Communication Currents

Locating Whiteness in Journalism Pedagogy

April 1, 2014
Critical and Cultural Studies

Scholars who research issues of diversity in journalism education advocate an additive approach: integrate multicultural material into existing curricula, or recruit students or faculty of color. Anchoring this position is the concern that becausepredominately white journalism students are trained by majority white professors, they are ill-equipped to report on racial or ethnic groups unless they have been exposed to differently colored bodies. Despite being motivated by the goal of improving the coverage of communities of color in the mainstream media, a critical whiteness studies framework critiques these efforts as inadequate.

Communication and media scholars have repeatedly detected systemic whiteness in the overrepresentation of whites in the profession, the viewpoint of journalism practitioners, and the news gathering norms, but very few journalism scholars have aimed that same critical lens at their pedagogy. The overwhelming number of media practitioners with college training—nearly 90 percent of all journalists have a college degree, with nearly 85 percent of entry-level journalists holding a journalism degree—gives considerable import to what practices are used to address race in those educational settings. It prompted the inquiry guiding my study: Does journalism pedagogy reproduce whiteness in ways that actually prevent better coverage of racial and ethnic groups?

By employing a variety of methods—25 hours of classroom observations and an analysis of two journalism textbooks—this study uncovered two distinct ways that journalism pedagogy remains fashioned by whiteness.

The first finding problematizes the strategies used to teach journalism students how to identify viable news content. By examining all instruction associated with this matter—lectures, PowerPoints, discussions, individual consultations, and the textbook—three pedagogical approaches emerged.

The first is the “what you know” approach, which encourages students to generate story ideas from their current interests, work, recreation, or relationships. For example, a student athlete planned to write about the experience of student athletes juggling academics and sports.

A second strand, the “what you love” tactic, urges students to pursue stories in which they are emotionally invested. For example, when a student vacillated between a story on campus parking or the lack of a baseball field, both teacher and classmates suggested she focus on the one she cared about more.

The third approach relies on the traditional news values. These include timeliness, proximity, impact, prominence, singularity, and conflict. Well-known scholars such as Christopher Campbell, Todd Gitlin, Herbert Gans, and Teun A. van Dijk have documented the ways news values have been cast though a western, Eurocentric, male perspective. Rather than rehashing those arguments, it is important to note how existing journalism curriculum valorizes these tenets, reinscribing whiteness parallel to how it occurs in news production.

Because journalism students are mainly white, the pedagogical strategy of writing “what you know” or “what you love” consigns the options for story ideas to a sphere of relationships and experiences hinged on homogeneity, validating only certain experiences as newsworthy. Together, the three tactics condense news content to a finite range of experiences that authenticate whiteness and normalize exclusion of racially marked groups. The pedagogical approaches occur without the type of odium associated with racism. Nonetheless, they perpetuate an incomplete representation of an increasingly diverse society, impeding news coverage that incorporates experiences beyond the dominant group.

The second manifestation of whiteness was located in the language used to address race and racism in the reading material and discussion. By examining the textbooks and classroom discussion that engaged diversity, four linguistic devices emerged that mirrored those whites employ to talk about race approach to race. According to scholars Thomas K. Nakayama and Robert Krizek, these include: individualism, the ideal that all people are equally capable of surmounting obstacles; distorted racism, the conflation of racism with prejudice; negation, the tendency to dismiss both the historical legacies of discrimination and current vestiges of institutional racism; and normativity, a reaffirmation of white identity as the norm.

The best example of the theme of individualism occurred when the instructor asked her students to name stereotypical characteristics of various racial groups. For blacks, students called out poor, Ebonics, thugs, rap, low education, big lips, andathletic, while the teacher projected the characteristics they named. For Asians, students suggested smart, genius, geeky, mini-marts, accented English, and martial arts. “Latino” followed, as did the descriptors dirty, thick accents, field workers, maids, illegal, sombrero, and family-oriented. Lastly, “white” was posted and the class responded with SUVs, soccer moms, materialistic, spoiled, America, clean, and Christian. This exercise symbolically created identical lists of attributes for each group, implying that all racial and ethnic groups share power in society equally, disguising the dominance whites have had over major institutions and decision-making bodies since the birth of this country.

A distorted notion of racism also was a pattern. For instance, one of the textbooks clearly conflated racism and prejudice when it claimed, “Individuals from any racial or ethnic group can be racist.” Secondly, racism was treated as a relic. For example, when a professor discussed her research interests in the black press of the 1900s, she noted that it was a time marked by racism perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. Equating racism with the Klan establishes racism as irrational and extremist individual acts with no contemporary systemic manifestations.

Negating the legacy of racism is another propensity. It was evident in the contradictory messages about how social conditions for marginalized groups have improved, yet marred by growing mentions of discrimination. For instance, multiple references in the text indicated that racism no longer exists: “Women and members of racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups continue to move from the sidelines to the headlines” and “As ‘minorities’ become a larger proportion of U.S. society—and the majority in many communities—they also amass power.” However, alongside these passages are discussions of continued symptoms of racism: “Hate speech has grown” or “Racial bias in U.S. crime reporting is increasing, not decreasing.” These discordant messages can be understood as a fissure in dominant white ideology that assumes individual efforts can overcome racism, asserting a level playing field exists. In reality, expecting racialized peoples to single-handedly disrupt underlying racist structures is not only credulous, but also expedient because it leaves structures intact and the status quo unchallenged.

A reliance on a white identity as the benchmark for human experience was reiterated repeatedly. For instance, checklists in the textbook remind students to substitute “a white male” in order to gauge appropriateness of word choices, normalizing whites and males as the unmarked touchstone of the human experience.

Based on these findings, I contend that because journalism education scholars have yet to concurrently discuss how to dismantle whiteness in the academic training of journalism students as part of efforts to diversify journalism education, mass-mediated depictions of people of color will continue to reflect a white viewpoint that excludes, distorts, or maligns the racialized experiences of these communities. Simply increasing the amount of diversity content and representation without interrogating whiteness in journalism pedagogy will not produce journalism content that counters Eurocentric white-dominance or offer more salient representations of racial inequities.

About the author (s)

Sonya M. Aleman

University of Utah

Assistant Professor