Jan 1 1999

Affirmative Action Coverage Ignores Women–and Discrimination

A six-month study of media coverage

Mainstream news media are shortchanging the public–especially women–in their coverage of affirmative action. Consideration of affirmative action’s impact and meaning for women of all colors is largely missing from news stories, and women are severely underrepresented on opinion pages.

Worse–with a few exceptions, major media are reporting the debate on affirmative action without reference to the continued existence of racist and sexist practices. Severed from the context of the discrimination to which it is a response, affirmative action is presented as a confusing, “hot-button” issue, about which few facts can be known.

The persistent use of the problematic terms “preferences” or “racial preferences” as synonyms for affirmative action programs underscores mainstream media’s distorted, ahistorical presentation of the issue. (The term is rarely used to describe the ingrained and pervasive discrimination favoring white males in U.S. society.)

These are the main findings of a survey of news media coverage of affirmative action in the first six months of 1998. The survey included all news stories in 15 major outlets (dailies, newsweeklies and TV news) that addressed the general topic of affirmative action or any particular affirmative action policy, program or legislation.

Where are the women?

Although women are major beneficiaries of affirmative action policies, the survey found that only seven of 314 stories (2 percent) mainly focused on affirmative action’s impact on women. In fact, only 19 percent of mainstream news articles on affirmative action addressed affirmative action’s impact on women at all. The threshold was low for inclusion in this latter category: A story had only to, say, list the number of females represented in an industry or cite a program that affected women. For instance, a March 7 Washington Post article about a “program that helps women and minorities win highway construction contracts” noted some Republicans’ worry that opposition to the program might “[impede] GOP efforts to close its ‘gender gap.'”

Reporters might be surprised to learn that the majority of articles on affirmative action left women out. That’s because most stories do in fact mention women in their definition of the term, usually with a phrase like “race and gender preferences” or “programs benefiting women and minorities.” But then an odd thing happens: Having mentioned women, media accounts proceed to erase them from the subsequent discussion. The Washington Post (1/3/98) declares that “petitions against race, gender preferences” make Washington state “the next battleground in the war over racial preferences,” for example; or the Los Angeles Times (5/31/98) counterposes “affirmative action” in education with a “color-blind system.”

A thumbnail illustration of women’s invisibility was provided by coverage of 1998 enrollment at the University of California, after the elimination of affirmative action in admissions. Almost every press report said that the University of California had “eliminated preferences based on race, gender and ethnicity”; the majority then went on to note the numbers of various racial and ethnic minorities that had applied. Exactly one journalist (the New York Times‘ Ethan Bronner, 4/1/98) bothered to find out, and report, that “while the California referendum also barred the consideration of sex, admissions officials said they had never taken sex into account anyway because of the large number of women applying to college.”

Skewed opinion pages

Much affirmative action coverage was simply too short and superficial to engage the issue in any depth, consisting of brief reports on the results of a referendum, or a court ruling, perhaps supplemented with a few quotes. Of those news articles that discussed the matter in greater detail, the bulk hew tightly to an “opponents say/proponents say” format, with little room for independent investigation or historical analysis.

Unfortunately, in this kind of coverage, claims about a policy’s effects or intentions may be reported, but go unquestioned, as when the Atlanta Journal & Constitution (3/9/98) included a state official’s provocative assertion, in support of anti-affirmative action legislation, that his “son was told ‘No Whites Need Apply’ when he went to the Atlanta Police Department for a job.” No verification or denial from the police department was included.

Such articles leave the unsettling impression that some news media have all but given up the idea of reporting affirmative action as an actual set of policies and programs, with discernible intentions and measurable effects, treating it instead as a field of emotional claims and counterclaims.

As a result, a good deal of the substantive discussion of affirmative action is consigned to commentary, op-ed or opinion columns. (At least one outlet, U.S. News & World Report, featured more “opinion” than news on the issue during the study period.) Given that op-eds are where much of the debate on affirmative action takes place, the gender imbalance on the nation’s opinion pages is striking. Of 101 opinion columns from January through June 1998, only 22 were written by women. The skew varied among outlets: The San Francisco Examiner found as many women as men to write commentaries on the topic, while the Washington Post ran 13 op-eds, just one of which had even a female co-author.

Nor was affirmative action’s significance or meaning for women the subject of much commentary: Just three of 101 opinion columns addressed the topic from this angle. (Two of the three were written by women.)

“Other” minorities lost in the mix

It isn’t only women who are underserved by mass media’s affirmative action coverage. Very little coverage pays particular attention to the varying impacts affirmative action has on members of different ethnic groups, especially non-black groups like Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans.

Of 314 affirmative action stories during the survey period, some 117–or 37 percent–could be considered to address varied ethnic impacts. But this number is somewhat inflated by the large proportion of the coverage devoted to the impact of the elimination of affirmative action in admissions at the University of California.

Media reports on California’s universities tended to mirror admissions or enrollment data released by the colleges, which generally included information on Latinos, Asian-Americans and sometimes Native Americans, along with blacks and whites. (For example, “Fewer Blacks and Latinos Enroll at UC,” Los Angeles Times, 5/21/98; or “Fewer Minorities Entering U. of California,” New York Times 5/21/998.) If articles on the University of California were excluded from the survey, the percentage of affirmative action coverage that considered varying impacts on different ethnic groups would drop from 37 percent to 19 percent.

Biased language

Long after widespread recognition of the importance of language in the affirmative action debate, nearly a quarter of stories–23 percent–continue to use the terms “affirmative action” and “preferences” interchangeably.

The Atlanta Journal & Constitution was the worst offender; 21 of their 34 articles on affirmative action used the two terms as synonyms. For example, a January 15 story was headlined, “Anti-Affirmative Action Advocates See ’98 as Theirs,” with the subheadline, “Court Decisions Bolstering Anti-Preference Legislation Movement.” The article’s lead sentence continued the confusion: “Amid the national conversation about affirmative action, some Georgia lawmakers vow the time has come for a statewide ban of set-asides and quota systems in government hiring and contracts that benefit women and minorities.” In this story and others, little attempt was made to distinguish between such disparate concepts as “affirmative action,” “preference,” “set-aside” and “quota.”

It seems clear that defining a program or policy as a “preference” implies that the status quo, before the intervention of the policy, did not represent a preference. In the case of affirmative action policy in the United States, this is simply untrue. The invidious effects of this terminology can not be overlooked; a 1995 Harris poll found, for example, that while 68 percent say they support “affirmative action,” only 11 percent responded positively to “preferences.” (See Extra!, 5-6/98.)

Journalists may claim that they substitute “preferences” for “affirmative action” without any ideological intent, but simply for euphony, to avoid repeating the phrase “affirmative action” throughout a story. But there are less problematic options (equal opportunity measures, anti-discrimination policies) and variations among outlets suggests that some reporters were able to find them. What’s more, to the degree that a report is focused on a particular program or policy—and it is just this kind of concrete reporting that is lacking–there is less need for such generic labeling.

Erasing the context of discrimination

Not only is the term “preference” virtually never used by the press to describe the de facto favoritism given to white males in the job market, promotions, lending, contracting, etc., this easily documentable discrimination is only infrequently acknowledged in the context of debate over affirmative action. Only 15 percent of articles made any reference to inequity or bias (past or present) against women or people of color.

These included, for example, a June 25, 1998 USA Today article on a new federal policy which noted that, “minority-owned firms now sell only 2.2 percent of the textiles…the government buys, while they have 8.3 percent of the general market for such goods.” A Chicago Tribune story on diversity at a small Maine college (4/14/98) addressed bias by mentioning the arguments of critics of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) who charge “the tests assess wealth as much as they do academic ability,” disadvantaging low-income minority students.

Of 314 stories, just 11 addressed race or gender discrimination as their main topic. Five of these were in a single newspaper–the Seattle Times. These included Tom Brune’s February 10 data-driven report on hiring and layoffs at Boeing and Microsoft, which found disparities in the companies’ treatment of women and people of color. Brune also wrote a historical profile (3/2/98) of the Washington State Board Against Discrimination in Employment, which included one administrator’s recollection of the agency’s early days in the 1950s. He remembered a department store official explaining his policy toward blacks: “Oh, we don’t discriminate. We just don’t hire ’em.”

Media do not have to become advocates for affirmative action to report the realities of discrimination. Those articles that took on issues of the “prevailing bias” were among the most complex and concrete treatments of affirmative action in the sample. The San Francisco Examiner‘s Annie Nakao wrote thought-provoking stories on innovative programs, like peer counseling, that help minority youth do better in school (6/8/98, 6/10/98). Along the way, particular problems faced by people of color were pointed out, as when one African-American mother noted that many teachers seemed to have lower expectations for her children. The articles did not try to sever cultural factors in scholastic success from economic ones, telling a more nuanced story than a simple “pro/con” frame allows. The Houston Chronicle‘s series, “The Playing Field: Sports & Race,” was another example of refreshingly complicated reporting.

The Seattle Times deserves special mention in this regard. The paper’s series on affirmative action (2/8-11/98), with reporting by Tom Brune, was noteworthy for its use of concrete examples and real statistics. The series was also set apart by its “framing,” the angle of approach it took to the issue. In place of the static, polarizing format of much media treatment, which asked, “Is affirmative action bad or good?,” the Times employed a significantly different frame, headlining articles, “Equality on the Job: Are We There Yet?”

With this approach, the stories made a simple but significant journalistic statement: that affirmative action policies for minorities and women should be considered with reference to the history and persistence of discrimination against minorities and women. It did not make for a series that was uncritical of affirmative action policy as practiced in the state, or that represented only one set of perspectives on such policies. On the contrary, the Seattle Times‘ evident effort to treat affirmative action as a reportable story insured that rhetoric on the subject was outweighed by reality.

Looked at individually, many mainstream news articles on affirmative action appear to be evenhanded, in that they may include comments from both proponents and opponents of the policy. But observed as a whole and over time, the picture is somewhat different. With few exceptions, major media continue to be careless about the actual scope and definition of affirmative action, content to treat the issue as more a “political football” than a specific set of historically grounded programs and policies. And too few reports include any information at all about the obstacles still faced by people of color and women in the United States, in employment, wages, benefits, housing, lending and education, thus robbing the debate of its context. Combined with the dramatic marginalization of women, these problems make for media coverage that is imbalanced and incomplete.

This report is based on research commissioned by Americans for a Fair Chance, a nonpartisan consortium of six national civil rights legal organizations. A version of the report was published by Americans for a Fair Chance in November 1998.


The study employed a database consisting of all news articles in the Nexis computer database on the topic of affirmative action, from January 1 through June 30, 1998, in the following outlets:

New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; USA Today; Atlanta Journal & Constitution; Houston Chronicle; Chicago Tribune; San Francisco Examiner; Seattle Times; Time; Newsweek; U.S. News & World Report; ABC‘s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings; ABC‘s Nightline; PBS‘s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

There were a total of 314 stories. Excluded from the survey database were the following: editorials; opinion columns; letters to the editor; book reviews; duplicated stories; “previews” or blurbs for upcoming stories; and stories which included the phrase “affirmative action” but did not address the issue substantively. (For example, New York Times, 6/17/98, “Justice Thomas Declines to Drop Speech to Bar,” which includes the sentence, “The passions aroused by the invitation to Justice Thomas, a conservative who has been an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, demonstrate the strong feelings that he still evokes among fellow blacks since his contentious confirmation hearings in 1991.”)

During the study period, 101 signed opinion columns also appeared that dealt substantively with affirmative action. These were tabulated separately.