Minneapolis-St. Paul News Coverage of Minority Communities
In this diverse nation, most Americans learn a great deal about people of different races, religions, and national origins through their exposure to media. The news media play a crucial role in educating Americans about the nation’s diversity, and they have tremendous influence on the attitudes of viewers and readers regarding race relations. Likewise, with most Americans living in areas that, in reality, are segregated by race and income, it is often primarily through local news media that residents learn about the diversity of their cities and towns. News media, therefore, carry the huge burden of ensuring that all races, religions, and cultures are presented accurately. When news media stereotype groups of people, bias and racial polarization are perpetuated.
In 1993, the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published its report, Stereotyping of Minorities by the News Media in Minnesota. The report found at the time “significant merit in allegations that the [Minnesota] media presentation of news is biased when it comes to reporting on people or communities of color.” The Committee recommended that a follow-up examination of the topic occur. Therefore, this report is an update of the 1993 report that discusses improvements or lack thereof in the news media of Minnesota’s Twin Cities. The Committee also attempted to assess how well the news media are covering communities of color, and to foster dialogue between news media and local communities concerning how improvements can begin.
On April 24 and 25, 2002, the Minnesota Advisory Committee held a fact-finding meeting to elicit data, perspectives, and opinions about the Twin Cities news coverage of communities of color. The meeting was open to the public and included a session in which the public could provide testimony. In addition, all affected groups were invited to participate as panelists. Although most information presented in this report was derived from the fact-finding meeting, the report also includes information gathered by regional staff through interviews and secondary sources. The complete report follows this summary.
Coverage of Communities of Color
The Minnesota Advisory Committee had difficulty coming to a strong conclusion regarding how well the local news media cover communities of color. From the evidence presented and testimony made at the fact-finding meeting, it appears that the overt stereotyping that was cited in the 1993 report has dissipated. Many journalists, news directors, and editors who testified at the meeting mentioned the conscious efforts they make when preparing stories to assess the ramifications on the communities being covered. This awareness of stereotyping as a serious issue is an important first step to improvement. Consciousness of the problem, however, may not be adequate to eliminate the more implicit stereotyping that some community representatives argue persists. In addition, many panelists believed that the local news media lacked ideological balance in their stories. The perspectives of communities of color were often not included in news stories. This lack of coverage was also found in a study cited that concluded coverage of Hispanic communities has improved qualitatively in recent years, but quantitatively, the coverage is still sparse.
The Minnesota Advisory Committee found that Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television are doing a better job of covering communities of color than commercial radio and television. Although even these stations can admittedly improve, the representatives from the public stations clearly have made it a priority to cover these communities. Brendan Henehan of Twin Cities Public Television explained one way his station improved coverage: “We made race front and center. We started comprehensively tracking and counting, something we do to this day. We do it unabashedly. We counted guests by gender, by racial makeup. We would have upfront conversations on a weekly basis at our staff meetings.” The Committee believes this commitment needs to continue and spread throughout the Twin Cities news media.
Diversity of Journalists, Editors, and Management
One of the observations of the 1993 report regarded the underrepresentation of people of color working for Twin Cities news media stations and papers. Most glaringly, hardly any people of color held high-level positions, including editors, news directors, and other management positions. The report found “no evidence that [people of color] are employed in positions that influence the editorial and publishing policies of the business.”
In this current study, the Committee heard testimony of the importance of having a diverse workforce in news media production. For instance, Minnesota is an increasingly diverse state with its population of Hispanics and blacks increasing 166 percent and 80 percent, respectively, since 1990. Although within these communities themselves there is great diversity, most presenters at the meeting stated that members of minority groups provide deeper understanding of these communities. Another example occurred in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks when some news media outlets found themselves unprepared to cover the Arab and Muslim communities of the Twin Cities. This event highlighted the importance of having diverse staffs. Those news outlets that had employees who were members of these communities were better prepared to cover these groups. As Lynda McDonnell, now of the Urban Journalism Workshop, testified, “I can tell you from being at the Pioneer Press, having a talented, young, Arab American woman in our newsroom meant that the paper did a far better job of covering the impact of 9/11 and the reaction in the local Muslim community than we would have done otherwise.”
Compared with 1992, the diversity of the Twin Cities news staffs has improved. For example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune had a workforce that was composed of 6.8 percent people of color in 1992. By 2002, that figure had grown to 13.6 percent. Likewise, the diversity at the St. Paul Pioneer Press increased from 12 percent in 1992 to 18 percent in 2002. In addition, although exact data were not given, presenters at the fact-finding meeting testified that there appeared to be more people of color delivering the news on local television. However, there are still relatively few people of color holding positions where they influence the editorial and publishing decisions in local news media. There was no evidence presented that a person of color holds a position of high influence at any local television news station. As Clarence Hightower, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League, stated, “I don’t see a black news publisher. I don’t see a black station manager. I don’t see [people of color] making progress in other areas of media, other than we’ve got some faces on TV.”
An issue discussed at the 2002 fact-finding meeting that was not mentioned at the 1992 meeting was retention of journalists of color. The problem was highlighted during the fact-finding meeting by the announcement that a prominent local African American news anchor was leaving the station to become a main anchor in a larger market. Furthermore, it was noted that for the first time in 23 years, the American Society of Newspaper Editors reported that the number of minority reporters at daily newspapers in the United States fell in 2000. The reasons for the exodus of minority reporters included the lack of advancement opportunities and the inability of journalists of color to do new and interesting work. After hearing testimony on staffing demographics, recruitment efforts, and retention issues, the Minnesota Advisory Committee concluded that, despite increased recruitment efforts by the news media, it remains the responsibility of the news media to continue to diversify their journalist staffs, to begin diversifying their managerial staffs, and to provide an open working environment in which people of color and of diverse ideas can thrive.
Community and Alternative News Media
Not surprisingly, the Twin Cities community and alternative newspapers are expanding as the diversity of the area increases. Many representatives from these papers testified at the fact-finding meeting. Most discussed the important service their papers provide given the lack of coverage and, according to some, the negative coverage that the mainstream media provide these communities. These representatives also discussed challenges they face operating small media outlets in an arena where larger corporate media outlets dominate.
The Minnesota Advisory Committee heard testimony from Al McFarlane, owner of Insight News, and others regarding the difficulty community papers have in securing corporate advertising, which provides the bulk of most newspapers’ income. According to Mr. McFarlane, with the increasing diversity of the Twin Cities and the corresponding increasing circulation of community newspapers, it is difficult to understand why large advertisers avoid these opportunities. “There’s basically a boycott of black, Asian, and Latino media, of ethnic media, by major financial institutions,” he said. Despite the strong observation, Mr. McFarlane and the Committee recognized the need for greater organization between communities of color in order to let advertisers know that “there is somebody to answer to” if they ignore these communities.
Another issue expressed by community newspapers was their relationship with the mainstream press. The Committee observed obvious tensions between these different media outlets, where there appears to be more competitive than corroborative forces at work. A group of community newspapers is now organized in part to try to improve these relations. Ideally, community newspapers can be an outlet through which mainstream papers could recruit and develop reporters and managers, and mainstream papers can be a source of advertising contacts and other resources for the community papers. This ideal is nowhere near a reality in Twin Cities news media today.
Debate over Federal Deregulation
Deregulation of the telecommunications industry is an issue of great importance to the communities of color in the Twin Cities, and for that matter, to all communities across the nation. In this report, the Minnesota Advisory Committee presents an introduction to the deregulation debate and provides perspectives from local news media experts. The only conclusion the Committee could make is that no conclusion can be made at this point. Studies need to be conducted on the national and local levels to understand fully how deregulation will affect communities of color. As of now, the Federal Communications Commission, or any other government agency, has not conducted the necessary research to conclude what the effects of deregulation would be on these communities.
The complete report of the Minnesota Advisory Committee follows. At the end of the report, the Committee presents a number of findings and recommendations for the Twin Cities news media, government, and the local communities of color. Although some disagreement may occur regarding specific findings and recommendations, all Committee members and presenters at the fact-finding meeting, whether they were members of the mainstream news media, community press, or the local neighborhoods, agreed that coverage of communities of color could be improved. Turing this point of agreement into a priority to be addressed is now the challenge facing the Twin Cities.