Panel critiques media coverage of the affirmative action story
When a news reporter fails o bring depth and
sophistication to his or her reporting about affirmative action issues,
he or she runs the risk of being a “megaphone for PR agents,” Harvard
Law School Professor Christopher Edley Jr. told a gathering of more
than fifty reporters and educators at a National Association of Black
Journalists convention workshop here last month.
The workshop — which included a panel of prominent educators, an
education policy consultant, and an education reporter — was entitled
“Covering the Affirmative Action Story.” It was held to discuss how the
news media could improve its coverage of affirmative action issues.
Black Issues in Higher Education sponsored the session, which
included Edley; Dr. Donald Stewart, president of the College Board; Dr.
Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland-Baltimore County
(UMBC); Robert Kronley, senior consultant to the Southern Education
Foundation; and Ernie Suggs, an education writer for the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution. Cheryl D. Fields, executive editor of Black
Issues his Higher Education, moderated the discussion.
Edley, who has served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton on
the affirmative action debate, had sharp criticisms of the news media.
He noted that reporters fail to prepare themselves to cover the
affirmative action beat in the manner they would prepare for other
public policy subjects, such as nuclear arms control or the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“Many journalists think that shooting from the hip should suffice,”
Edley said. “This is not rocket science; this is harder than rocket
Edley also told workshop attendees that reporters repeat the
language used by affirmative action opponents without considering the
implications of the language. He also said that reporters are too eager
to give both sides of the debate equal space in their reporting without
attempting to determine whether the arguments posed by each side are of
equal logic and equal sophistication of thought.
Suggs countered that journalists have an obligation to include each
side of the debate in their reporting. He also suggested that
affirmative action proponents might be failing to get their message out
if supporters have the perception that news media reporting favors the
Edley, however, said that reporters must apply more rigor to their reporting.
“If side A is stupid, a good journalist should discover that and point it out,” Edley told the audience.
Other panel members also issued urgent pleas to the news media.
Stewart told the audience that he “would hope the press would do a
better in interpreting what the [SAT] scores are about.” The College
Board, which Stewart heads, administers the SAT and other major
Stewart said the news media perpetuates the belief that the SAT
performance gap between Blacks and Whites exists because the test is
culturally biased against Blacks. He contends a more useful
interpretation of the SAT performance gap would say that Black children
are not getting the quality of primary and secondary education that
White children are getting.
“Opportunities for educational development should be placed at the K-12 level,” he said.
Stewart also criticized journalists for their ambivalence in
communicating the idea that Black children, with the right amount of
preparation, can perform equally as well as Whites on standardized
“That ambivalence has got to stop. Our children can do very well on these tests,” he said.
Kronley charged that the national news media, in fixating on the
1996 Hopwood v. Texas federal appeals court decision which banned
race-conscious admission policies at Texas public colleges, has failed
to write much about how conservative Southern states are continuing to
follow affirmative action policies because they are following other
federal cases, such as Fordice. He cited the fact that Louisiana and
Mississippi — which are in the Fifth Circuit and thus theoretically
fall under the Hopwood ruling — are not complying with Hopwood. He
added that legislators in Georgia and South Carolina have refused to
abolish affirmative action in their states as well.
“Hopwood is not being followed because they’re using race-sensitive policies. This is an important story,” Kronley said.
Kronley said southern states are dealing with tile legacy of
segregated educational systems, which in his opinion continues to bear
responsibility for the persistence of educational disparities between
Blacks and Whites.
Hrabowski told the audience that he feels that it’s appropriate for
higher education institutions to admit students from diverse
backgrounds to make diversity a part of tile educational experience.
And, he added, he has to deal with hundreds of parents who complain
that their children were excluded from admittance to UMBC because they
feel someone less qualified was accepted. Hrabowski said he has to
inform parents that “it’s rarely the case that a student gets into
every college” to which he or she applies.
Hrabowski also called on the news media to pay attention to, and
highlight, parenting practices which help children succeed at school —
especially reading and homework supervision. Even if the parents don’t
understand the homework themselves, he said, they can still see to it
that it gets done.
“How can you expect a child who doesn’t do work at home in the evening to compete with someone who does?” Hrabowski asked.
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