There’s a song in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” that laments prejudice against minorities. The message of the lyrics is that prejudice is learned—something that is “carefully taught” by parents to their children who otherwise might remain unaffected by bias. In a sense, that is what has happened in TV newsrooms throughout the country as a variety of forces—many of them related to business concerns—combined to bring racial bias into decision-making about news.
It is safe to say that blatant bigotry and intolerance do not exist in these newsrooms. Without exception, executive producers and senior producers of network news fervently deny that race places a part in their decision-making. But in more than 120 interviews with their staffs, conducted while preparing a handbook, “Best Practices for Television Journalists,” we discovered that people who work for those executives have a sharply different impression. (None of the interviewees are named in the handbook because of an interest in promoting honest dialogue about a very difficult subject. We promised anonymity in exchange for candor, and we got lots of candor. The Freedom Forum published this handbook in 2000, as part of its Free Press/Fair Press Project.)
In these interviews, men and women responsible for the hands-on development and production of news insisted again and again that race and ethnicity do have an effect on all components of a story. The interviews reveal a clear sense among the rank-and-file that news management’s attitudes about race play a role in story selection and content, editorial point of view, and the skin color of the person who will provide the “expert” sound bite. At the network level, producers are “carefully taught” by the conventional wisdom of executive producers and their senior staffs that white viewers (whom advertisers regard as having greater purchasing power) will tune out if blacks or Latinos are the principal characters in segments on their shows.
Here are a few of the typical observations we heard.
- “My bosses have essentially made it clear. ‘We do not feature black people.’ Period. I mean, it’s said. Actually, they whisper it, like cancer. [Whispering] ‘Is she white?’”
- “I love the people I work with, they’re nice people, and I don’t know where they’re getting their information from, but I have been told that when people live in a trailer, people watching at home do not give a crap. And if they’re black, no one cares.”
A producer who worked at NBC and ABC provided some perspective:
- “It’s a subtle thing. A story involving blacks takes longer to get approved. And if it is approved, chances are that it will sit on the shelf a long time before it gets on the air. No one ever says anything. The message gets through.”
Race as a factor extends to the local station level where news directors and assignment editors consistently fail to cover stories in the black or Hispanic parts of town while swarming over similar stories in white or affluent sections. The former president of a network news division spoke about this pattern of coverage:
- “I went to Chicago as a news director at one point and there was some horrendous crime committed that seemed worthy of a story. I remember sitting in our morning news meeting thinking ‘Wow, this is terrific!’ And the producer of the show said, ‘Oh, it’s a domestic.’ I had never heard the term before. I asked, what does that mean? He said, ‘Well, it’s a domestic; it’s a husband and wife in the ghetto who had a fight and they killed each other and their kids.’ So he deemed it unworthy of coverage.”
One television station group executive confirmed this news bias.
- “There tends to be a belief that crime in the ghetto is less worthy of coverage than a better demo[graphic]. The same is true for stories about welfare, because most viewers who aren’t involved in the welfare system don’t care about it.”
“A better demo….” Why should it matter? As background, consider this: In the past decade, business considerations—the bottom line—have trumped journalism. First, reducing budgets for newsgathering has resulted in smaller staffs, closing bureaus, and hiring less experienced personnel at lower salaries. That means that ethical standards, enterprise reporting, and double-checking sources and facts are no longer standard procedures in many newsrooms. Second, paying attention to the bottom line has meant going “down-market” for ratings resulting in higher advertising revenue. And third, as a corollary of that drive for ratings at any price, demographics and minute-by-minute analysis of the Nielsens have influenced story selection.
Every business has its code words whose function is to disguise true meaning. TV news is no exception. It is conventional wisdom that, as one former executive told us, “Blacks don’t give good demos!” Television ratings measure viewers’ demographics (what insiders call “demos”) indicating the age range and ethnic and racial composition of the audience. With advanced electronic capability, Nielsen can now provide minute-by-minute results, enabling a producer to actually see what viewers are responding to during each minute of the program. When viewers turn off a program, producers conclude that whatever was being shown at that moment was not appealing. Decisions about what to include in future programs are strongly influenced by the minute-by-minute surveys. “They are bad demos” or “It’s not good television” are euphemisms for “Avoid stories about African Americans.”
There is another pattern, particularly at local stations, that has racial overtones, reinforcing the view that unwed teenage mothers, welfare recipients, and criminals are predominately black. Whenever coverage of surveys involving social problems is broadcast, file footage from news libraries is trotted out to provide background video for the latest statistics. A few years ago most of the blacks at CNN gathered in a group to lodge a protest about the material being used as “wallpaper” behind the numbers. They complained that every time CNN did a story on poverty, the “b-roll” illustrative footage showed poor blacks, and every time CNN did a story on crime, the “broll” focused on black criminals. As a result of the complaints, management went back to look at the file tape and, in fact, it was all black. What CNN’s management subsequently did serves to provide an answer to the question: “Can anything be done?”
At CNN, Bob Furnad, formerly president of Headline News, cleaned out all the racially offensive video in the library and shot new pictures incorporating a more balanced approach to the real world. Furnad also had minority members of his staff produce a remarkable video entitled “Through the Lens.” It addresses stereotypical attitudes of whites by illustrating just how pervasive and insidious racially based criteria can be. All employees at CNN were required to view the tape as part of an effective sensitivity training program.
Often, all it takes is one individual who is proactive and determined to make sure that the staff knows that there are to be no racial criteria when stories are assigned or people are “cast” to appear in them as experts. An African-American associate producer summed it up this way: “Management has to deliberately set some standards as a best practice or break away from some of the ones that are in place because we don’t see other faces. Black faces, Asian faces.”
In those newsrooms where racial confusion is at a minimum, managers as a general practice seem to hold regular staff meetings sometimes as often as twice a day. One manager described an important dynamic of these meetings. “One of our [senior staff] is a black woman who constantly asks, ‘Why was the interview with the black guy conducted standing outside his house while the interview with the white guy was in his living room with a picture of his family and his dog behind him?’ It’s a small thing but small things can make a difference in shaping a newsroom’s attitude. Viewers get the message, too.”
This direct communication makes a difference by reinforcing the message of sensitivity. Someone who heads up a TV newsroom said that “you generally have to create an atmosphere where people are not afraid to come forward and say I didn’t think that was the right thing to do. It’s a non-threatening kind of atmosphere where people know they’re not going to be punished for disagreeing on something.”
But being constantly proactive is not easy. Doing so takes its toll on anyone who takes on this role. As one TV news director explained, “We don’t like discussing race in our newsrooms because it can make us uncomfortable, and if we’re uncomfortable, how can we have a team? We want everyone to be working together. Newsrooms themselves first have to be prepared to deal with issues of race before covering issues of race. We discuss race. We discuss culture. We explore issues and then know how to transfer them over to the coverage of our news stories.”
Without singling out any organization for not being aggressive, the best practices in place at NBC News for consciousness raising are worthy of special mention. NBC News has a unique panel—the Diversity Council—consisting of nearly one dozen news employees of all ranks. It is assembled when stories or story elements are particularly touchy. One NBC news senior staff member described what happened with one particular story that the council examined. “We had a story on the whole subject of the hate crimes. Someone used some language in a sound bite that was clearly offensive. Interestingly, the council said that in order for people to understand the kind of hatred that’s out there, you really need to use this bite; you shouldn’t fail to use it. So that’s what we did.”
Once again, the challenge is met by one individual in a key position who adopts a proactive approach. In this case, it was David Doss, then the executive producer of the “NBC Nightly News.” As Doss said, “The question that we ask all the time is about bias. Case in point. If we are doing a story about welfare. Should every welfare mother be black? Well the answer, of course, is no. If we are doing a story about unwed mothers. Should every unwed mother be black? No. The fact, of course, is that more unwed mothers are white than are black. If we’re doing a story about Wall Street, does it necessarily have to be a white male that we interview as an expert? It shouldn’t be. That takes a very proactive effort, and we do it every day.”
David Doss is now executive producer of the ABC News newsmagazine, “PrimeTime Live.” As one of his first acts in his new job he held a staff meeting to make it clear that he wanted stories and their “casts” to reflect the diversity that exists in America. Clearly, the need to be proactive is high on Doss’s agenda.
WNBC-TV News in New York maintains what some call a “rainbow Rolodex” designed to achieve a variety of opinions from experts who represent the same level of diversity that exists in society. It was the brainchild of the then-news director, an African-American woman, Paula Madison. She believes managers have to “go the extra mile.” She instructed her staff to collect business cards—in particular, those from minority populations—at any professional or social function they attended as part of their assignments. The result, she said, was “separate lists of Asian-American contacts, African- American contacts, and Muslim contacts. We just put them in our general contacts sheet.”
ABC News has a similar resource in the form of a notebook. But, as a cautionary note, even though these materials exist there is no guarantee that they are being used. At ABC News, the notebook has not been updated in several years and, as one staff member admitted, it has become “a coffee cup coaster.” Paul Friedman, executive vice president of ABC News, acknowledges the book might have “fallen into…disrepair” but insists that producers are using their own contact lists which management has “every reason to believe are influenced by the news division’s concerns about minority representation.” Friedman believes ABC News broadcasts today include many more minority experts than in previous eras “partly because the world has changed and partly because [ABC News] has made a conscious effort.”
In my view, the future of broadcast journalism is, at best, cloudy. There is a generational change of command underway in TV newsrooms across the country. New managers have grown up with different standards than their predecessors. They have been “carefully taught” under regimes that were concerned with ratings rather than journalism. And if, as we’ve discovered and documented, there is a belief that viewers won’t watch stories involving African Americans and other minorities, the lessons learned will continue to perpetuate closet racism as the “dirty little secret” of television news.
Av Westin is a former Freedom Forum Fellow. During five decades of work in broadcast news, Westin held high- ranking positions at ABC, CBS, Time Warner, and King World, winning six Emmys, four Peabodies, three Alfred I. Dupont-Columbia University Awards, and two George Polk Awards.