounded programs and policies. And too few reports include any information at all about the obstacles still faced by people of color and women in the United States, in employment, wages, benefits, housing, lending and education, thus robbing the debate of its context. Combined with the dramatic marginalization of women, these problems make for media coverage that is imbalanced and incomplete.
Last week, two conservative groups launched an assault on affirmative action with full-page advertisements in 14 college newspapers. The ads urged students to obtain handbooks that will tell them how to find lawyers and the information necessary to sue their colleges. The handbooks were sent to 300 college trustees with warnings that they could be held personally liable if their schools make admission decisions based on race.
The ads appeared in newspapers at the following colleges and universities: Chicago, Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke, George Washington, James Madison, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Virginia, Wake Forest, Washington University in St. Louis, and William and Mary.
The new drive has the support of former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and commentator Nat Hentoff.
This is an abridged version of a report commissioned by Americans for a Fair Chance, a nonpartisan consortium of six of the nation's most prominent civil rights legal organizations. The research was done by FAIR, a media watchdog group.
Pub Date: 01/31/99