Women get left out of major story

Media's reporting on affirmative action ignores females' role

January 31, 1999|By Janine Jackson

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

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