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A comparative of student newspaper reporters and their sources

By Bradley Wilson and Heath Gardner
North Carolina State University

 

Abstract

For decades, newspapers have put some emphasis on hiring a diverse staff. In 1999, the American Society of Newspapers Editors said this was not only “ideal” but reflected in the accuracy of coverage of the publication. With analysis over a five-year period, we show that student newspaper staff members do tend to use sources that are convenient and more like themselves than different at least when it comes to their college and gender. Analysis of staff and sources at more universities is necessary to see if racial diversity of the student staff is reflected in racial diversity of the sources used in the media.

Introduction

When Playboy magazine photographers made a visit to campus to find models for their “Girls of the ACC” calendar, the student newspaper devoted nearly an entire page to cover the experiences of the prospective models, including a dominant photo of a partially clad student. It also brought concern from the campus Women’s Center and female students on this male-dominated campus. But it was the coverage of the actual calendar that brought the most reader feedback. The newspaper reprinted an entire spread from the magazine (with carefully blurred out sections) on the front page. In the same time frame, when 64 percent of the staff members were male, newspaper staff members published a dominant illustration of panties as part of campaign coverage. Such art and coverage again brought the concern of staff members of the Women’s Center and female students.

Now, some three years later, the campus hasn’t changed much, moving from 56.8 percent male to 55.8 percent male. But the staff has, moving from being 65 percent male to being 50 percent male in the same time from. So to has the content of the publication. Now, the daily newspaper features “Fashion Friday” and many more soft human interest features.

This seems to suggest a potentially problematic trend. Ostensibly, student journalists are supposed to be producing content for the whole campus population – but are they limiting their coverage to their own areas of interest and comfort zones?

Student-run newspapers on university campuses simultaneously serve two important functions: providing the student body with relevant news information and acting as an instructional mechanism to train the next crop of reporters to enter the working world. Student newspapers achieve varying degrees of success in either category, but the two goals are best achieved together.

One of the greatest instructional challenges facing a college newspaper staff is that of cultivating a modicum of diverse and balanced sources to explore campus news from as many angles as possible. This is of particular import because representation of a variety of perspectives is essential to maintain an image of journalistic credibility and lack of bias. But what happens in college communities whose newspaper staffs are overwhelmingly liberal, white males, for example, while the student body population is more diverse? Do student reporters instinctively seek out sources from among their own social and peer groups on campus, or do they strive for balanced coverage at all times?

Taking a cue from the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual “Time-Out for Diversity” survey, this study of sources at the student newspaper at our large land-grant university sought to answer this question. Since we can determine the composition of our staff, can we use this information to predict how diverse (or non-diverse) the sources they acquire will be?

In light of the import of preparing student journalists for careers in a world that is inarguably stratified in terms of class, and also in consideration of the fact that our nation’s population is on track to become even more diverse by a variety of measures, this study seems warranted and even necessary.

Literature Review

This study had its origins in a 1999 exploration begun by the American Society of Newspaper Editors — The Time Out for Diversity and Accuracy. The premise of this exploration by newspaper staff members of their communities was: “”We want to accurately reflect life in our communities. If our newspapers are not inclusive enough to regularly portray the diversity of those communities, then we are presenting a fundamentally inaccurate report. That lack of accuracy undermines our journalistic credibility.” So, as the diversity of the newspaper staff accurately reflected the community, the more accurately the coverage of the paper reflected the community. Over seven hears, ASNE carried out the exploration to get newsrooms thinking about diversity. As the executive summary stated, “For one week in May (1999), more than 2,000 journalists set out to explore how accurately their news coverage reflects the diversity of their communities. They piled into buses to explore neighborhoods, coaxed people from churches and homes into their newsroom and pored over demographic information about their regions and their readers. They also looked inward, assessing how well they choose their words, their sources, their page one stories and photographs.” (ASNE, 1999)

For our study, we wanted to explore the concept that a more diverse staff would lead to coverage of a more diverse array of people and groups, therefore more accurately representing the diverse community of 30,000 students. While it may seem sexy to cover the topics that generate masses of media coverage, from college basketball to the controversial opening of a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender center to presidential political campaigns traveling through the state, covering even the more mundane aspects of campus life would lead to a newspaper that more accurately reflected the campus and would appeal to a wider array of readers. In his “Reflections on Content Quality in Newspapers,” Leo Bogart notes that “what bores some readers is of passionate interest to others. The newspaper’s unique strength lies in its ability to assemble large amounts of information, much of it of concern only to small constituencies.”

While there have been studies on source selection at established newspapers from a variety of perspectives, there has been precious little research done on how student journalists choose their sources and whether that selection reflects the source. Carol Liebler and Susan Smith (1997) found, in fact, that reporter gender did not appear to influence news source gender although female sources were a bit more likely to appear in stories reported by women. However, they did find that female reporters were significantly more likely to allocate the first source position in a story to a woman. Perhaps as relevant to our experience was that female sources were more likely to be found in stories about social issues while men reported significantly more on policy issues. “…[I]f news organizations want to change the face of news, their diversification efforts must extend beyond their hiring practices. Story assignments should not be gender specific, so that women and men report all kinds of issues. Definitions of newsworthiness must also evolve to be more inclusive and less stereotypical.”

The work that has already been done on this issue suggests that there is still quite a bit of progress to be made in achieving diversity of coverage. For example, George Sylvie, in his survey of coverage of civil disorder, points out that the problem goes back decades: “since the first modern urban riots in the 1960s, the news media have come under criticism for their coverage of civil disorders. The Kerner Commission said the media failed to present and analyze sufficiently the basic reasons for the 1960s disorders.” The inference can be drawn that because the so-called “urban riots” were uprisings among a segment of society that was not at all within proximity of the middle-to-upper-class world of newspaper reporting, and as a result of the gulf existing between these two social classes journalists were not able, or willing, to spend enough time in these communities to get the full story. David Lange and his associates report that “balanced treatment… would necessitate explaining the demonstration’s purpose, describing the events leading up to it, describing the demonstration itself and exploring the provocations, if any, directed toward the police.” But rather than doing this, a “paper’s reporting staff was organized to report the riot not from the perspective of those engaged in the violence but from the perspective of those trying to control it.” (Sylvie, 1991))

Herbert W. Gans’ hypothesis can be employed to explain this phenomenon: “news media source selection was a question of differential access to the news media … news organizations discriminate against newsmakers among ‘the poor, the powerless and the ideologically marginal,’ thus making scarce news about and for them.” (182) In other words, the news media – typically staffed by more elite members of society, especially in the higher echelons of news reporting – reports from the perspective of entrenched interests and the status quo in these situations, because of their proximity to government and law enforcement sources and their distance from urban ones.

Most studies acknowledge this lapse in coverage, often without making explicit hypotheses as to why this phenomenon occurs. Most also seem to concur that there is an “ideal” of diversity in news coverage that has not yet been achieved. In their broad-based study of news sources, J.D. Brown and his co-authors argue that “diversity implies representativeness – a diverse representation of political and social elites and non-elites, of organized and unorganized individuals, and governmental as well as non-governmental figures.” (Brown, et. al., 45) This can easily be translated to the campus context – diverse coverage means exactly that: representing as wide a range of student sources as possible in covering campus news.

But they go on to argue that, by and large, newspapers fail at achieving this diversity. A number of explanations are considered, but “at the heart of each explanation is the modern prerequisite of routinization in order to produce news efficiently for the infinite number of stories that occur each day.” (Brown & Bybee 45) This phenomenon of “routinization” might easily occur in a campus newsroom, where harried staff members struggle to make deadlines for their newspaper and their professors. This has troubling implications, however, because it means the “elite” sources papers cultivate use their routine inches in newspapers to maintain their elite status. Sylvie’s study of civil disorder coverage is a good example of how source selection can shape national perceptions of such events.

The studies that have been conducted certainly don’t depict source selection as being anything close to balanced – indeed, Brown and Bybee (1987) conclude by noting, “if we continue to assume that this society is a pluralistic democracy, the press is simply not doing its job of including and identifying a variety of sources and viewpoints.”

In response to perceptions like this, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, under the guidance of Diversity Chair David Yarnold, launched the annual National Time-Out for Diversity program in 1999. The mission statement of the program, which asks newsrooms across the country to self-report on their progress in achieving greater diversity of coverage, reads: “We want to accurately reflect life in our communities. If our newspapers are not inclusive enough to regularly portray the diversity of those communities, then we are presenting a fundamentally inaccurate report. That lack of accuracy undermines our journalistic credibility.”

To that end, the first National Time-Out for Diversity survey asked newsrooms to conduct audits of their own coverage and source selection, providing rubrics that cut along five “fault lines” — race, gender, geography, class and age. After the survey’s completion, “an overwhelming majority reported that they were dissatisfied with the results, and said they need to work harder to reach more deeply and broadly into their communities for sources and story ideas.” The newsrooms that participated in the first study agreed almost unanimously that it had been helpful in gaining a better perspective on lapses in coverage, as their results systematically suggested that there was a dearth of diverse sourcing in papers across the country. Since that first study was done in 1999, little forward progress has been made in implementing greater diversity among sources and staff members of newspapers. Our study is an attempt to explore some of the problems raised by Yarnold almost a decade ago.

Hypothesis

H1: Student reporters over-rely on sources whose race, gender, classification, and college of study are similar or identical to their own, at the expense of coverage of other groups on campus.

H2: The staff profile we have compiled will closely match the statistics on our sources, rather than our source proportions matching the population.

The literature suggests that while there is a demand for coverage of issues that perhaps a relatively small group of people will be interested in – an issue concerning Hispanic students on campus, for example – the connection is often simply not made. The “routinization” that goes on in all newsrooms falls right in line with students’ previously-held social circles and classmates. These are the people that the reporters interact with every day, and since much less of an effort must be made to cultivate friends as sources than strangers, these relationships become part of the routine of news coverage.

Methodology

The first part of our Time Out for Diversity involved a pre-analysis of the staff. Each participating staff member completed a questionnaire that included self-description of the staff member’s race, gender, classification and liberal/conservative tendencies. Because not all staff members completed the survey depending on how much emphasis the student editor gave on the task, the results do not include all of the staff members and tend to include a higher percentage of the more senior staff members and fewer of the entry-level staff members.

The second part of the Time Out for Diversity included each student staff member performing a content analysis of an issue of the daily newspaper published in the last year. Students received training on how to identify sources and detailed instructions on how to code them on one-page coding sheets, one page per story. If students were unable to determine the source’s race, gender, classification and college based on content within the story, they were instructed to make a reasonable attempt to stratify the source using the University’s online directory and/or social networking sites such as Facebook.

Finally, the staff and source numbers were compared with population statistics provided by University Planning and Analysis.

Because we only had a few years of statistics, we did not attempt to perform a complex statistical analysis, merely settling for trends within the descriptive data.

The detailed results in chart and table form are reported in the Appendix.

Findings and Discussion

As a large, land-grant university, male dominated and anecdotally conservative, we examined four fault lines: gender, race, classification and college.

We first ruled out classification (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) as a consideration for further study because coverage of student leaders on campus is always dominated by junior and seniors who are more active (more newsworthy?) than underclassmen. This warrants further examination, and, in retrospect, should not have been discarded so quickly.

Secondly, we examined the race of the staff, comparing it to the sources they used and the racial diversity of the campus. Despite active recruiting efforts over the last five years, the staff has become increasingly (12 percent) Caucasian while the campus the campus population of Caucasians has decreased slightly (2 percent). During the same time period, the staff’s use of Caucasian sources has gone up then down, averaging 77 percent. Given that the campus has been, on average, 76 percent Caucasian, it seems that the percentage of sources basically mirrors the campus while the staff’s percentage of Caucasians has been significantly higher (averaging 81 percent). So, race does not seem to validate either the first hypothesis or the second hypothesis although the average percentages of the staff, campus and sources over the last five years are similar.

After the first year of doing the study, the staff came under some criticism that the use of African-American sources was largely due to football and basketball players who were largely African-American. However, when news stories were considered alone, while the percentage of Caucasian sources did increase slightly and the percentage of African-American sources did decrease, the changes were minor. This warrants further study.

Third, the staff considered college as a fault line. The largest two colleges on campus are engineering (24.6 percent) and agriculture and life sciences (15.6 percent). Third is the College of Humanities and Social Sciences with 14.4 percent of the population. Yet approximately half of the staff members are in CHASS, a college that includes English (with a journalism minor) and Communication. Validating the first hypothesis, and, to some degree the second, more than 26 percent of sources used were in CHASS. Although the percentage of sources used did not equal the percentage of staff members in CHASS, it was nearly twice what would be expected if a random sample of students in the population were used as sources. In the most recent (2007) analysis, engineering students represented 23 percent of sources, up from 19 percent in 2005. And CALS students represented 13 percent of sources in 2007, also up from 12 percent in 2005. While, in both cases, the percentage of sources used from the largest two colleges do not represented the population, the percentage of sources has increased over time perhaps in response to the continued emphasis on obtaining diversity of sources by class in the training offered to the staff.

Finally, the staff, sources and population were analyzed based on gender. Gender validated both hypotheses, the first much stronger than the second. As the percentage of males on staff decreased significantly over time (from 69 percent in 2003-2004 to 50 percent in 2007-2008), so to did the percentage of male sources (from 69 percent in 2003-2004 to 61 percent in 2006-2007) . The campus population of males did decline from 56.7 percent male in 2003-2004 to 55.8 percent in 2007-2008. The percentage of males on staff exactly matched the percentage of male sources in 2003-2004. However, over time, as the staff has become increasingly female (down 19 percent in five years), the percentage of male sources has not declined as fast (down 8 percent in five years).

We have shown that student newspaper staff members do tend to use sources that are convenient and more like themselves than different at least when it comes to their college and gender. Other studies have shown, for example, that “Stories by women and minority reporters were more likely to use and give time to women and minority non-candidate sources than did stories by male and White reporter,” (Zeldes, 2005) so this merits further examination at the student level and probably at the professional level. In addition, while this study looked at trends over a short period of time, longer periods of time and more complex statistical analysis determining the significance of the difference in the groups will provide more information.
At the least, we have built a quantitative methodology that can be useful for print, broadcast and online media to examine and analyze their sources in comparison to staff and target audience, identifying and correcting deficits.

Appendix

References

  • American Society for Newspaper Editors, “Time Out for Diversity and Accuracy” accessed online at http://www.asne.org/index.cfm?id=636
  • Bogart, Leo. “Reflections on Content Quality in Newspapers.” Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 2004
  • Brown, J. D., Bybee, C. R., Wearden, S. T., & Straughan, D. M. “Invisible power: Newspaper news sources and the limits of diversity.” Journalism Quarterly Vol. 64, 1987
  • Gans, Herbert W. “News Media, News Policy, and Democracy: Research for the Future.” Journal of Communication, Vol. 33 (1983)
  • Lange, Baker and Ball. Mass Media and Violence, Vol. XI: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969)
  • Sylvie, George. “A Study of Civil Disorder: The Effect of News Values and Competition on Coverage by Two Competing Daily Newspapers.” Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 1991
  • Zeldes, Geri Alumit and Frederick Fico. “Race and Gender: An Analysis of Sources and Reporters in the Networks’ Coverage of the 2000 Presidential Campaign.” Mass Communication and Society, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2005)