Send her back: News narratives, intersectionality, and the rise of politically powerful women of color
By Carolyn Nielsen
[Citation: Nielson, C. (2020). Send her back: News narratives, intersectionality, and the rise of politically powerful women of color. #ISOJ Journal, 10(1), 85-107.]
This narrative analysis examined intersectionality and systemic awareness of racism in news coverage of President Trump’s tweet telling newly elected congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries from which they came and the subsequent Trump rally chant of “Send her back!” targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar. It looked across Traditional, Explanatory and Journalism 3.0 coverage. It found coverage broke with the neutrality norm in labeling the attacks as racist, but failed to acknowledge intersectionality. Only Traditional coverage provided systemically aware narratives about discrimination. Explanatory and Journalism 3.0 failed to fulfill their promised to provide context and audience-centered narratives.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet telling four newly elected women of color in Congress’ most diverse freshman class should to “go back” to the countries from which they came challenged journalists to produce coverage that contextualized his sentiments and to explain what this meant not only for those individuals, but also what it communicated to Americans who shared their identities. Trump directed his July 14, 2019 tweet at a group of women popularized in the news as “The Squad” (Sullivan, 2019): Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, the first African American woman elected to Congress from that state; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, who is Latina and, at 29, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress; and the first two Muslims elected to Congress, Rep. Rashida Tliab, D-Michigan, the first Palestinian American representative, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, the first Somali American representative (Center for American Women and Politics, 2019). Pressley, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tliab were born in the United States. Omar is a naturalized citizen and one of 29 members of Congress born outside the United States (Harrington, 2019). The tweets read:
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat [sic] Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough … (Trump, 2019)
Three days later, at a North Carolina rally, Trump singled out Omar, misstating that she had expressed admiration for Al-Qaeda and claiming she “looks down with contempt on hard-working Americans” (Flynn, 2019, para. 12). The crowd began chanting, “Send her back!” The second time that chant erupted, Trump paused his speech for 13 seconds and waited silently as the chanting amplified (Morin, 2019). The following day, Trump told reporters he had tried to stop the chant. “I disagree with it,” Trump said. “I wasn’t happy with that message… I didn’t say it, they did…” he said, referring to the crowd (Morin, 2019). But the day after that, Trump changed course in what The Washington Post called “part of a renewed attack on four minority congresswomen whom he has targeted as un-American” and praised the chanting crowd as “incredible patriots” (Wagner & Itkowitz, 2019).
Video of the rally dominated news coverage and ignited debate among pundits about whether the chant was racist. News coverage that had previously touted the barrier-breaking 2018 election that sent a record number of women of color into the halls of power now had to tell the complex stories of the bias they faced. The bias was not new. Since the campaign trail, journalists have documented Trump’s bigoted, essentialist attacks on many groups, including women, African Americans, Muslims, and immigrants from what he, during a meeting on immigration policy, called “shithole countries,” giving the examples of Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations, and adding that the United States should encourage more immigration from Norway (Davis, Stolberg & Kaplan, 2018). Norway is 83% white and 77% Christian (CIA Factbook, 2019). As a female, African American, Muslim immigrant from Somalia, Omar’s identity made her the only member of the squad whose identity positioned her at the intersection of each of those forms of oppression. How journalists, whose coverage has largely overlooked intersectionality (Ward, 2017) and the ways in which it multiplies bias and exclusion, explained this to audiences would help shape larger understanding (Van Dijk, 1991).
This study sought to explore coverage using narrative analysis (Kitch & Hume, 2008) and the lenses of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1995; Hancock, 2016) (most often dealing with, but not limited to, race, gender, class and sexual orientation) and Critical Race Theory (Delgado, Stefancic, & Liendo, 2001) to interpret whether the coverage showed intersectional oppression, whether coverage labeled the tweet and the chant as racist, and whether the events were portrayed as interpersonal attacks or as endemic of larger, systemic racism. By stretching the sites of investigation beyond legacy news outlets, this study sought to broaden journalism scholarship as the field has expanded to include news outlets that position themselves as embracing different values and offering something missing from legacy news coverage. It examined coverage of the “go back” tweet and the “Send her back!” chant in the Explanatory journalism of Vox, which promises to deliver context beyond daily events (Fink & Schudson, 2014), and the Journalism 3.0 reporting of BuzzFeed, which describes itself as putting the interests of the audience first in deciding what to cover and how to cover it (Shontell, 2012; Whittaker, 2004). This study compares their coverage to legacy, or Traditional journalism, which values a just-the-facts, elite-driven approach to chronicling events (Schudson, 2012; Shoemaker & Reese, 2013). Providing historical context and privileging the voices of lived experience help illuminate how bias manifests in larger, sometimes invisible systems of power rather than singular bad actors (Apollon, Keheler, Medeiros, Ortega, Sebastian, & Sen, 2014).
Intersectionality Largely Missing from Journalism, Scholarship
News media play an essential role in how people understand those who are not like themselves (Saeed, 2007; Van Dijk, 1991). However, news narratives often fit people’s identities into singular, tidy boxes, and ignore aspects of identity outside of race and gender (Nielsen, 2013; Leung & Williams, 2019; Meyers, 2004; Meyers & Goman, 2017; Ward, 2017). This type of coverage flattens the consequences of bias rather than multiplying them and portrays one facet of identity as more significant than another (Hancock, 2007). Similarly, mass media scholarship has largely not attended to intersectional identities and has tended to focus one aspect of identity such as race, gender, class, or sexual orientation (Nielsen, 2012; Vardeman-Winter, Tindall & Hua, 2013).
Although intersectionality entered the scholarly literature in the 1990s, it has yet to be widely applied in journalism scholarship. Intersectionality describes the “simultaneous and interacting effects of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and national origin as categories of difference” (Hancock, 2007, p. 64). Intersectionality seeks to encompass the ways in which people are marginalized by more than one facet of their identities; that may also include religion—in this case, Islam, which has been regularly distorted, stereotyped, othered, and labeled as dangerous (Saeed, 2007). Intersectionality has been cited as the most important contribution to contemporary feminist scholarship (McCall, 2005). Categorizations that focus on one aspect and position the dominant group as the norm (male, or not; white, or not), distort identity (Crenshaw, 1995). For example, workplace reports often categorize the number of women and the number of “minorities,” which fails to accurately represent women of color. News narratives have tended to give primacy to race or gender (Gershon, 2012) or may mention both, but address them separately, failing to consider the multiplier effect (Hancock, 2007). An intersectional approach examines multiple facets of identity and how they work together.
Intersectionality addresses whose stories are told and how they are told. For example, the #MeToo movement rose to prominence in news coverage in 2018 after it was popularized by a white actress talking about assault and harassment. This ignored and negated the contributions of African American activist Tarana Burke, who started the movement 11 years earlier, but earned almost no news attention (Leung & Williams, 2019). Similarly, lack of coverage of missing and murdered indigenous women has been brief and scant (Gilchrist, 2010) compared to the voluminous coverage that has led to the coining of the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome” (Sommers, 2016). News narratives have tended to focus on aspects of identity, particularly race and gender, separately (Chmielewski, Tolman, & Kincaid, 2017; Cooky, et al, 2010; Meyers, 2004; Meyers & Gorman, 2017). As foundational scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw described, “The intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism” (1995, p. 40). When news media call attention to or emphasize one group, it communicates to audiences who and what is most important.
News Narratives Ignore and Question Bigotry
When it comes to reporting on bigotry, journalism has a well-studied history of ignoring it or producing narratives that question it or reinforce stereotypes by overrepresenting African Americans as perpetrators in crime stories (Dixon & Linz, 2000), framing Muslims as dangerous “others” (Alsultany, 2012), and describing immigrants from Latin America in terms of infestation (Santa Ana, 2002). News narratives have largely addressed racism and other forms of prejudice in terms of individual beliefs and actions, rather than as something baked in to discriminatory systems of power, institutions, and policies from education to workplace to policing (Apollon, et al., 2014).
Critical Race Theory (CRT) provides an important lens with which to examine news narratives because it maps well onto the journalism field norms. Critical Race Theory recognizes racism as part of everyday life, a given, and not something aberrant (Bell, 1992; Essed, 1991). “Givens” are the opposite of newsworthy. CRT understands that objectivity and neutrality are questionable constructs that favor dominant group perspectives (Odartey-Wellington, 2011); both objectivity and neutrality are long-held journalism values. CRT asserts that stories told from the perspective of people living the oppression have the power to invalidate stereotypes (Delgado, et al., 2001; Matsuda, 1996). Journalism scholarship has shown those are the voices most often missing from coverage, including in coverage of politics (Zeldes & Fico, 2005). CRT posits that whiteness is treated as normative and people of color are described in terms of what they are not (Delgado, et al., 2001). This phenomenon of othering is well documented in journalism scholarship (Heider, 2010). CRT explains racism as institutionalized rather than interpersonal. News coverage has frequently portrayed racism as something that takes place in interpersonal encounters rather than something larger and manifest in systems of power. Coverage that is not systemically aware minimizes the impact of bias (Apollon, et al., 2014).
Contemporary coverage of racism has often treated it as an open question and adopted a “some say it was racist, others say it wasn’t” approach (Nielsen, 2020). In spring 2019, the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, U.S. journalists’ primary resource for language guidance, made a significant update to its entry on race. It told journalists to stop using hedge words such as “racially insensitive” or “racially charged,” and provided this example, “Mississippi has a history of racist lynchings, not a history of racially motivated lynchings” (Brito, 2019, para. 5). CBS News attributed the change to a rise in major news stories about racism and said, the AP “said journalists should call an incident racist if it is such, rather than tiptoeing around the word” (Brito, 2019, para. 1). Whether coverage was labeled as racist would signal whether coverage recognized racism as endemic to everyday life and not something surprising (Essed, 1991). Thus, whether news narratives mirrored the public debate and followed entrenched coverage patterns or followed the updated Associated Press changes was important to this analysis of whether news narratives were systemically aware.
Political Coverage Differs for Women of Color, Immigrants, Muslims
A longitudinal body of work has documented substantial differences in news coverage of political candidates from marginalized groups, but most of these studies have focused on a single dimension of identity (Gershon, 2012). Studies comparing coverage of white female and male politicians have found new coverage focuses on male candidates’ issues positions and female candidates’ personalities and appearances (Aday & Devitt, 2001; Dunaway, Lawrence, Rose, & Weber, 2013; Harp, Loke, & Bachmann, 2016; Meeks, 2012). Coverage of male candidates of color has tended to focus on racial issues (Hatley Major & Coleman, 2008; Schaffner & Gadson, 2004). A significantly smaller and more recent body of scholarship has examined coverage women of color in politics. It has found that female candidates of color received the most negative news coverage (Gershon, 2012; Ward, 2017) including a focus on whether they would use their power to show bias against white people (Nielsen, 2013). Few studies have compared coverage of politicians’ immigration narratives, although a comparison of news coverage of Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Samuel Alito found that little attention was paid to Alito being the son of Italian immigrants, but the fact that Sotomayor was from Puerto Rico (a U.S. territory) received much attention (Everbach, 2011). A growing body of research is documenting Islamophobic bias in news narratives about Muslim politicians, including one that found news coverage of Omar focused significantly more on her faith than did news coverage of Tliab. The study posited this may be due to the face that Omar wears the hijab, a visible symbol of her faith, while Tliab does not (Bashri, 2019).
To put this in context, there has been little opportunity for journalists to cover women of color and/or Muslims in Congress. Women of color represent only 8.8% of the 535 members of Congress. The 2018 freshman class included the highest number of women of color ever elected, with 4% of the Senate and 9.89% of the House (Center for American Women and Politics, 2019). Fourteen members of Congress (2.6%) are foreign born, with most of them from Europe and Latin America, and two from African nations (Pew Research Center, 2019). Less than half of one percent (0.37%) of Congress is Muslim, with Omar and Tliab the first Muslims elected. Given the changing face of politics, how journalists cover these stories beyond barrier-breaking election night stories is important in terms of showing that an election does not mean the end of bigotry.
Explanatory and Journalism 3.0 Promise Something Different
Journalism scholarship has largely defined the field monolithically. Most studies consider only legacy, or Traditional journalism, which values coverage that is detached, “neutral,” event-driven, and dominated by the voices of elites (Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, & Rucht, 2002; Shoemaker & Reese, 2013). News organizations based in other values systems have been labeled niche or alternative (Atton & Hamilton, 2008). However, as digital technologies have removed cost and production barriers and allowed new players to enter the field, it should not be assumed that emerging news organizations embrace Traditional values. This study compared coverage in Explanatory journalism, represented by Vox, and Journalism 3.0, represented by BuzzFeed (Ferree, et al., 2002; Nielsen, 2020), which are both built on the promise of providing the audience with something different than Traditional coverage, represented in this study by The Washington Post.
Explanatory journalism goes beyond chronicling daily events to more critically examine the histories, systems, and outside influences surrounding them. It strives to be more “assertive” and moves away “from cautious, formulaic, cut-and-dried conventional journalism” (Fink & Schudson, 2014, p. 9). This type of journalism is not new, but having a news organization, born-digital Vox, claim its mission is devoted entirely to producing this type of coverage is new. Explanatory journalism is a reporting style found within Traditional journalism, although not in daily coverage, because it clashes with long-held Traditional field norms. As James Carey wrote:
Explanation in daily journalism has even greater limits. Explanation demands that the journalist not only retell an event but account for it … However, the canons of objectivity, the absence of a forum or method through which evidence can be systemically adduced, and the absence of an explicit ideological commitment on the part of the journalists renders the task of explanation radially problematic, except under well-stipulated conditions. (1997, p. 162)
In Traditional newsrooms, Explanatory journalism has most often been recognized as in-depth, longform coverage, rather than contextualizing daily coverage. This is reflected in the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, described as journalism that “illuminates a significant and complex subject” (Pulitzer Prizes, n.d.). In defining explanatory journalism in 1984, “… the [Pulitzer] Board signaled that the explanatory report’s primary topic should be a developed, unified subject, not simply issues” (Forde, 2007, p. 230). This study operationalizes Explanatory journalism in the broader terms of Fink and Schudson (2014) as providing context behind the daily events coverage, “It shifted from what politicians said to the political context in which they said it, implicitly or explicitly contending that the strategic or political context helped explain the politician’s policy pronouncements and other statements” (p. 6). Conventional stories focus on “who-what-when-where” stories and singular events whereas contextual stories provide deeper insights into other news and provide historical context (Forde, 2007). These definitions mirror the way Vox describes itself as:
… a general interest news site for the 21st century. Its mission is simple: Explain the news … We live in a world of too much information and too little context. Too much noise and too little insight. And so Vox’s journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters. (Vox, n.d.)
In the context of the “go back” tweet and the “Send her back!” chant, Explanatory coverage would be expected to explain intersectionality, call out racism, and to go beyond “who said what” to examine the history of those phrases and to recognize how they might ripple out more broadly and systemically.
Journalism 3.0 leverages social media to monitor what the “everyday people” in the audience are talking about and report on those issues by centering their voices (Robischon, 2016; Shontell, 2012; Whittaker, 2004). These values are at odds with traditional newsrooms in which editors decide the news agenda, often based on what politicians are talking about, and reporters rely on elite sources (Schudson, 2012; Shoemaker & Reese, 2013). BuzzFeed’s “About” section explains:
Our mission is to report to you: We cover what you care about, break big stories that hold major institutions accountable for their actions, and expose injustices that change people’s lives… We focus on reporting breaking news quickly and accurately and breaking down what the internet is talking about—from new memes to new forms of digital deception—in the language of the internet itself. (2018, para. 1)
In addition to these promises, BuzzFeed is an ideal site of investigation for this study because in 2014, author Ta-Nehisi Coates said BuzzFeed was producing the best journalism about racial issues (Coates, 2014).
In this study, Journalism 3.0 coverage would be expected to explore intersectionality, to directly label the tweet and the chant as racist, and to focus more broadly on how people of color, Muslims, and immigrant communities were affected by the statements as words that targeted them.
Traditional journalism is found in the print and online versions of legacy newspapers. It is known for its belief that journalists can be neutral storytellers (Borger, VanHoof, & Sanders, 2019; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2013). This devotion to neutrality casts doubt on the existence of racism (Schudson, 2003; VanDijk, 1991). Traditional reporters are detached observers who see their job as to chronicle events that are happening within the halls of power and most of the sourcing centers on elites (Ferree, et. al, 2002; Shoemaker & Reese, 2012). The Washington Post is the exemplar for Traditional journalism in this study because it covers Congress as a primary beat and serves as a key national news source on national politics.
Thus, Traditional journalism coverage would be expected to ignore intersectionality, question racism, and to focus primarily on events and what elites were saying about them. It would also be expected to characterize racism in terms of interpersonal interactions rather than manifest in systems.
This study examined news narratives of President Donald Trump’s July 14, 2019 “go back” tweet and the July 17, 2019 “Send her back!” chant in three different national news sources from the day of the tweet and for a month after the rally. It used narrative analysis to compare coverage in Explanatory journalism, represented by Vox, Journalism 3.0, represented by BuzzFeed, and Traditional journalism, represented by The Washington Post. Narrative analysis takes note of the events and anecdotes in stories, how the story unfolds (including language used) and characterization of key players and how they interact with others (Kitch & Hume, 2012).
Narrative analysis was the best method to capture the initial events and explore how narratives unfolded. It is also well suited for comparative work because it looks for commonalities or differences in major themes to reveal values in coverage. Using this method, the researcher interprets connotative and denotative meanings, paying close attention to what manifest content suggests as a preferred meaning for the audience. This analysis followed the model of Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, and Zilber (1998) of holistic-content reading, or reading the material and noting recurrent contexts to identify patterns that repeated or did not (Reissman, 1993). Articles were then compared across news outlet to answer these questions:
RQ1: How did coverage across the three news sources address intersectional identities/focus on multiple aspects of identity?
RQ2: Did coverage across the three news sources question whether the tweet and the chant were racist?
RQ3: Did coverage across the three news sources portray the tweet and the chant in terms of interpersonal or systemic racism?
RQ4: How did Explanatory and Journalism 3.0 coverage compare to Traditional coverage?
The study analyzed content from three nationally oriented publications. Vox and BuzzFeed are digital only. The Washington Post publishes online and in print. This study used only online news articles and focused on news organizations’ values rather than publication platform as the key point of difference. Vox labels itself as Explanatory journalism seeking to deepen understanding beyond events. It was launched on April 15, 2015 by founders Ezra Klein, a former Washington Post columnist, former Washington Post reporter Melissa Bell, and Matthew Yglesias who was a staff writer at The Atlantic Monthly and Slate. In 2017, Vox reported 29 million monthly unique visitors (Golis, 2017).
Vox’s mission is to distill complex policy issues elites are talking about in ways the audience can understand. BuzzFeed, launched in 2006 by Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti, was initially largely run by bots and known for featuring cat videos. BuzzFeed has claimed more than 5 billion monthly visitors across the many platforms it uses and devotes significant resources to news coverage (Robischon, 2016). BuzzFeed News launched in 2012 and now employs more than 400 reporters in 12 countries compared to The Washington Post’s 16 foreign correspondents in 13 countries (Robischon, 2016). The Washington Post is the country’s leading newspaper for coverage of national politics. Founded in 1877, the Post’s website is accessed by 66 million unique visitors each month (The Washington Post, 2017). The Post, which had been family owned for 80 years, was purchased in 2013 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who pledged to allocate significant resources to the Post’s online endeavors. Additionally, the Post has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting and four times been a finalist.
The articles from all three news organizations were accessed using Google search strings and Boolean logic with keywords “go back” and “Ilhan Omar,” then filtered by publication dates (i.e. site:vox.com AND “go back” AND “Ilhan Omar”). The search began with “go back” to capture how the story began with the president’s tweet. (NewsBank and Nexis Uni do not index Vox or BuzzFeed and those news organizations’ websites don’t offer advanced search functions). Only staff-written news articles longer than 300 words were included because news briefs are not intended to have the same depth or complexity as news articles. In sum, 33 Vox news articles, 18 BuzzFeed news articles, and 50 Post news articles met the criteria and were analyzed. The unit of analysis was the article, including the headline. The disparity in the number of articles in each publication was not considered a limitation because the qualitative analysis focused on the dominant narrative aspects within each publication.
This analysis revealed how coverage across all three news sources failed to address intersectionality, but did specifically call out and label racism. Only Traditional journalism coverage represented the tweet and the chant as systemic rather than interpersonal racism. Although Vox and BuzzFeed promise to provide context and cover issues as they relate to their audience, in the coverage of this event, The Washington Post came closest to providing that type of coverage.
RQ1 asked how coverage across the three news sources addressed intersectional identities. This study found that intersectionality was largely ignored. Vox coverage did not address intersectionality as Explanatory journalism would have been expected to. Rather, it relied on false equivalencies, for example, between Rep. Ilhan Omar and the “Lock her up!” chants targeting former Secretary of State and Trump 2016 presidential rival Hillary Clinton, who is white, Christian, U.S.-born and a former cabinet member and first lady. Other articles compared the “Send her back!” chant to Trump’s tweet disparaging the home district of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings as “rat infested.” Cummings was an African American man, Christian, U.S.-born citizen, and venerated civil rights icon. Vox coverage selected one aspect of Omar’s identity, only gender or race, and did not explore the multiple ways her identity made her a target of bias.
BuzzFeed coverage primarily focused on race. A few articles looked at race and gender without exploring how they multiplied bias. A July 18, 2019 article headlined, “Before They Failed ‘The Squad,’ Democrats Failed Other Women of Color,” used examples of African American women who had faced bias in politics, such as former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, but did not explore the narratives intersectionally and focused on race:
Since the women of the Squad arrived in Congress—both through their elections and in their actions in chambers—they have helped shift the national conversation about race, in large part by taking it directly to the public via Twitter. Instead of having white-dominated media play referee between party leaders and white suburban voters, they’ve shifted the political conversation into something far more complicated. This includes calling out the spectrum of the way race influences politics: from the banality of everyday racism to the structures of white supremacy, both in policy and in narratives. (Dominguez, 2019, para. 15)
Like Vox, BuzzFeed coverage falsely cast the tweet and the chant as equivalent to bias against then-presidential candidate Julián Castro, who is Latino, Cummings, and the “Lock her up!” chant aimed at Hillary Clinton. Vox and BuzzFeed coverage were similar in their approaches to covering intersectionality.
Post coverage also focused on one facet of identity, primarily race, but was the only coverage to address xenophobia and Islamophobia. Gender was present in Post coverage to a lesser degree. Post coverage avoided the false comparisons to white women and men of color. Thus, Post coverage expanded the understanding of oppression to include faith and immigration status, but did not consider how they come together intersectionally to multiply oppression.
Racism Called Out
RQ2 asked whether coverage across the three news sources labeled the tweet and the chant as racist or questioned whether they were racist. This study found that coverage produced by all three news organizations explicitly labeled them as racist. Whether the tweet and chant were labeled as racist was important to show whether coverage broke with the longtime practice of “that some say was racist” coverage that upholds “neutrality” and thus reinforces the belief that racism is questionable. Coverage that explored the context and history behind the rhetoric would have been systemically aware. All coverage labeled the tweet and the chant as racist, but there was also nuance in each outlet’s coverage in terms of systemic awareness.
Vox coverage described the tweet and the chant as “racist,” but most often portrayed them as directed at “liberal female” or “Democratic” Congresswomen, which focuses the attacks on personal political stances rather than marginalized groups. An article headlined, “New Polling Indicates Republicans Actually like Trump More Following Racist Tweet Controversy,” published hours before the July 17 North Carolina rally focused on a “Was that racist?” poll. The article reported:
…93 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents found the tweet offensive, while only 37 percent of Republicans did, according to the poll, which was released on Wednesday. Meanwhile, 57 percent of Republicans said they agreed with Trump’s tweets, while only 7 percent of Democrats did. (Kim, 2019, para. 4)
“Offensive” is not the same as “racist” although the article’s narrative conflates the terms. Agreeing with the tweets does not negate them as racist. The story also reported that the president’s approval ratings dropped 2 percentage points, focusing the “damage” on the president’s political power. Only one Vox article provided context when it covered the “long-used racist trope” Trump has leveraged against immigrants from Mexico and the Nation Football League’s Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem. Additionally, Vox used “racially insensitive” (a term labeled as problematic in The Associated Press Stylebook’s 2019 update) only once to describe words used by a fellow journalist. The New York Times‘ deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman was demoted after he posted “a string of racially insensitive tweets” in which he suggested Democrats including Omar and Tliab weren’t really from the Midwest (Rupar, 2019, para. 5). Although the narrative was the same as Trump’s Vox coverage described Weisman’s words as “racially fraught territory” (Rupar, 2019, para. 7).
By contrast, BuzzFeed coverage consistently labeled the tweet and the chant as racist and also referred to them as “white nationalism,” thus associating them with a dangerous political movement rather than Trump’s individual beliefs. Although this showed how Trump’s words might activate racist individuals, it did not show systemic awareness.
Post coverage described the president’s tweets and the crowd’s chant as “racist,” “historically racist rhetoric,” “racist and gendered,” “racist and xenophobic,” and “racist and Islamophobic.” Some Post coverage presented counter claims from conservative sources, which furthered the “racism as questionable” narrative. Only Post coverage reported that Twitter said the president’s words did not violate the company’s hate speech policy:
Researchers who study hate speech and harassment on social media, as well as activists who monitor how the platforms handle such issues, said that in Twitter’s first important test of its new policy, it had failed. (Timberg et al., 2019)
Post coverage also pointed out that the president’s words could have violated federal anti-discrimination laws. In a July 17, the Post reported that the president’s tweet used “language that the government uses as an example of workplace discrimination.” This also represented systemic awareness. The reporter wrote:
Telling immigrants and people of color in the United States to “go back to their country” or “go back to where they came from” is such a well-worn, racist trope that has persisted throughout the country’s history, that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cites it in its guidelines for immigrants’ employment rights … (Epstein, 2019, para. 3)
Overall, Post coverage showed how racism was not a question and was larger than interpersonal racism. This is significant because the Post coverage broke with Traditional patterns of questioning rather than calling out racism. This represents a dramatic shift away from questioning or downplaying racism, a practice that had become so commonplace that The Associated Press Stylebook’s change to writing about racism made headlines.
Traditional Coverage Shows Systemic Awareness
RQ3 asked whether coverage across the three news sources portrayed the tweet and the chant in terms of interpersonal or systemic racism? Most coverage represented interpersonal racism, but Traditional coverage showed the highest degree of systemic awareness.
Vox coverage primarily portrayed the tweet and the chant as events targeted at individuals rather than part of systemic racism. Even when Vox coverage broadened beyond events to look at larger issues of racism, these were covered in terms of Trump building support for his 2020 presidential bid. Only one Vox article published several weeks after the tweet and headlined “Trump’s Latest Tweets are About Silencing Women of Color in Congress,” explored systemic racism and pointed to studies that showed women of color in Congress are “routinely silenced, stereotyped, and excluded, and often had their authority challenged” (Chittal, 2019, para. 24). The July 15, 2019 article explored how stereotypes and implicit bias inform the types of roles the majority sees as appropriate for women and how women are treated when they aspire to more (Chittal, 2019). This article represented the ideals of Explanatory journalism, but it was an exception in the coverage.
BuzzFeed coverage primarily focused on the ripple effect of Trump’s racist rhetoric and less on bias in systems of power. For example, BuzzFeed reported that Trump “incited” the crowd (Hernandez, 2019) whereas Vox coverage simply reported that the “Send her back!” chant happened. BuzzFeed coverage provided that type of context in this article headlined, “Trump’s Supporters Chanted ‘Send Her Back!’ as the President Attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar,” was posted within hours of the July 17 rally, it featured contextual elements not often seen in breaking news stories about events:
Since launching his attack against the four congresswomen—all women of color—Trump has doubled down on the comments even after Congress approved a resolution Tuesday condemning his tweets, saying they had “legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” (Hernandez, 2019, para. 5)
Post coverage showed the most consistent systemic awareness from the perspective of people experiencing fear. This included extensive sourcing of immigrants who were people of color feeling afraid since Trump took office and narratives about the danger of Trump’s rhetoric in spreading violence, fascism, and white nationalism. Post coverage tied events together to show contextual patterns such as in this July 19, 2019 article headlined, “Trump Vows Congresswomen ‘Can’t Get Away With’ Criticizing U.S.:”
Trump’s shift Friday was reminiscent of how he responded to the deadly clash between white nationalists and protesters in Charlottesville in August 2017. He initially denounced the bigotry and hatred, then issued a stronger statement calling the racism practiced by hate groups “evil,” but the next day he spoke of “very fine people on both sides.” (Wagner & Itkowitz, 2019)
Post coverage also sought to expand the definition of The Squad to mirror how its members see themselves:
“This is the agenda of white nationalists,” Omar said. “[Trump] would like nothing more than to divide our country on race, religion, gender orientation and immigration status, because this is the only way he knows he can prevent the solidarity of us working together across all of our differences…”
“Our squad is big,” [Pressley] said. “Our squad includes any person committed to building a more just and equitable world.” (Sonmez & Bade, 2019, para. 8)
This example shows racism as systemic and broadly defined in Post coverage, and to a lesser degree in BuzzFeed’s coverage, but not in Vox coverage. Vox’s Explanatory coverage did not provide the context it promised and instead fell into problematic Traditional coverage patterns. BuzzFeed’s Journalism 3.0 coverage showed larger danger to people of color, but did not interrogate systems of power.
Differences by News Source
RQ4 asked how Explanatory and Journalism 3.0 coverage compared to Traditional coverage. Explanatory journalism, represented by Vox, a news organization that describes its mission as explaining complex issues to the audience, did not address intersectionality, did call out racism, but provided little context about why it was problematic or how it manifest outside of the two events. Its coverage focused on how politicians were aligning themselves after the president’s tweet. Most of its coverage chronicled events and political alliances. Journalism 3.0 coverage, represented by BuzzFeed, is characterized by a focus on what the audience is talking about in the ways the audience is talking about it, or how political issues manifest in everyday life. This study found BuzzFeed’s coverage addressed how the tweet and the chant put immigrants/people of color at risk, but did not address intersectionality and positioned discrimination in terms of interpersonal racism. The Post’s coverage did not ignore racism, sometimes questioned whether statements were racist by providing “the other side,” and was not intersectional, but did address more aspects of identity than other coverage. Post coverage was the most systemically aware because it provided historic context and explaining bias beyond the level of interpersonal interactions, such as in the workplace.
Discussion and Conclusion
This study explored news narratives covering racist attacks made by the president of the United States and his supporters toward members of Congress in the nation’s
most diverse freshman class. Trump specifically called out Rep. Ilhan Omar, an African American, Muslim woman born in Somalia, whose identity puts her at the intersection of multiple forms of bias. Looking at the Explanatory journalism of Vox, the Journalism 3.0 of BuzzFeed, and the Traditional journalism exemplified by The Washington Post yielded mixed findings across three questions. It found that news coverage across all three models of journalism is still struggling to accurately portray identity, that all outlets’ coverage called out and directly labeled the tweet and the chant as racist, and, rather surprisingly, that Traditional journalism provided the highest degree of systemically aware coverage.
News coverage that focused mostly on race, and to a lesser degree gender, as Explanatory and Journalism 3.0 coverage did particularly when making false comparisons with bias toward white women and African American and Latino men, ignores the complexities of intersectional bias and gives primacy to one aspect of identity (Hancock, 1997). Although Traditional coverage addressed xenophobia and Islamophobia, it did not address how these forms of bias work together, which does not further understanding of intersectional oppression (Hancock, 1997). The concept of intersectionality, published in legal scholarship more than two decades ago (Crenshaw, 1995), is still absent from news narratives. This is particularly problematic because mass media significantly inform how people in the audience understand those different from themselves (Saeed, 2007; Van Dijk, 1991). The coverage’s failure, across types, to explore that multiplied oppression minimizes the very real impacts and preserves the problematic status quo.
Another key finding of this study was how news coverage, across models, called out the tweet and the chant as racist absent any modifiers such as “racially insensitive.”
This was particularly compelling in Traditional coverage because direct descriptors push against the norm of neutrality. (Some articles in The Washington Post that labeled the tweet and the chant as racist also offered comment from sources claiming they were not, which reinforced the norm of neutrality, but most of the coverage did not engage in this type of debate.) The labeling of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia as such is important in acknowledging that these things exist without question in everyday life and are not aberrant (Essed, 1991).
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, this study found Traditional coverage broke with typical “just the facts” event coverage (Forde, 2007; Schudson, 2013) to provide coverage that was more systemically aware than that found in Explanatory or Journalism 3.0 coverage. Traditional coverage included historical context about how the slur has been directed at people of color, current context about hate speech regulation on Twitter, and delved into federal non-discrimination policies for workplaces. Journalism 3.0 coverage showed the wider impacts of the tweet and the chant in terms of activating white nationalists and showing the effects of racism on “everyday people,” particularly women of color who talked about how the president was inciting racists and how they felt unsafe; but it positioned racism in terms of a spreading movement of interpersonal violence without a focus on how discrimination also affects things such as hiring, housing, and educational opportunities. Journalism 3.0 coverage stopped short of providing the level of systemically aware coverage that has the power to shed light on larger forms of oppression (Apollon, et al., 2014). Explanatory coverage was not Explanatory beyond a single, in-depth piece. Rather, it adhered to Traditional norms of political coverage—despite Vox’s promise of providing context and “insight” amid the “noise.”
In sum, this study showed Explanatory journalism practicing problematic old patterns of “horse race” political coverage, found Journalism 3.0 somewhere in the middle because although it foregrounded the voices of lived experiences, it was only marginally systemically aware and provided little context, and showed a shift in Traditional journalism coverage. The Washington Post most represented the aspects of Critical Race Theory with the strongest potential to dismantle racist thinking: showing racism as an everyday occurrence, allowing people who live the issue to discuss it rather than focusing on those who talk about it theoretically, showing how racism manifests beyond interpersonal interactions and into systems of power (Apollon, et al., 2014; Delgado, et al., 2001; Essed, 1991). That Traditional journalism showed more systemic awareness in this context is significant for the future of coverage of racial issues because such coverage has the potential to cast doubt on accepted stereotypes (Delgado, et al., 2001; Matsuda, 1996) that serve to regularly reinforce oppression.
This study examines one flashpoint in political communication, but it indicates a need for future research to investigate news narratives about intersectionality generally and in political coverage specifically. As more digital news organizations emerge in the rapidly expanding news ecology, many of them are making promises to differentiate themselves from the old ways by providing something different or missing from Traditional coverage. Both practitioners and scholars should avoid taking those promises at face value. Similarly, Traditional coverage should not be presumed to be inescapably stuck in its ways. Future scholarship would benefit from continuing to look beyond the now-outdated print-vs.-digital delivery platform and explore the values at the heart of the coverage. This study showed news organizations have made little progress in understanding or addressing intersectionality. It contributes to a small but growing body of research examining intersectionality. More journalism scholarship using an intersectional lens and other critical theories, such as CRT, is necessary to understand whether there is evolution in news coverage or whether audiences are consuming old values in new packaging.
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Carolyn Nielsen, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Journalism at Western Washington University and is an affiliated faculty member with the Department of Women Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her research focuses on the confluence of newsroom sociology, digital technology, and coverage of race and immigration. She has just published her first book, Reporting on Race in a Digital Era. Dr. Nielsen worked for a decade as a newspaper reporter and editorial-page editor in California and Washington before becoming a professor. She holds a bachelor’s in journalism from California Polytechnic State University, a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, and a doctorate in communication from the University of Washington. Her scholarly work has been published in New Media and Society, Newspaper Research Journal, Howard Journal of Communications, and International Journal of Hispanic Media. She is currently serving as a co-investigator for a U.S. Department of State linkage grant, “Building a Free and Responsible Press for the Future of Democracy,” working with journalists and journalism students in Tunisia.