TV News and Racial Representation
This report is the result of a six-month study of the daily news broadcasts of three Grand Rapids TV station: WOOD TV8 (6 & 11pm), WZZM 13 (6 & 11pm) and WXMI 17 (10pm). From September 1, 1999 through February 29, 2000, each day's newscasts were taped and then viewed by Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy staff and volunteers. News logs were kept for each program with specific codes assigned for each of the areas of interest that were documented. The data was compiled at the end of each month and then tallied at the beginning of March 2000. Letters were sent to numerous organizations and individuals in the minority community to solicit feedback on both the data and the media recommendations.
(Part of the data collecting was done by GVSU social work students. A word of thanks to them and Prof. Michel Coconis for their assistance on this research.)
The Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) is an affiliate of the Community Media Center ( Community Media Center of Greater Grand Rapids ). GRIID offers Media Literacy training and resources to the community in order to help the public actively participates in the consumption and creation of media and to promote democratic values with all media systems.
In the summer of 1999 the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and several other national minority organizations made an appeal to the television networks. They called on them to provided programming with more minority actors in lead roles and fewer secondary roles portraying minorities engaged in criminal and other negative activities.
The television networks responded that they already had "adequate" minority representation in primetime television programming. This prompted the NAACP and other groups to call for a citizen boycott of these networks, particularly during the ratings weeks. Recently, these pressures have led the networks to take some positive steps towards more diversity in programming. ( National Association for the Advancement of Colored People )
These efforts were significant in that organized members of the minority community acknowledged that they were tired of seeing negative portrayals of themselves in TV programming, and that they were frustrated with rarely or never seeing themselves in prominent roles. Such character demonization and exclusion can have long-term damaging effects on minority communities, particularly children.
The group Children Now has studied how minority children perceive themselves based on TV programming. "I love watching TV. I believe what I see. I'm still looking for ME," are the opening words of a Children Now study that focused on Native American children. The study found that since TV shows rarely had Native characters in them, they it contributed significantly to low self-esteem amongst Native children.
This report focuses on minority representation in local TV news. The data demonstrates the same fundamental problems that minority organizations have raised nationally about fictional TV programming - that some minority groups are disproportionately shown engaging in criminal activity and that others are rarely seen at all.
This report provides hard data on racial representation in local TV news programming. With this data we hope to begin a dialogue with the community and the TV stations about how this representation contributes to racism. We include in the report recommendations to the media for future action. This report is not intended to bash the media, but rather to offer some constructive suggestions about how to move in the direction of racial justice. We hope this report contributes to that goal.
Six-month TV news Data on Racial Representation
(6 & 11 news)
(6 & 11 news)
|Total # of Stories||3,604||3,064||2,417|
(by # of times we heard people speak & percentage of total voices)
|White||2555 - 86.31%||1767 - 84.6%||1255 - 84.8%|
|African American||325 - 10.97%||244 - 11.69%||175 - 11.8%|
|Hispanic||47 - 1.58%||52 - 2.49%||27 - 1.82%|
|Asian- American||11 - 0.37%||13 - 0.62%||10 - 0.67%|
|Arab- American||14 - 0.47%||6 - 0.28%||8 - 0.54%|
|Native American||8 - 0.27%||5 - 0.23%||5 - 0.33%|
|Totals # of stories from all three stations||9,085|
|Total # and percentage of voices/White||5,577 / 85.44%|
|Total # of African American voices||744 / 11.39%|
|Total # of Hispanic voices||126 / 1.93%|
|Total # of Asian American voices||34 / .52%|
|Total # of Arab American voices||28 / .42%|
|Total # of Native American voices||18 / .27%|
|WOOD TV8||WZZM 13||WXMI 17|
|# of stories on crimes committed when race was identified|
|Totals # and percentage of race identified crimes for all 3 stations:|
|White||326 / 50.3%|
|African American||234 / 36.1%|
|Hispanic||74 / 11.4%|
|Asian American||6 / .9%|
|Arab American||8 / 1.23%|
|Native American||0 / 0%|
|Percentage of voices and percentage of crimes:|
|White||85.44% / 50.3%|
|African American||11.39% / 36.1%|
|Hispanic||1.93% / 11.4%|
|Asian American||.52% / .9%|
|Arab American||.42% / 1.23%|
|Native American||.27% / 0%|
Whose voices in the minority community did we hear most often?
- African American: students (12), teachers & school staff (10), pastors (6), GRPS Superintendent Patricia Newby (5), parents (5), Commissioner Dean (4), Rob LaDew (3), lawyers (3), Kentwood Mayor Hardiman (2) and business owners (1).
- Hispanics: GRCC Pres. Juan Oliverez (1), Francisco Vega (1), Peter Varga (1), parent (1), business owner (1) and attorney (1).
- Arab American: Senator Abraham (2), Dina Matt (1) and terrorism expert (1).
- Asian American: artist (2), business owner (2), refugee (2), resident (2) and GVSU prof. (1).
- Native American: Levi Rickert (3), Sharon Dietz (1) and unsourced Native male (1).
- African American: Parents (12), students (11), School staff & teachers (8), Commissioner Dean (8), Patricia Newby (6), business owners (6), Rob LaDew (4), pastors (2) and lawyers (2).
- Hispanics: migrant workers (5), parents (3), students (3), teachers (2), business owner (2), Nick Garza (2), Juan Oliverez (1) and pastors (1).
- Arab American: Senator Abraham (1), business owner (1) and Red Cross Dir. (1).
- Asian American: artist (3), students (2) and residents (2).
- Native American: Levi Rickert (2), Ron Yob (1), Kristi Dayson (1) and Delores Labon (1).
- African American: parents (22), students (16), Patricia Newby (14), teachers & school staff (11), pastors (11), Rob LaDew (9), Commissioner Dean (6), lawyers (6), Paul Mayhue (4), Ingrid Scott Weekly (3) and business owners (3).
- Hispanics: parents (3), Francisco Vega (2), students (2), teachers & school staff (2), Juan Oliverez (1) and Mercedes Toohey (1).
- Arab American: Red Cross Dir. (3) and Senator Abraham (2).
- Asian American: student (2), teacher (1).
- Native American: Levi Rickert (4), Sharon Dietz (1), Thurman Bear (1) and unnamed Native male participating in census meeting (1).
When News Coverage Becomes Racial Profiling
Some observations on racism and racial representation in TV news
As a means of beginning to discuss the content, style and amount of news coverage devoted to racism and diversity in the community, let's look at how all three stations surveyed covered a March 7 rally in front of the Hall of Justice. Roughly 150 people gathered in downtown Grand Rapids to denounce the verdict in the Diallo case in New York, to draw attention to police racial profiling and to encourage public action. GRIID was present to hear the various perspectives and to see how the media would cover this event.
All three stations aired footage of the rally, comments from at least one of the participants and reaction from the Grand Rapids Police Department. All three stations mentioned racial profiling, but only WOOD TV 8 made reference to the Diallo verdict, which was addressed by every speaker that day. WOOD TV 8 also went with one of the rally speakers to a neighborhood to make a point about how some minorities are viewed by the police, but aside from this creative approach the news stories gave viewers limited and selective information.
The stories framed the rally as an issue only faced by the African American community, but there were speakers from the Hispanic, Native and Asian American community as well. Failure to show the diversity of speakers not only limited the viewers understanding of what took place, but also added to the perception that racism is only a Black/White issue.
Comments that were used in the news stories gave the impression that people need to work together and that the police department should be held accountable on matters of racial profiling. However, no mention was made of specific actions that citizens could take, again leaving the viewer with a sense of powerlessness. The rally organizers did lay out concrete action steps and materials were handed out that would facilitate citizen participation. By not focusing on organized efforts to confront racism these news reports left only the impression that people get angry; the reports did nothing positive to create change.
Finally, each station devoted equal time to responses from the GRPD and rally participants, suggesting an air of balance. However, this does not do justice to the diversity of voices and opinions heard that day. News reporters could have talked to more rally participants and more of their statements could have been included in the edited news stories. More importantly, the news stations could have used this event as the jumping off point for a series of local stories about the many ways racial profiling occurs.
Crime coverage all too often means minority coverage
One only need study the data in this report to observe that the ratio of minority crimes in news stories to minority voices in news stories is appallingly high. In fact, four out of the five minority groups studied were seen committing crimes in a majority of their news stories. Only Native Americans did not reflect that trend.
This type of coverage effects both the minority and the White community. For minorities constantly seeing oneself as a criminal can lead to self-loathing. Such stories also contribute to an ongoing sense of fear for minorities about being out after dark. "Will I get arrested?" or "will I get harassed by the police if I am out walking in my neighborhood?" These are very real and potentially very damaging consequences from the sort of racial profiling committed by the news media.
For the White community the current style of crime coverage also has negative consequences. The disproportionate portrayal of minorities as violent criminals - and of urban crime in general - could re-enforce racist fears and attitudes. The resulting demand for more police and more prisons often follows suit.
Limited and limiting voices
One comment we received from our 1999 study on racial representation in local TV news was that for each racial group, the number of news stories was proportioned to population for West Michigan. This may be a fair assessment, though the 2000census will likely show significant increases in both the Hispanic and Asian communities. More important, the population percentage argument looks at Kent County, or the entire region, whereas local news coverage focuses primarily on urban Grand Rapids, where minority population percentages are much higher.
Those arguments aside, it seems to us that news media should not play a numbers game. The minority community and recent immigrant communities face cultural, language, and economic barriers, which make it extremely important that their voices be heard over and above what census figures reflect.
Finally, too often when minority voices are heard only in race specific news - news about racial incidents or cultural events. When stories are done about the environment, health or the economy, minority voices and faces are rare. It's as if minorities have no real opinion on these matters. This is another form of racial profiling, since it balkanizes minorities into a very narrow range of news topics.
Covering the obvious
One of the easiest ways to do news coverage that would promote racial diversity would be to cover cultural/calendar events. During this six-month study numerous cultural events involving minority communities took place. Unfortunately, little attention was paid to such events by local TV news stations.
In September, there were the Hispanic and Mexican festivals downtown, and the Native American community had a Pow-Wow in Riverside Park. October is Hispanic Heritage Month, November is when the Native community emphasizes their history and February is Black History Month.
The Hispanic festival and the Pow-Wow in September received a mention on all three news stations. No representative's comments were included, just video footage of the event. Coverage of cultural events without minority commentary tends to frame the events as pure entertainment, rather than as expressions of cultural identity. There were no stories on Hispanic Heritage Month or Native American activities in November. During Black History month, there was one story about local artist Paul Collins and another on a suburban school's Black History Month activities. Other than that the only other cultural/calendar events to receive attention were one piece on WOOD TV 8 about the Vietnamese New Year and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations.
All three stations ran something on local observances of the federal holiday, focusing mainly on Martin Luther King III's speaking engagements at GVSU and GRCC. Aside from King's voice the only other voices we heard were GVSU's Dean of Minority Affairs, Don Williams and members of a Project Rehab program who were attending the celebration. WOOD TV 8 was the only station to give news of King Day events from around the country, choosing to run a piece on the NAACP protest in South Carolina over the Confederate flag issue.
Again, great opportunities were missed to do news stories around the message and impact of Dr. King. Issues such as civil rights in West Michigan, groups that teach non-violence in our community, or even how the Black Church has evolved over the past 30 years all had the potential to resonate with - and inform - the public on that day.
Reporting on Racism
Like any other community in the USA, West Michigan suffers from racism. Any citizen with a conscience was shocked by the story of the dragging of an African American by a White motorist in Grand Rapids last fall, and by the story of a Muskegon teacher who hung two Black dolls from the ceiling of his classroom. These acts committed by individuals were straightforward and relatively easy to report. Both stories received significant follow-up stories on all three stations, where members of the NAACP were asked to comment. But when it comes to the more difficult issue of institutional racism in this community - such as police engaging in racial profiling - little investigative reporting has occurred.
One story that WZZM 13 did on November 5 did expose institutional racism. The story ran 9 minutes and 10 seconds, an almost unheard of length for TV news these days, at both the 6 and 11:00 newscasts. The piece featured Hispanic migrant workers living in conditions that none of us would tolerate. The workers were interviewed, as was the man who recruited them, a migrant labor lawyer and someone from the Department of Agriculture. Viewers also saw an attempted interview with the negligent farm owner.
This was a very thorough piece, with a variety of voices, good research on the law and significant time allotted to make sense of a very complex issue. However, despite the significant merits of the story in its examination of this incident the subject of institutional racism received no mention. The majority of migrant workers who are Hispanic have to deal with similar low wage conditions. So why was that not stated, or why did that not lead the reporters to do another piece on the racist nature of migrant labor in West Michigan?
Institutional racism is far more complex than individual acts of racism. You cannot do a simple story without engaging in adequate research. Such stories also may challenge institutions that news organizations are reluctant to confront. In the case of the WZZM 13 piece it clearly wasn't a matter of time - they gave us a 9-minute story. It wasn't a matter of research - they did their homework. Perhaps the news staff lacked significant training on racial matters, or were reluctant to challenge sectors of society that engage in institutional racism.
We cannot conclude categorically that we know what fully determines the choices the news media makes when dealing with racism or how they represent the diversity of the community. Instead, we hope that this report will provide important data on racial matters in local TV news and stimulate community dialogue that leads to racial healing and racial justice.
We encourage people to contact the three stations surveyed in this report. We also encourage feedback, input and endorsements of the findings that will be added to the web version of this report. We want to see this report as a fluid document, one that evolves and matures into a tool that the community can use to bring about positive change.