Covering Conflict: How the News Media Handles Ethnic Controversy


This article originally appeared in Issue# 43

In the fall of 1968, I was a wire service reporter in New York City covering the lengthy public school teachers' strike called over the forced transfer of white instructors by a black-dominated local community school board.

The strike was a divisive one and demonstrations were the order of the day in Brooklyn's Ocean Hill-Brownsville area, the focus of the dispute. Demonstrations often turned violent, and when they did the police and blacks each blamed the other for starting them.

I witnessed one demonstration that ended with rocks and bottles being thrown after club-swinging police had waded into a crowd of demonstrating blacks to disperse them. When the violence ended, I phoned in my story, taking care to stress my view that the police had provoked the incident. Later, I found out that another United Press International reporter had witnessed the demonstration from another vantage point and had told my editors that the students had forced the melee.

Rather than checking with me, the editors decided to blend my version with that of the other reporter at the scene. The result was a hodge-podge that only became more confused - and decidedly more in favor of the official police position - as successive rewrites of the story were undertaken by editors further and further removed from the action.

Some 20 years later. I attended a news conference called by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles at which he announced the opening of church-sponsored residential treatment centers for homeless AIDS victims.

About midway through the session, reporters more interested in talking about the church's opposition to homosexual activities challenged the archbishop to explain how he could justify helping gay men while the Vatican continued to condemn their sexual preferences.

Archbishop Roger Mahony tried to explain that church moral teaching, agreed with or not, did not preclude providing compassionate care to people who are dying. But the subtlety was lost on one agitated television reporter who kept insisting the prelate was being inconsistent.

When you're talking about racial, ethnic or religious conflicts, you're talking about the stuff riots, wars and deep-seated prejudices are made of.

When you talk about racial, ethnic or religious conflicts, you're talking about the stuff that riots, wars and deep-seated prejudices are made of.

News gathering, to be sure, is a highly imperfect art, and problems with basic facts, not to mention nuances, are common. But when you are talking about conflicts that are at their root racial, ethnic or religious, the stakes are higher. This is the stuff riots, wars and deep-seated prejudices are made of, and the news media has an even greater responsibility than it normally does to get it right.

Cornering Competition

One observer of the journalistic scene, Irving Levine, national affairs director for the American Jewish Committee in New York, believes the coverage of racial, ethnic and religious conflict has slipped in the past two decades, a circumstance he attributes to "the culture of the newsroom and the competition it dictates."

In the turbulent l960s, Levine said, news reporters came to realize "through a baptism of fire" that what they said and wrote could be manipulated by extremists, or even police and other government officials, to cause a serious distortion in public perceptions of sensitive issues. Out of that developed the principle that "you don't blow things up, you don't report in an inflammatory manner."

Today, however, Levine said, "There has been a memory loss." He noted that younger television reporters interviewed as part of a 1986 AJC study of how the New York news media handled a visit to that city by Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan "argued the First Amendment and that whatever they could get they could use. The trend has been toward greater sensationalism born out of greater competition.

"In a pluralistic society you have to be careful with that stuff," he added.

Ben H. Bagdikian, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, is even more critical of the state of news reporting. He believes owners' insistence on the bottom line leaves the news media inadequately prepared for handling complicated religious, ethnic or racial stories simply because the only time such issues are dealt with is when they have become "sexy." Day-to-day coverage, which doesn't produce the same attention grabbing headlines but provides on-going information that enables the broader picture to emerge, is ignored in favor of "violence and melodrama, the circus of the moment."

"The problem is the strategy of mainstream media to get the upscale viewers or readers. The result is only the affluent get covered regularly and the poor, which generally means minorities, disappear from the news except in dramatic moments," Bagdikian said. "But when the crisis comes, the news media has no basis on which to judge the context of the crisis.

"The media needs to take responsibility for the social effects of its profit policies."

Taking Stock

There are some bright spots, to be sure. Leading magazines, newspapers and television and radio news departments often produce articles, series or broadcasts that truly cut through the hype and get to the core of important issues dealing with race, religion and ethnicity. Levine thinks that television network reporting has improved in this regard despite the backsliding on the local scene, and that Sunday discussion shows often add the reasoned voice that is missing during the week.

Another note of optimism was offered by Dr. Maher Hathout, a leader of the Muslim community in Southern California. No longer, he said, are Arabs and Muslims always portrayed by American news media as either rich and corrupt oil sheiks or bloodthirsty religious fanatics. "There is more understanding in the media now. We have noticed that these subjects are better handled," he said, singling out the Christian Science Monitor for particularly well-informed reporting.

But the good news is too little and often too late, said Howard Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning TV columnist for the Los Angeles Times, while disagreeing with Bagdikian that the problems primarily stem from the capitalistic intentions of media owners.

"Very little of what the news media does is conspiratorial. Most of the time we're just not good, and when that's the case at a point in our society when only members of an ethnic or religious group can criticize the group or you run the risk of being called a racist or bigot, it gets dangerous," Rosenberg said.

Of course, how well – or how poorly, if you prefer – journalists deal with sensitive issues of race, ethnicity and religion depends on one's perspective. But all agree that there is room for improvement.

How you improve the product is as delicate a question as any, however.

Should standards be suggested, or even imposed, by individuals or groups outside the news media? Should the news media write its own guidelines for dealing with these kinds of stories that would dictate a different standard than prevails when reporting, for example, on City Hall or the weather?

The answer to both questions, I think, is no.

Hard-and-fast rules of coverage just do not work in the largely seat-of-the-pants daily scramble to fill newspapers and television broadcasts with "news" that approximates some sense of reality. And censorship is antithetical to the democratic consciousness. Furthermore, even the mere suggestion by outsiders of reporting standards would be regarded by journalists as a threat to First Amendment rights.

As for self-imposed rules for coverage, I think the majority of journalists would probably agree with Tom Capra, news director of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and a 25-year veteran of the field, who said, "The same standard applies to all stories - just use your best judgment. I think we do sensitive stories very well."

What, then, is there left to do? The answer for ethnic groups is to maintain a dialogue with the news media in a constructive, non-confrontational way. Whether or not Bagdikian is correct about the grand schemes of news media owners (and my experience is that he may well be), most journalists simply want to tell a story as best they can. The key is to change their perception of what constitutes 'best" so that it is understood to mean accurate, fair, in context and responsible.

'We can't just be reactive," said Father Joseph Battaglia, communications officer for the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese. "We need to be pro-active. We need to take the time and energy to work with reporters and editors to insure that they understand what we're talking about."

Levine also noted a responsibility of another sort. Participants in controversial, potentially inflammatory events need to restrain their own rhetoric and actions, he said.

"The big problem with media is they'll always go for a fast-talking spokesman, whether or not he or she really represents the group," said Levine. But if all sides in a conflict play a cool-it role, it makes it easier for the media to do a responsible job."

Author Bio: 

Ira Rifkin is an award-winning journalist specializing in issues relating to religion and culture, the Middle East, the American Jewish and Muslim communities, Eastern religions, new religious movements, and the impact of globalization. He is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval (SkyLight Paths, 2nd Edition, 2004).