MEDIA ROUNDUP: Race issues seek steady coverage

Many minority leaders look to increase the prominence of race-relations issues in major media outlets throughout the country. throughout the country.

Many minority leaders look to increase the prominence of race-relations issues in major media outlets throughout the country. throughout the country.

In the four years since The New York Times produced its landmark series "How Race is Lived in America," the media has yet to come to a consensus as to how much attention should be paid to race-relations issues. Aside from coverage of major events or policy initiatives, how various racial and ethnic groups interact with one another gets little attention on a day-to-day basis.

However, race relations were thrust into the limelight last month with the flurry of coverage centered on the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court's Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. Recent controversial comments made by Bill Cosby at Howard University also garnered significant press attention. But many PR professionals feel race relations still don't get enough coverage on a broad-scale basis.

Ricky Clemons, VP of communications for the National Urban League, says the current lack of consistent coverage is more of a short-term phenomenon, noting, "The war is taking a lot of press away from domestic issues. It's very hard to have a flow of information on race relations when domestic issues and policy are not top-of-mind."

But Lonnie Soury, president of New York-based Soury Communications, suggests the reluctance of the media to deal with how the races interact in America goes beyond the dominance of Iraq in the news. "There are simply not a lot of reporters to cover the issue," says Soury, who works with Jesse Jackson and General Motors on publicizing the company's diversity programs. "With mainstream reporters, it's really a back-burner issue. This trend has existed for a long time, except for certain blips like somebody making a racist comment."

Tone of coverage

John White, director of communications for the NAACP, suggests the issue might not be as much the amount of race-relations coverage as the tone. He cites the response to Cosby's comments at Howard University on black self-responsibility as an example of how the media can subtly distort the issue.

White's complaint wasn't with the coverage of the speech, though he did point out that the event, a major gala at a prominent black university, was not covered by local TV and had only one reporter from The Washington Post in attendance. White notes that many of the reporters who wrote about Cosby's comments seemed to suggest that he was the first to address the issue of responsibility.

"[NAACP President] Kweisi Mfume has in speeches called for greater responsibility among black people around the country," he says. "Then when Cosby says it, it becomes a story that gets blown way out of proportion. If a story is something that civil-rights people generate, it doesn't get as much coverage."

In the past, many media outlets considered race relations such an important issue that they assigned it to dedicated minority-affairs reporters. Only a few major news outlets still retain that beat, but Clemons terms that a sign of progress. "It means you have a more diverse newsroom and a more diverse editors' desk," he says. "In the past, that may have been the only minority who was on the newspaper staff, but that's not the case anymore."

White counters that even with a more diverse newsroom, "you still need to have someone dedicated to addressing minority issues. But I don't think that person has to be a minority."

Adding racial issues

Mark Fitzgerald, who often writes about race and the media as an editor at large for Editor & Publisher, disputes the notion that the media is consciously ducking race. He notes that when three African Americans were voted off American Idol in successive weeks, it quickly triggered a debate in the press as to whether skin color was a factor.

Fitzgerald also points out that in many ways the media has rolled race relations into other types of coverage, such as immigration issues. Clemons echoes that theme, suggesting that now reporters from a number of beats are adding a racial component to their coverage.

"There's always someone looking at the issues involving minorities, whether it's health or education or housing or the conditions in urban America," Clemons says. "There's always going to be some talk about it, and it's our job to be out there pushing the envelope."

Pitching... race-relations media

  • Race-relations stories are generally not tied to news cycles, but there are opportunities, such as the elections, where issues of race can be pitched in terms of ethnic voting power and its impact on politicians

  • Pitch positive race-relations stories, such as the success of a corporate diversity program, that will build press interest

  • Even publicized incidents of racism can be leveraged to push the media to debate how much - or little - progress has been made on the race issue

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