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Subject: AEJ 97 HindmanD CJ Local newspaper coverage of minorities and disabled Americans
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 5 Oct 1997 06:48:15 EDT
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Community Structural Pluralism and Local Newspaper Coverage
 
 
 
Community Structural Pluralism and
 
Local Newspaper Coverage of Ethnic Minority Groups and
 
Americans With Disabilities
 
 
 
Douglas Blanks Hindman, Assistant Professor Department of Communication, North
Dakota State University, P.O. Box 5075, Fargo, ND  58105-5075.  Phone:
(701)321-7300.
E-Mail:   [log in to unmask]
 
Ann Preston, Associate Professor, Quincy University,
 
Robert Littlefield, Professor, Department of Communication, North Dakota State
University
 
Dennis Neumann, Graduate Student, Department of Communication, North Dakota
State University
 
 
 
 
 
Paper presented at the the annual meeting of AEJMC, Chicago, August, 1997
 
 
 
Community Structural Pluralism and Local Newspaper Coverage of
Ethnic Minority Groups and Americans With Disabilities
 
        This study examines how editors' perspectives on coverage of ethnic minorities
and Americans with disabilities are shaped by the nature of their communities.
Findings indicate that editors from more pluralistic communities place higher
value on news about ethnic and other minorities, and a lower value on stories
about Americans with Disabilities.  Local newspapers appear to be more
responsive to the majority groups' interests than those of the excluded groups.
 
Community Structural Pluralism and Local Newspaper Coverage of
Ethnic Minority Groups and Americans With Disabilities
 
        Local mass media are often considered an important tool for community
adjustment to social conflict and social change (Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien,
1980).  Community leaders may use the local newspaper to control the
distribution of information about administratively planned changes.  Citizens
and representatives of interest groups may use the local paper to argue for or
against community projects or developments.
        Among smaller, rural communities, the most significant changes affecting the
community are often those changes that are imposed from outside the community by
large-scale bureaucratic groups (Warren, 1978).  Civil rights legislation in the
1960's, and Americans with Disabilities Act legislation of 1990 required local
schools and businesses to comply with national standards.  Both types of civil
rights legislation were bureaucratic attempts at adjustment to system-wide
changes that required local compliance, regardless of local conditions.  Local
newspapers are expected to be important centers of community discussion and
debate in these cases, particularly when local leaders are opposed to the
mandated changes.
        This is a study of community influences on the perspectives of local newspaper
editors.  Specifically, this study will examine how editors' perspectives on
coverage of ethnic minorities and Americans with disabilities are systematically
shaped by the nature of their communities.  This study is grounded in the
observation that local mass media are not likely to initiate social change
(Donohue, Tichenor, Olien, 1973).  Rather, local mass media are viewed as being
interdependent with the dominant institutions both within and beyond the
community.  Variation in community diversity, or community structural pluralism,
is expected to be related to variation in editor perspectives.  Structural
pluralism is defined as the degree of social differentiation and complexity
among occupational and organizational groups within the community and leading to
potential diversity in the local power structure (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien,
1980, p. 16).
 
Communities and non-local influence
        Small, rural communities are increasingly affected by the decisions of
large-scale bureaucratic groups located outside of the community (Donohue,
Tichenor, and Olien, 1985).  State-level governments often provide incentives
for local schools and governmental services to consolidate into larger-scale
operations that serve wider areas (Martindale and Hansen, 1969).  A multitude of
local retail businesses have been replaced by national discount retailers such
as WalMart (Flora and Johnson, 1991, p. 49).  The decline of small-scale
agriculture is, in part, the result of federal and state programs supporting
large-scale, capital intensive production agriculture (Hightower and DeMarco,
1973).
        Although many outside-imposed changes on small, rural communities result in a
decline in status for individuals or groups, other changes are designed to raise
the status of specific groups within the community.  The imposition of national
standards based on the civil rights of minorities and Americans with
disabilities attempts to ameliorate injustices by providing a legal means of
raising challenges against acts of discrimination.
        As with any system-wide attempt at change, some communities find it easier to
adjust than others.  Smaller communities with lower levels of social and
economic diversity may  find national standards to be particularly burdensome
when the mandates are not accompanied with funding.  Local citizens and leaders
in homogenous communities with small populations of ethnic and other minorities
may question the necessity of local enactment of civil rights legislation, and
local newspaper editors may similarly question the need for coverage of an issue
that does not, on the surface, appear to affect their communities.  However, in
these types of communities, persons of color or disability may be more likely to
be excluded or oppressed.
Ethnic and minority groups in rural and urban communities
        An increasing number of small communities in the United States are adjusting to
growing immigrant populations settled in the community by non-locally controlled
agricultural processing firms.  Local schools and social services are then
required to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse clientele (Farmer, 1997).
Local newspapers would be expected to be a important source of information in
these types of communities.  However, the majority of smaller communities are
experiencing a declining population, and economic stagnation.
        In spite of the growing ethnic diversity of some smaller communities, the need
for newspaper coverage of ethnic minorities is expected to be greatest in
larger, more diverse communities.  In more pluralistic communities, the
population of ethnic and other minorities are likely to be more visible and more
vocal in expressing their concerns.  Because there are more formal mechanisms
for raising challenges and airing grievances in more pluralistic communities,
local newspapers in these communities are more likely to cover stories providing
information about minority issues, particularly when conflict or debate is
involved.
 
Diversity and cohesion of minority groups
        Americans with Disabilities have not achieved the same degree of cohesion as
other excluded groups (Scotch, 1988, p. 159-161).  Part of the reason for the
lack of organization among Americans with Disabilities is the diversity of
physical and psychological manifestations of disability (Fine and Asch, 1988, p.
6).  Another barrier to organization as a social movement is the social and
political isolation of persons with disabilities (Scotch, 1988, p. 161).
        Regardless of whether or not any one individual sees him or herself as
disabled, chances are good that their options in life are limited in systematic
ways as a result of socially constructed barriers such as discrimination and
lack of physical access (Fine and Asch, 1988, p. 14).  Fine and Asch (1988, p.
6-7) argue that disabled people are best conceptualized as a minority group.
        Traditionally-defined ethnic minority groups such as Native Americans,
African-Americans, and Latino/Hispanics are also more diverse than their social
labels would indicate.  There is great variance in the degree to which
individual members of a minority group identify with their ethnic roots.  As was
the case with Americans with Disabilities, however, discrimination and
oppression are the result of social labels that limit all members of a group in
spite of their individual differences.  News media are often part of the process
by which minority groups are labeled as deviant and are given unfavorable or
superficial news coverage (Martindale, 1989).
 
Coverage of Americans with Disabilities and other minority groups
        Americans with Disabilities would rank among the largest minority groups in the
country.  As many as 33.8 million people of all ages living in households had
some limitation of activity in 1990, or 13.7 percent of the household population
(LaPlante, 1993, p. 3).  However, people with disabilities tend to be
stigmatized as being different or strange (Fine and Asch, 1988, p. 16).  Media
portrayals and insensitive use of language by journalists may contribute to that
perception.
        Smith (1991) argues that journalists continue to use insensitive language when
referring to people with disabilities as 'handicapped' or when stories about
persons with disabilities are framed as features rather than covering current
issues affecting the disabled (p. 10).
        Clogston (1990) found newspapers tended to apply a "traditional model"
to discussion of disabilities rather than a "civil rights" or "progressive
model".  The "traditional model" presents people with disabilities as medically
or economically defective, reinforcing notions of powerlessness and
incompleteness.
        Haller (1996, pp. 14-16) found that the dominant frame for media coverage of
Americans with Disabilities changed after the ADA was passed in 1990.
Governmental groups were more closely connected with stories about the Americans
with Disabilities Act than were disability groups, and stories citing business
groups tended to focus on costs associated with passage of the act.  Rather than
investigate the impact and enforcement of the ADA, mass media tended to frame
the story as one of a hardship placed on businesses and local communities
(Haller, 1996, pp. 18-19).
        Negative mass media treatment of Americans with Disabilities, or of ethnic
minorities can be viewed as consistent with media treatment of all groups
defined as deviant from non-excluded groups (Shoemaker, 1985, p. 12; Hertog and
McLeod, 1995).
        Contrary to expectations, however, Fedler (1973, p. 117) showed that minority
groups enjoyed far greater access to print and broadcast media than established
groups.  As would be expected based on Shoemaker's (1985) 'deviance' hypothesis,
Fedler (1973, p. 117) showed that the type of coverage minority groups received
was less favorable than that of more established groups.
        Similarly, Greenberg, Burgoon, Burgoon, and Korzenny (1983, p. 65) found that
Mexican-American community leaders said media coverage was more critical of
Mexican American teens than of Anglo teens.  The leaders also criticized media
for emphasizing negative rather than positive news about Mexican Americans,  and
criticized media for being unsupportive of the leaders' attempts at
strengthening the community.  Contrary to expectations, Hispanic readers were
more satisfied with media functioning than were Anglo readers (Greenberg,
Burgoon, Burgoon, and Korzenny, 1983, p. 117).  In an analysis of six daily
newspapers' coverage of Hispanic-Americans, the authors found that Hispanic
sources were regularly used in stories.  They also found the papers consistently
included a variety of stories about Hispanic Americans (Greenberg, Burgoon,
Burgoon, and Korzenny, 1983, p. 220).
        The disparity between Hispanic community leaders and the rest of the community
can be attributed to the diversity of the community itself.  Lewels (1981) found
five distinct perspectives regarding Mexican American attitudes toward the mass
media, but also found the respondents did not trust mass media, big business or
government.
        Sheppard (1991, pp. 13-15) argues that journalists' lack of first hand
experience with Native Americans results in "stereotypes of American Indians as
lifeless, emotionless human beings, distraught with alcoholism, unemployment and
suicide."
        The current study differs from previous studies of media treatment of ethnic
minorities and Americans with Disabilities.  Rather than focusing on content of
newspapers in ethnically diverse communities, this study uses a wide range of
communities from an ethnically homogenous state.   Rather than focusing on
newspaper content, community leader perceptions or audience perceptions, this
study focuses on the perspectives of local media gatekeepers.
        The question being raised here is to what extent does the nature of the
community affect local newspaper editors' coverage of news about ethnic and
other minority groups such as Americans with Disabilities?
 
Editors and community structural pluralism
        Editor perceptions of ethnic groups and other minorities have been shown to be
systematically related to the structural pluralism of the community.  Editors
from more structurally pluralistic communities were more likely to consider
members of ethnic minorities as members of the local power structure, were more
likely to consider one or more members of an ethnic minority as among their most
important sources, and were more likely to consider as important news about
ethnic and other minority groups (Hindman, Littlefield, Preston, & Neumann,
1996).
        In spite of the increasing professionalization of newspaper editors which tends
to minimize community-based differences, editor orientations have been shown to
be related to community structural pluralism on a number of dimensions.  Editors
from less pluralistic communities are more likely to describe community
boosterism and identity-building as among the main things their newspapers do
for the community (Hindman, 1996).  Editors from less pluralistic communities
are more likely to emphasize local news over state, national and international
news about business and education (Donohue, Olien, Tichenor, & Hindman, 1993).
        The local editor serves as a gatekeeper in determining what kinds of stories
are published, but is also constrained by  both professional standards by
community standards.  Generally speaking, the local editor is responsive to the
degree to which local groups, particularly socially legitimized groups,  are
organized.  Because of this responsiveness to traditionally powerful groups
within the community, local coverage of minority groups may receive less
emphasis than would be expected.
        Given the above discussion, the first hypothesis was stated as:
 
     H1.  Editors from more structurally pluralistic communities will
     consider news about ethnic and other minorities more important than
     editors from less structurally pluralistic communities.
 
        Editors are expected to place importance on news about ethnic and other
minorities in response to the greater ethnic diversity in more pluralistic
communities.  Editors respond to the concerns of powerful groups within the
community.  In more pluralistic communities, members of the local power
structure are more likely to be concerned with minority issues, if only in order
to comply with federal laws regarding equal employment opportunities.  Editors
in more structurally pluralistic communities may also place importance on news
about ethnic and other minorities because one or more groups has achieved
critical mass and has established itself as among the local power structure.
This is expected because ethnic minority groups have a better chance of being
represented among the local community power structure in the more structurally
pluralistic community.
        The second hypothesis is related to the first, but instead is based on the
specific types of groups that are included in stories:
     H2.  A greater proportion of editors from more structurally
     pluralistic communities will include stories about ethnic minorities than
     editors from less pluralistic communities.
 
        Larger minority populations in more pluralistic communities makes stories about
ethnic minorities more likely to emerge from this type of community.  Sources
representing ethnic minority groups are more likely found in the more
pluralistic community which also will likely have a more diverse power
structure.  A very different relationship is expected for editor perceptions
about Americans with Disabilities:
     H3.  A smaller proportion of editors from more structurally
     pluralistic communities will include stories about Americans with
     Disabilities than editors from less pluralistic communities.
 
        The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act placed this story on the
agenda of local newspapers, particularly those in less pluralistic communities.
Editors in small, homogenous communities are sensitive to the concerns of local
business and governmental leaders who had to struggle to comply with the
'unfunded mandates' contained within the ADA.  Less pluralistic communities tend
to receive a larger proportion of their local funding from nonlocal sources, and
are in turn more dominated by outside agencies than are the economically diverse
regional and metropolitan centers.
        Local news coverage can be expected to be responsive to the concerns of local
businesses and local governments who must work out the implications of these
externally imposed mandates.  Community leaders in smaller, more homogenous
communities tend to use conflict with nonlocal groups such as the federal
government in order to reinforce populist traditions and to enhance local
solidarity.
        In addition, rural, less pluralistic communities tend to have higher
concentrations of elderly who are more likely to have disabilities than the rest
of the population.  Editors may cover more news about this type of group in
order to more fully reflect the interests of the community.
 
Methods
        Data for the study came from a 1996 telephone survey of a purposive sample of
52 North Dakota newspaper editors from one newspaper per county throughout the
state.  The sample includes the main newspapers from each county in the state
and represents a diversity of community types.  Three interviewers trained for
the project called the editors following an introductory letter.  The sample
includes editors of weekly and daily general circulation newspapers in North
Dakota.
 
Independent Variables
        The independent variable was community structural pluralism, defined as the
degree of specialization and differentiation within the community.
Operationally, it is defined as the additive index comprised of standardized
measures of city and county population, number of residents with a B.S. or
higher education level, and percent of the work force in non-agricultural,
forestry and fishery occupations. Indicators of pluralism were derived from the
1990 U.S. Census.[1]   Community and county population are measures which can
indicate the potential of the region to support a greater degree of division of
labor and more complex organizations, which can be expected to lead to an
increase in formalization of social interaction.  The work force measure is an
indicator of the degree to which the community has diversified the local economy
beyond a basic dependence on agriculture.  The education measure, when combined
with the other measures, is expected to indicate the potential for development
of social power among diverse groups within the community.  The variable was
dichotomized so that the groups would represent more and less structurally
pluralistic communities by ranking communties on the index, and then dividing
the sample into two equal groups.
 
 
Dependent Variables
        Editors were first asked a series of questions regarding the importance the
editor places on various types of news from various levels, ranging from local
to the national and international level.  Specifically, editors were asked:
      "How important is it for you to carry stories or editorials about
     ethnic and minority groups, such as African Americans, Native Americans,
     Latino/Hispanics, Asian Americans or Americans with Disabilities."
        Respondents indicated importance on a ten point scale with one representing 'no
importance' and ten representing 'extremely important' for each of five levels:
local, county, neighboring counties, state, and national and international
levels.
        Editors were then asked an open-ended question which was stated as:
          "What kinds of stories and editorials does your newspaper tend
          to publish about ethnic groups and other minorities?"
        The open-ended question was probed by asking, 'Any other cultural or ethnic
groups'.  Responses to the open-ended item were coded as to the type of group
mentioned in one or more of the stories, including:  African American, Native
American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American, Americans with Disability, and Other
(Including Norwegians and Germans from Russia).
        Two individuals coded each answer and compared findings.  Percent agreement
between the coders was 92%.
Findings
        The first hypothesis was stated as:
     H1.  Editors from more structurally pluralistic communities will
     consider news about ethnic and other minorities more important than
     editors from less structurally pluralistic communities.
        Table 1 shows the results and indicates support for the hypothesis.
Table 1.  Mean editor rating of importance of stories or editorials about ethnic
and minority groups, by community structural pluralism.
less pluralistic
more pluralistic
t-value
local level
6.3
7.0
1.05
county level
6.1
6.7
 .68
neighboring counties
3.1
4.4
2.0*
state level
2.5
3.9
2.1*
national and international level
1.9
3.0
2.2*
summed index
19.9
25.0
1.9*
* p < .05, one-tailed t-test
        As expected, there was lower levels of importance placed on news about ethnic
and other minority groups by editors from less pluralistic communities, although
differences at local and county levels were not statistically significant.  The
differences were greatest at the levels most distant from the community which
reflects the localite orientation of smaller communities, and also reflects the
tendency of small town newspapers to specialize on local news and events.  When
the ratings were summed into an index, the overall means were significantly
different, and in the hypothesized direction.
 
        The second hypothesis was stated as:
     H2.  A greater proportion of editors from more structurally
     pluralistic communities will include stories about ethnic minorities than
     editors from less pluralistic communities.
        Table 2 shows that the hypothesis was supported for the two main groups
mentioned by editors:  Native Americans and Latino/Hispanics.
Table 2.  Editor mention of Native Americans and Latino/Hispanics in stories
about ethnic groups and other minorities, by community structural pluralism, in
percent.
less pluralistic
more pluralistic
Chi-square
Native Americans
3.8%
42.3%
10.8**
Latino/Hispanics
3.8%
19.2%
3.0+
N:26
N:26
 
        As expected, a significantly larger proportion of editors from more pluralistic
communities were likely to mention stories about Native Americans, and/or
Latino/Hispanics when asked "What kinds of stories and editorials does your
newspaper tend to publish about ethnic groups and other minorities?"  This
supports the hypothesis that the nature of the community affects coverage of
ethnic minority groups.
 
        The last hypothesis was stated as:
     H3.  A smaller proportion of editors from more structurally
     pluralistic communities will include stories about Americans with
     Disabilities than editors from less pluralistic communities.
 
        Table 3 shows support for this hypothesis as well.
Table 3.  Editor mention of Americans with Disabilities in stories about ethnic
groups and other minorities, by community structural pluralism, in percent.
less pluralistic
more pluralistic
Chi-square
Americans with Disabilities
34.6%
11.5%
3.9*
N:26
N:26
 
        Nearly three times the proportion of editors from less pluralistic communities
mentioned stories about Americans with Disabilities when asked what kinds of
stories and editorials the newspaper publishes.  This is consistent with the
idea that less pluralistic communities are likely to be strongly influenced by
externally imposed changes.  Editors of small-town newspapers devote a greater
proportion of local coverage to the local impact of non-local mandates,
particularly when local leaders are resistant or when the community has
difficulty with adjustment.
Editors' descriptions of coverage
        By examining the comments of the editors, it appeared that most recalled
stories that seemed to serve the interests of the ethnic minority groups, and
not those members of non-excluded groups who are concerned with coping with
federal guidelines.  Instead, the majority tended to mention feature-types of
stories.  For example, a weekly newspaper editor contrasts his coverage with
that of a daily:
     [We cover] cultural stories.  [The] dailies emphasize bad things.  My
     tendency is to emphasize cultural items - pow wows, historical aspects.  I
     want to find out what people say.  [We] had a woman who adopted a Black
     child - did a story.  [We] did stories about a sacred site - learned
     native name for places.
        However, a daily editor also expressed his paper's emphasis on culturally
sensitive coverage:
     "[We cover] quite a bit about Fort Totten and White Earth (MN),
     Turtle Mountain [area tribes of Native Americans].  [We are] also aware of
     cultural events & holidays - Native American & Hispanic."
        The migrant laborers in some communities are the subject of feature stories, as
indicated by the following editors, both from more pluralistic communities:
     [We write] educational stories about migrant population.
 
     [We write] stories on migrant farm workers.  [We do an ] occasional
     feature on individuals & stories on migrant school.  In summer [we] try to
     do stories that will be of interest to Hispanic migrant workers.
        Other editors from pluralistic communities tended to reflect more of the types
of concerns that would be expected among non-excluded groups:
     [We have a] large Native American community nearby... [We] try to
     stress positive news - discuss gambling issue as Indian gaming grows.  [We
     write] editorials about alcoholism & Native Americans.
 
     [We cover a] lot of legal news about Indian affairs out of the legal
     court system.
        Based on editor comments, it appears the relationship between structural
pluralism and inclusion of stories about ethnic minorities stems from a
combination of service to the local ethnic minority group and service to members
of majority groups.  Minority groups may need coverage to feel included in the
community.  Majority groups, however, may use the local mass media to monitor
their environments, observe social change within the community, and, perhaps to
reinforce their concerns about the growing status and visibility of minority
groups in the community.
        One of the main hypotheses of this study is that communities tend to report on
issues that are sources of difficulty or conflict.  It was expected that
smaller, more ethnically homogenous communities would be more likely to
experience difficulty in adjusting to the Americans with Disability Act.  An
examination of editor's responses does not reveal that the communities had any
difficulty adjusting, however.  An editor from one of the less pluralistic
communities mentioned Americans with Disabilities in the context of local
response to non-local mandates:
     [We covered the] Americans with Disabilities Act when
     courthouse/schools forced to comply stories.
        Another editor from one of the less pluralistic communities mentioned the ADA,
while also explaining why his paper did not cover stories about ethnic
minorities:
     [We cover] ADA stories.  There are no ethnic minorities [in the
     community except for]... Germans from Russia ... [and] one Black man in
     county.
 
        However, the majority of editors tended to mention the type of coverage that
would tend to reinforce stereotypes about Americans with Disabilities:
     [We do] features - people with disabilities achieving goals etc.  [We
     don't] don't seek it out.
 
     [We write an] occasional feature about [a] disabled person [or]
     individual [such as an] older person [who is] hanging in there.
        These types of stories tend to serve majority groups who tend to be reassured
by the idea that disability is an individual problem that can be overcome
through sufficient personal effort.
        The perspective which seems to underlie the type of coverage recalled by the
editors in this study is at odds with the underlying idea of the Americans with
Disabilities Act.  The ADA suggests that 'disability' is in a large part,
socially imposed through the creation of physical barriers (Fine and Asch, 1988,
p. 16).  When Americans with Disabilities are portrayed as heroic individuals
who are 'overcoming disabilities' and achieving goals, local media tend to
reinforce the stigma associated with disability.
        Similarly, Wilson and Gutierrez (1995, pp. 152-158) argue that coverage of
ethnic minority groups achieves the most advanced levels when nonwhites are
reflected in all types of news, not just in features stories or crime stories.
        It would appear that there are significant differences in the way editors from
different types of communities report stories about ethnic and other minorities.
However, all newspaper coverage appeared to fall short of Wilson and Gutierrez'
(1995) standard in which minority status is treated as being incidental to the
story.   Local newspapers vary in the way that different types of minority
groups are covered, but in all cases, tend to most closely reflect the interests
and concerns of powerful, non-excluded groups within the community.
 
Summary
        This study has examined community influences on local newspaper editors'
perspectives on coverage of groups affected by non-local mandates such as the
1960's civil rights legislation and the 1990 Americans with Disability Act.
Editors from more pluralistic communities were shown to place higher value on
news about ethnic groups and other minorities.  A greater proportion of editors
from more pluralistic communities could recall including stories or editorials
about ethnic minorities, and a smaller proportion of editors from more
pluralistic communities could recall including stories about Americans with
Disabilities.  The greater coverage of Americans with Disabilities in smaller,
less pluralistic communities can be explained by observing that these types of
communities are increasingly comprised of elderly residents who are more likely
to have disabilities.  However, an examination of the types of stories mentioned
by the editors leads to the conclusion that the coverage is more likely to serve
the majority population than people with disabilities.  The stories focus on the
local enactment of the ADA mandates, or tend to feature individuals who have
triumphed over their disabilities.  In either case, the local mass media appear
to be more responsive to the majority groups' interest in ethnic groups and
other minorities rather than being responsive the interests of the excluded
groups.
 
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Notes
[1] ..  Chronbach's alpha = .89

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