Names matter: Minorities unhappy with the way they are described in the media

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“I think people should be more conscience and more sensitive to the fact that all people aren’t just black because they have dark skin,” said Kenny Lacy, an African-American student athlete at the University of California – Los Angeles. “ People need to learn that race is more than just colors.”  

Over the years, our perception of how we define race has been generally described by a color instead of ethnicity. Being African-American is being “black” while being Caucasian is being “white”. Racial identification is often viewed as a sensitive topic due to inappropriate or incorrect categorization of one’s ethnicity.

Listen to the full interview with Lacy below:

Media portrayals of different groups also has an impact on how society views them and at times people will alert journalists of the way they prefer to be called, said Scott Pohl, a reporter and host of WKAR’s Current State.

“Generally we allow groups of people to choose how they prefer to be identified and what is currently seen by most reporters as acceptable nomenclature,” Pohl said. “If a group says they’d like to be called something, we try to honor that.”

However, Pohl said that sometimes words or phrases that may be outdated or unacceptable do make their way into the media via quotes.

“If it’s in a direct quote from a newspaper or a source you sort of have to use their language and to some extent I think that communicates information to the audience,” Pohl said. “It’s like you’ve heard someone in the news say ‘you people’, which on the surface doesn’t sound offensive but has come to be taken as offensive to some. So I think fewer people have been saying that phrase and the people who still use that phrase— I think it communicates something about them.”

Lisa Whiting-Dobson, a professor at Michigan State University, says she doesn’t understand why society has something as superficial as skin color to divide people.

“I’ve always thought it was ridiculous to use skin color as a separation between people,”  Whiting-Dobson said. “I try really hard to avoid identifying people by their color when I can.”

Poll reveals majority of African-Americans not satisfied with media descriptions of race

A poll conducted by the Spartan Newsroom asked 86 respondents across the country about how they feel when it comes to the way their race is described by the media. Only one quarter of African-American respondents were satisfied with the way the media refer to their race compared to more than 80 percent in the Caucasian group. The majority of the African-American respondents either got news from the internet or television, with NBC being the most popular news source.

African American opinions on media descriptions

The majority of Caucasian respondents also consumes news via either the internet or TV, with CNN and NBC being the top news sources for that demographic.

Caucasian respondents said they were identified predominantly in these media platforms as “white” and only 16 percent were not satisfied with media representations of their race. Among that group, the biggest complaint was that they didn’t like generalization of their race or anyone else’s and they wished that other characteristics should be used outside of race when describing someone.

Caucasian opinion on media description

For the multiracial respondents, the opinions are evenly divided, with half of the participants not satisfied with media depictions of their race and ethnicity. The biggest complaint was that their group was hardly addressed or mentioned by the media.

Multiracial opinion on media description

The anonymized data from the survey can be downloaded here.


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