Fault lines and demographics

The nation is split along five societal fault lines - race, class, gender, generation and geography - and until the media take them into account, coverage of community and national issues will be possibly misleading and potentially inaccurate.

"It's time for us to admit that those differences exist, to begin to understand how those five fault lines shape ours perceptions of ourselves, each other and events around us," said Dori J. Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Maynard offered several examples in which ignorance of the fault lines skews journalists' perceptions. At a Poynter Institute seminar on race and the media, she said, the group saw a clip of Ted Koppel interviewing white residents of a Philadelphia neighborhood who objected to an influx of black people.

"And they were very clear about why they didn't want black people moving into their neighborhood," Maynard said. "They said that happens, and crime skyrockets and property prices plummet. So I'm watching this, and I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute. There's no context.' And particularly from my geography of Oakland, California, I keep expecting Ted Koppel to say, 'With all due respect, there are African-American neighborhoods in this country that are safer and more affuent than white neighborhoods.'

"He never says that. I raised it as a concern, and the conversation went in a different direction. But about five minutes later, a white male participant raises his hand, and he says he's concerned. He's concerned because there's no context, and without context that clip made all white people look as if they were racists.

"So there we were. We saw the exact same clip. We had the exact same concern - that of context - but because of our fault lines perception, what we meant by context was completely different."

Lack of meaningful context prompted her father, the late Robert C. Maynard, former owner and editor of the Oakland Tribune, to develop a framework for coverage called Fault Lines.

"Fault Lines was the last project that my father worked on before he died," she said. "He came to it after years spent covering what he called the social earthquakes of the 1960s and '70s while he was at the The Washington Post and then his years living with the physical earthquakes of the Bay Area."

The Fault Lines framework urges people "to have conversations with the goal of understanding each other and not necessarily agreeing."

Maynard's discussions on diversity with journalists throughout the industry have convinced her that such conversations won't be easy.

"Everyone is frustrated with the conversation around diversity, but they're all frustrated for different reasons," she said. The industry's failure to meet hiring goals frustrates journalists of color; white male executives are frustrated because they don't get credit for the progress they have made.

"White men are frustrated because they've had years of compliance training, diversity training and sensitivity training," Maynard said. "They know what they can't say. They have a set of learned responses for what they can say, but they're terrified to speak their mind because they're that afraid they're going to be branded racists, so no one's talking in our newsrooms."

Add that to the other problems newsrooms are facing, and "it's no wonder that we're not accurately reflecting our communities," she said. "We don't have a way of talking about it so we can get that coverage into the newsroom."

When her father broached the Fault Lines concept, Maynard admitted, it took a while to sink in.

"Before I began working on Fault Lines, I had a friend who honestly believed that Rodney King got what he deserved," she said. "We would have these screaming fights about this.

"Then I began working on Fault Lines, and I realized I'd better practice what I preach. So I sat down and really tried to figure out why he thought the way he did. And it turned out it really was a matter of fault lines. He was slightly older than I was. He grew up where, from my perception, there was this national myth that the police were your friends. He grew up in an all-white suburb where not only were the police his friends, when they were protecting him, they were protecting him against people who looked like me.

"I grew up in New York City in the '60s, when I think there was ample evidence that the police were not the friends of everybody," she said. Any doubts were erased "when my father would come home from covering the civil rights movement in the South and talk about being in an all-white restaurant when the police were called. They were not called to assert his right to eat there. They were called to physically remove him.

"So we brought very different perceptions to that clip of Rodney King. I never came to agree with him, but for the first time I understood why the Simi Valley jury voted the way they did. It was that kind of nuance and texture that I wish had been in the coverage of that verdict."

She also wishes that coverage of the riots that followed also had been nuanced.

"Instead what you saw was coverage that said, 'Oh look. Here's an excuse for angry black people to steal sneakers," she said, adding that a colleague later did a content analysis of riot coverage. "It turns out that that was an equal opportunity riot. Everybody was up in that riot. So the coverage was just inaccurate."

Maynard suggested that journalists use the Fault Line framework in tandem with the traditional questions of who, what, when, where, why and how. Make sure that you really understand all the fault lines at work.

"Here's a place I think where the copy desk can play such a key role," she said. "You can help us begin to make sure that we're looking at the right fault line."

She cited early coverage of the 9/11 attacks in which initial stories focused on religion, instead of the more likely fault lines of geography and class.

"If our coverage is to make sense, we need to know what fault line is at play," she said.

Maynard also recounted an incident during a magazine writing class when a fellow student interviewed her about class and African-American issues. What do you think about the rapper Ice-T, Maynard was asked.

"Well, she was talking to my race, but my generation answered," Maynard said. "I'm 45 years old, I don't have any children, and I don't think about Ice-T. Ever. Under any circumstances."

Copy desks also can make sure that reporters don't "blur" fault lines. "One of my pet peeves is the way right now we use geography to get at issues of race and class," she said, such as "in the inner city," which has become shorthand for "poor and black" or "poor and Latino."

The flip side is "suburban," she said, which means "white and middle class."

"I would urge you to urge your reporters to use extra words," Maynard said. "Describe what they're trying to say. Let the reader make their decisions."

As an example, she cited a newspaper where she gave a Fault Lines workshop. She asked staffers to go out into the streets and ask residents how the paper could do a better job of covering their community, which had a large immigrant population. The residents didn't speak in Fault Line language, Maynard said, but they might as well have:

"What they were saying, essentially, is 'Stop using your middle-class point of view to describe us. You keep calling us poor. You see two families living in one house, sharing one car, and you call us poor. Now we say we have a house and we have a car. We are not poor.'"

Often the five fault lines come together to create blind spots that don't necessarily reflect racism or sexism.

When the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story broke, she heard the usual Washington, D.C., "talking heads" - mostly white, middle-aged men - speaking of moral outrage. That was not the reality in other parts of the country. Many people outside the Beltway supported Clinton. African-Americans supported Clinton. Women continued to support Clinton. People who were living better in a prospering economy supported Clinton. Yet when midterm elections came up, the Beltway pundits continued to say that the nation's moral outrage would bring about a Republican sweep. Instead, she said, "Democrats did just fine."

Journalists "took another hit to our credibility," she said.

"We need to have these conversations on all of these aspects," Maynard said. "Otherwise we'll marginalize ourselves out of business."