News Ethics: Staying Balanced When Covering Race, Ethnicity and Gender

news ethics

When it comes to publishing in today’s politically correct world, the best advice might be to tread lightly.

Take, for example, connecting with Latino audiences. Whether a Hispanic subject is Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or another ethnicity becomes a relevant piece of a Spanish-language media story. The same goes with African-American media reporting a subject’s race.

Minority audiences can be particularly sensitive when general market media mention race, ethnicity, or gender.

This came up recently during a Public Relations Society of America Miami event on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. LGBT advocates were appalled over a Florida newspaper story that referred to a transgender victim as a “man in a dress.”

Meanwhile, feminists may equally be offended when male-to-female transgenders are deemed women, opined Elinor Burkett recently in The New York Times.

Handling Race and Ethnicity

Keith Woods, vice president of diversity in news and operations with National Public Radio recently led a Poynter course called Handling Race and Ethnicity. In it, Woods explained four common identifications that journalists misuse in stories: Inexplicable, Uneven, Misplaced, and Unexplained.

Woods says the misuse of identifiers typically occurs because of the way “we tell our stories.”

“We become the norm, and everyone else is different,” he says. “With race, gender or sexual orientation, the group controlling the press creates that norm.”

Woods explains these identifiers are an issue in every form of communication. It even happens on air.

Woods pointed it out to some colleagues in a recent New York Times story about the Charleston massacre. He also once wrote a column about how J.K. Rowling used race to identify characters in the Harry Potter series only the when characters weren’t white (which earned him Cruciatus curses from some Muggles).

So when journalists mention race and ethnicity for no apparent reason, Woods considers this “inexplicable.”

“Often, we register race/gender/sexual orientation in our heads and assign it relevance without ever examining whether it belongs,” he says. “In a story about the day’s thunderstorm, a journalist might say, ‘Nearby, a black woman raised a colorful umbrella and charged into the storm.’ That she was black had no relevance, but it registered in the mind of the journalist and inexplicably appeared in the story.”

Keith Woods Quote

Breaking Down the Identifiers

Woods explains there are “unexplained” identifiers that could be critical to a story, but that a journalist fails to include.

A timely example: Reporting around the elections.

“Watch how it plays out in politics, where you will hear about the Hispanic vote and the black vote and women voters, but not the white vote or the male vote,” he said. “With that uneven identification, any reasonable person can conclude that Hispanics, African Americans and all women vote based on their race/ethnicity/gender, while white men vote on the issues.”

Meanwhile, “misplaced” identification occurs when race or ethnicity is a critical element of the story, but only in part of the story. “Uneven” identification happens when reporters mention the race or ethnicity of one person or group, but not that of the opposing side.

Woods spends most of his time with the “uneven” territory.

“I think it happens largely because white is assumed to be default unless otherwise indicated,” he said. “We do that with race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Have you ever seen the phrase ‘straight bar’ in a story? Why is there such a phrase as ‘male nurse’? These are habits of the mind that aren’t changed until they’re surfaced and talked about.”

Question Every Identification

Whether general market media or minority media, no one gets a free pass. The same guidelines apply.

“I don’t think it’s any different for the ethnic media,” Woods says. “If race is relevant as an aggravating factor in a story, then the races of other characters must, by default, be relevant. But if the point of a publication is the race of the people about whom they’re writing, then that gives race its relevance. It doesn’t break the rule. It lives it.”

Here are some top guidelines Woods offers for keeping identifications properly balanced:

  • Be humble. Recognize that the way you’ve always done it might not be right.
  • With humility in hand, question every identification. Ask yourself if you’re willing to put your rationale for using a characteristic-based identification into the story. If the answer’s no, there’s probably no good reason to make the distinction.
  • Review your work and be aware of your blind spots. With this in mind, you’re more likely to discover them before publication or air.


Jessica Alas is Multicultural Audience Director at PR Newswire. Follow her at @alasjessica.

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