News Theory Questions 3

When should a person or group be identified by race, ethnicity, gender or religion?

It is a difficult decision for journalists to decide whether to label someone or not and, as obvious as it is, it is entirely dependent on the circumstances. Labelling someone’s race, ethnicity, gender or religion should only be done when it is relevant to the story.

Some publications may label as a means of persuading the public to back a particular movement. For example, some British newspapers particularly emphasise negative stories about Muslim’s in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, which ethically isn’t justified. As Woods said: “How we refer to people or incidents can speak volumes to the public” (Woods, cited by White 2005),  meaning that our role as journalists allows us to influence the minds of the masses. This is further developed by Oktar, who said in her study of ‘them’ and ‘us’ that:”The way a social group is categorised influences the way we perceive and relate to them” (Oktar 2001). Therefore, we have to take care not to discriminate with our language.

Identifying a person or group by their race, ethnicity, gender or religion can come naturally to some stories. For example, if the police are appealing to the public to assist them in locating a wanted person, it would be necessary to include a detailed description of said person, which could include race, ethnicity or gender. Labelling is also ethically justified when celebrating the achievements of a group that has been ‘othered’ in previous generations. For example, when Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States newspaper, reports rightly mentioned his race as a means of celebrating 21st century equality.

When members of a particular group demonstrate over an issue important to them as a group, their identity is a natural part of the story. For example, if there is a women’s rights demonstration or a black lives matter demonstration, then it would be fair to label the relevant demonstrators at the event. This can help raise awareness of a particular cause by using labels in a positive manner.

Oktar, L., 2001. The Ideological Organisation of Representational Processes in the Presentation of them and us. Discourse Society, [online], 12 (3), 313-347.

White, T., 2005. Broadcast News Writing, Reporting, and Producing. Fourth Edition. United States of America: Focal Press.

What is the most appropriate language to use for transgender people and people who do not identify as male or female?

Transgender reporting is a difficult subject, as it is so dependent on the individual. As Castañeda and Casta rightly noted,”it is not easy for any journalist or communications professional to accurately portray a section of our society that is so diverse, yet so small in number”(Castañeda and Casta 2005). Reporting on transgender people requires accuracy, care and consideration.

The first thing journalists should do when writing about transgender people and people who do not identify as male or female is to find out what the said person would like to be referred as. Usually a transgender person will express a gender in public, so it would be safe to use this label, regardless of their gender at birth. This was the case with the famous example of Caitlyn Jenner, formally known as Bruce Jenner, who came out as a transgender woman. Media outlets quickly began calling her by her preferred title of Caitlyn.

It becomes more difficult when attempting to report on people who do not identify as either male or female, rejecting a binary identification. Again, politely asking how the person would like to be identified should be the first port of call. If a journalist is unable to find out how the transgender person wants to be labelled, the use of pronouns such as ‘they’ is appropriate, or another option is omitting pronouns altogether. This may avoid causing upset to the transgender person, and also avoid public confusion.

Schilt and Westbrook found that there is still ‘othering’ of transgender people in society, noting in their research : “Much of the literature on violence against transpeople points to gender norm transgression as the cause of violence.” This shows how important it is to ensure that journalists use appropriate language when reporting on transgenders, as they have the ability to influence public opinion by normalising transgenderism.

Castañeda, L. and Casta, L., 2005. News and sexuality: Media portraits of diversity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Schilt, K. and Westbrook, L., 2009. Doing gender, doing Heteronormativity: ‘Gender normals,’ Transgender people, and the social maintenance of Heterosexuality. Gender & Society, 23 (4), 440–464.

Does the diversity of a news staff affect the diversity of issues, topics and people depicted in news coverage?

The large proportions of newsrooms, especially in the UK, are predominantly white. The amount of people from minority backgrounds in the newsroom is disproportionate  to the population of people from minority backgrounds, which is a problem for the industry.

In theory, the increased diversity of a news staff should have a positive affect on the diversity of issues, topics and people depicted in news coverage. This is because people tend to write about issues that they care about most, so a diverse newsroom should lead to a wide range of content.

However, Hulten’s research found that increasing the percentage of people from minority backgrounds  in the news room will not necessarily make their content more diverse. He argues this is due to the news values that have to be accepted by people from minority backgrounds in order to fit in. Talking about journalists from minority backgrounds, he says: “They are confronted with several factors that make it difficult or impossible to get news beats concerning minority or migration issues accepted” (Hulten 2009).

Pease (1990) also argued this, saying that “argued past attempts of diversity by newsroom leadership have failed morally and economically because they have focused on hiring minorities in the newsroom as a way to become more diverse.”

Hulten, G., 2009. Diversity disorders: Ethnicity and newsroom cultures. Conflict and communication [online], 8 (2), 1-14.

Pease, T., 1990. ‘Ducking the Diversity Issue’. Newspaper Research Journal, 11 (3), 24–37.

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