Media blind spots have consequences

March 31, 2015

Last month, journalism lost one of its great champions for inclusive reporting, Oakland’s own Dori Maynard. Maynard was a voice for making the media more representative, particularly of communities of color. Despite her impressive accomplishments, her work remains unfinished.

Maynard once said: “Sometimes, I think two of my greatest loves don’t love each other. Sometime, I think two of my greatest loves don’t even like each other.” She was talking about Black men and the media. What she wanted wasn’t for Black men to be glorified in news coverage. She wanted them to be afforded the same thorough, nuanced, comprehensive coverage that others receive.

In the age of Travyon Martin, Eric Garner – and recently, Anthony Hill – this question of how our stories are told feels more and more like an open wound. If the media’s myopic portrayal of Black men suggests they are either athletes or criminals, the industry has failed a very basic test.  And the public policy implications, and everyday social implications, are predictably devastating.

Gender Bias 

The track record for gender diversity and inclusion isn’t so hot either. Several months ago, I came across this startling list of facts:

  • The guests on the Sunday morning political shows are overwhelmingly conservative, white, and male, according to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. In one-on-one interviews, 70% of partisan-affiliated guests are Republican, white (92%), and male (86%).
  • Approximately 85% of op-eds in the major dailies are written by men.
  • Of the 143 columnists writing for the nation’s top three newspapers and four syndicators, just 38 are women, according to Gawker.
  • Men were quoted 3.4 times more often than women in Page 1 stories published in the New York Timesduring January and February 2013, according to a University of Nevada at Las Vegas analysis (breaking down the numbers, women were quoted in 465 of 2,411 news articles — that’s just 19%).
  • In 2012, women wrote 27% of stories in The Nation;26% in The New Yorker; 16% in Harper’s; and a mere 12% in the New York Review of Books, according to VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
  • The 2012 finalists for the National Magazine Awards failed to include one woman (not one!).
  • On National Public Radio, women represented only 26% of all sources in 2010.
  • Women comprised 36% of staffers at 978 daily newspapers, a figure that has remained unchanged since 1999, according to the 2013 American Society of News Editors Newsroom Census.

You may have heard that the San Francisco Chronicle just named its first female Editor-In-Chief in its 150-year history, and The Guardian just named the first female Editor-In-Chief in its 194-year history. How is it that no other women before them were qualified for the top post?

Lately, we are also hearing more about how transgender people don’t receive fair coverage—not a new issue, but coverage is on the rise. Buzzfeed and others have quickly connected the dots between the cycle of violence against trans women and a media industry that finds these stories less than newsworthy.

Stories Left Untold 

Our demographic shift demands a lurch forward in the words we use—and these shifts will come awkwardly late if journalists don’t mirror the communities they cover. Within the next five years, children of color are projected to be the majority. Is the media really going to keep calling people of color “minorities” even as the term loses its meaning?

When those in the newsroom aren’t a diverse bunch, they don’t always tell the kind of rich, three-dimensional stories we crave. Some newsrooms are making bold moves: Buzzfeed is creating and sustaining a pipeline to boost diversity and improve content, and the Los Angeles Times is partnering with acclaimed journalist Jose Antonio Vargas on the #EmergingUS project. Last fall, Huffington Post partnered with Beacon to create a community-based journalism fellowship in Ferguson, to promote ongoing coverage of the myriad issues surrounding Michael Brown’s death. And outfits like Colorlines and New American Media continue to lead the way in high-quality coverage of diverse communities.

It’s a start, but we have a long way to go.  How can newsrooms, PR shops, and all of the other players who comprise the news media ecosystem be more intentional about engaging underrepresented voices and putting these stories in the spotlight?  We need to grab the torch Maynard passed to us.


Marla Wilson