Hemant Shah has served as director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism school since 2014, and has been a member of the faculty since 1990. His research focuses on the role of mass media in social change, including the construction of cultural identities and racial anxieties.
Shah spoke with the Cap Times about the roles and responsibilities of journalists in covering race relations, particularly in light of the 2016 election.
Cap Times: We’re seeing more reporting and more public awareness of racial tensions. Do reporters focus too much on the controversies and explosive moments without providing enough context?
Hemant Shah: The context issue is really important, I think. The coverage of race relations in the U.S. has never been that great. There are moments, there are newspapers that have moments, but overall the coverage is pretty spotty.
Traditional journalism doesn’t provide the time and space for context, with exceptions, obviously. I think that’s the biggest problem, and perpetuating stereotypes is a sub-problem of that. The consequence of not having context is that it makes it seem like stories of racial unrest or racial inequity have emerged from nowhere. It makes it seem like it comes out of nowhere, and the further consequence of that is, “Oh, that’s just the way things are.” There’s no understanding of the long-term historical sequence of events, or long-term neglect by federal agencies or city agencies. This dissatisfaction has built up over time. Rather, it seems like, “this is just a bunch of crazy misfits.” That perpetuates a stereotype. That’s a problem with lack of context. It turns history into nature.
In other words, what is demonstrably historical and can be debated and argued over seems like, this is just nature, this is the way minorities are. And that totally cuts off a discussion about potential solutions.
Should it be a goal in reporting on race issues to find solutions?
I don’t know if that’s necessarily the reporter’s job, per se. When people read that type of reporting, they may throw up their hands and say, “How can there be a solution?” So I’m not saying reporters ought to be the ones to find the solutions. Reporters ought to be the ones who are doing critical inquiry among their sources, bringing a range of information to bear and presenting that to the public and to decision-makers.
Is there an inherent disadvantage in “mainstream media” that newsrooms are often not very racially diverse?
That’s definitely a problem. It’s been a problem for many, many decades. The Associated Press Media Editors initially started its diversity census in the ‘70s, and since that time it’s kind of leveled off. It’s a problem. There is no diversity in American newsrooms, except TV newsrooms. But in newspapers, there’s very little diversity. I think part of the problem is that it leads to myopic decisions. Research has always found diversity at the decision-making table leads to better decisions. If you have a diverse newsroom, you make better decisions about what to cover, who to cover, how to cover. Potential mistakes and problems could be avoided.
But I think there’s a couple caveats. One is: diversity in the newsroom, yes. Diversity in management, even more so. That shows priorities, that shows power is changing. And secondly, there has to be buy-in at the very top to do something that’s different than you normally do. Diversity in a newsroom is important, but it doesn’t solve the problem in and of itself. You have to have buy-in, you have to have a diverse mid-level management. Then you’re likely to get better outcomes.
And part of the problem is, look at our journalism school. I could count the students of color on less than three hands, but we have 550 majors. If you go to a journalism school in a larger metropolitan area it would be different. But those students don’t always migrate directly into journalism, either. The skill sets that they acquire here, students can do so many things. Then here’s a student of color, incredible skill sets, multiple options, and will they go into a profession that’s going to pay them $20,000, $30,000, $40,000? There’s that question, too, kind of a pragmatic question and problem.
Whether or not the buy-in is there at the top, if you are a white newspaper reporter, what can you do to make your reporting more reflective of all the communities you’re covering?
One of the things I’ve been saying for years in my own research and in my classes is that we all have to acknowledge our implicit and explicit biases, first of all. But then other kinds of skills can be developed. They’re not writing, reporting. It’s human skills. Empathy. Doing your homework about the communities that you report. Not just parachuting in. Trying to be in touch with that community over a longer period of time. You don’t have to become part and parcel of that community, but you have to take genuine interest and care in that community. Build trust. And don’t be afraid to let go of some of the moorings that we have in traditional journalism. For example, forget about deference to experts and officials. Yes, they’re important in some kinds of stories, but not every story. Pay attention more to community members and get their voices into the mix, too.
The focus on conflict and controversy — we don’t have to totally jettison that, but that’s not the only thing. It’s not only controversy and conflict, it’s process, it’s trajectory, it’s a sense of how things are progressing over time. And the whole idea of staying arm's-length and neutral is important for a lot of things, but not necessarily for every type of news coverage. There is a need for being actively engaged about the communities that you’re reporting, and being persistent in staying connected with that community.
Those are different kinds of ways of reporting that are not traditional.
Looking specifically at the presidential election — a lot of these issues are things that have been happening for a while, but they’re now forced into the public eye. Whether it’s anti-immigrant sentiments, anti-Muslim policies or the alt-right, there’s this debate over when journalists should call something “racist.” How should journalists make those decisions?
I think journalists should call it out, but they have to do so in a way that’s within the bounds of accepted practice. So one way to do it is to return to context.
You mentioned anti-immigration sentiments and anti-Muslim policies. If you’re covering that, provide some context. Talk about the American context: Hey, we had a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, where Chinese people were barred from coming to America because of racist presumptions about what they were doing. The U.S. thought they were taking jobs away, that they were undermining the culture, that they were spies threatening American civilization. And we had Japanese internment camps. There’s two contextual pieces of information that puts into context the absurdity of having a Muslim registry, for example. The journalist isn’t saying, “Hey, Trump is a racist.” The journalist is saying, “Look at this policy, and look at how we reacted as a nation to these two things. We totally rejected them, so why is this coming up again?” It’s a way of raising the issue, calling it out in a way that’s acceptable.
Another example is to point out the hypocrisy of the alt-right movement, for example. Say, here is the alt-right movement. What do they stand for? They stand for American principles. OK, American principles, I’m sorry, but that includes equality, and the hypocrisy of feeling that movement toward equality is actually a net loss for a certain group of people is a weird argument to be basing your whole philosophy on. Pointing out things like that, pointing out context in the one case, hypocrisies in the other case, that might be a way for journalists to point these things out if they don’t feel comfortable calling it out specifically. And I don’t think that’s a problem, either, actually, but maybe for some reporters it feels uncomfortable.
I think a journalist can do that. They’re not supposed to be stenographers. I think putting things in context or pointing out hypocrisies, or comparing a claim to an empirical fact, it really is an interesting way to highlight problems.
Is there anything else you think is important to talk about right now?
I think we’re in for an interesting several years. I think journalism is going to have an important role to play, highlighted recently by the fake news. It was empirically demonstrated that fake news got more attention than actual news, in many specific cases. And that’s scary. So that’s something that we’ll have to deal with, too. How do we ensure that we avoid that kind of thing? And I don’t know that fake news is going to go away, so that’s the big problem, given how powerful the players are in that. What that means for us as educators and you as a professional, we have to be more vigilant. We have to do some training. Citizens have to be trained. It’s going to be a tough thing.
For people who love journalism and who work in journalism, this is a really scary turn of events. We have to be very vigilant about it.