Journalists criticize media coverage of minorities

by Robyn Repya

If a black man commits a murder, chances are the media coverage will be different than if he were white, say some local journalists.

Jerry Freeman, communities editor for the Spokesman-Recorder – a weekly newspaper focused on the Twin Cities black community – said mainstream media often stereotype minorities.

The Spokesman-Recorder recently critiqued articles about two local murders. Freeman said when the white man was guilty, coverage focused on the murderer’s grieving family and community.

But when a black man was charged with murder, “The story immediately looked into possible drug connections,” Freeman said. “They were covered in radically different terms.”

Journalists from mainstream and minority news organizations met with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and human rights officials Wednesday and Thursday to discuss media biases toward minorities.

The panel discussions – which took place in downtown Minneapolis – are a follow-up to a similar inquiry in 1993 by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The commission will publish its findings this winter.

On Wednesday, Mark Anthony Rolo, executive director of the Native American Journalist Association, said the news coverage of American Indians is “either lacking, skewed or shallow Ö We’re just not on the radar screen.”

Minneapolis Urban League member Clarence Hightower said journalists discriminate against black public figures such as former University basketball coach Clem Haskins.

“Every bad thing that happens to the ‘U’ of ‘M,’ they tag his face onto it,” he said. “I think if Haskins was a white coach, that would never happen.

“When folks look for things to write, they shy away from positive things and look for things that are sexy and sensational,” Hightower said.

In addition to problems with coverage, Rolo said, there’s also a lack of ethnic representation in local newsrooms.

“It’s not enough to have a token minority person,” he said. “If you’ve got mostly white older men deciding on the news, it’s not going to be representative.”

Rolo said the lack of minorities in newsrooms is an example of institutionalized racism.

Scott Gillespie, assistant managing editor for local news at the Star Tribune, said the paper has made progress in diversifying its
newsroom since the 1993 panel.

He said the percentage of minority newsroom staff has jumped from 6.8 percent to 13.6 percent.

But Gillespie said the paper lacks minorities in senior management positions.

“We don’t have enough leaders in our newsroom of color,” he said.

One way the Star Tribune has attempted to increase the level of diversity in its newsroom, Gillespie said, is through internship programs that target minorities.

Dave Peters, senior editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press city edition said it is also working on improving diversity through hiring minority interns.

He said that in the past 10 years, the number of minority staff has risen 25 percent. Peters said coverage of minorities and minority issues is also something the paper is trying to improve.

“We’re committed to reflecting the region we serve intelligently,” he said.

Alan Weinblatt, chairman of the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said he was surprised by the “livid anger” exhibited by minority publication representatives at the event. He said several journalists even mentioned the possibility of a boycott.

The anger, he said, centers around the local media’s lack of sensitivity to issues faced by
minority groups. He said reporters covering stories relating to minorities often have little knowledge of the communities they are covering.

“They don’t follow through on what’s the impact of what they reported,” he said.

Weinblatt said this lack of awareness damages the credibility of local news organizations.

“All you have to sell is your credibility, but it ain’t there,” he said.

Rybak said the media has an obligation to improve its knowledge of minority communities.

He cited the recent shooting of Somali Abu Kassim Jeilani by police officers last month. Rybak said journalists asked him to provide a spokesman who could speak for the Somali community.

“It is not the responsibility of the community to assign a spokesman,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the media to understand the complexity of those communities.”

Rybak said minority communities looking for more of a diverse news source are at somewhat of a disadvantage with alternative media outlets.

“There are fewer and fewer media outlets out there, and that can be a threat to all of us who want a diverse opinion,” he said.

Weinblatt said he was disappointed there was almost no local media coverage of the event.

“We in Minnesota don’t like to admit our prejudice and stereotyping,” he said.


– Amy Hackbarth and Jessica Thompson contributed to this story.

Robyn Repya welcomes comments at [email protected]