Michael Scherer

Census Confusion

Imagine this headline: "Baptists Now Outnumber Blacks in Louisiana, Says New Study."

Doesn’t work right? The reason: Any such study would have to count black Baptists against themselves to compare overlapping categories of race and religious belief. It’s like comparing organic apples with red apples.

Now consider this headline, which The Associated Press ran Tuesday: "Hispanics Now Outnumber Blacks As Largest U.S. Minority Group." Similar versions ran in papers and on web sites all over the country. "Hispanics Have Edged Past Blacks As The Nation’s Largest Minority Group," said The New York Times.

Can that be true? Unlike blacks, Hispanics do not make up a racial group. They are a self-identified ethnicity, a group of people who generally trace their roots back to Latin America or Spain. Hispanics can be white, black, Native American, Asian, or a blend of all these racial categories. So when does an ethnicity really outnumber a racial group, particularly if both categories share some of the same members? The answer is not so clear.

While the importance of race and ethnicity remains a topic of vigorous debate, journalists too often overlook the nuanced differences between them and the boundaries that define them. Newspapers and local television stations still run stories that describe police suspects as "Hispanic males," a description not much more telling than "Anglican males" or "Atheist males." On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune described a jury of twelve as "six blacks, four whites and two Hispanics." One can only guess at the skin color of the latter two, or the ethnicity of the first ten.

"The rules that people are making to stabilize these categories are coming unglued," explains Margo Anderson, who studies the Census at the University of Wisconsin. In fact, government approved racial and ethnic categories have never been much more than gross generalizations. Over the last two centuries, racial categories like "Mulatto," "Hindu," and "Octoroon," meaning one-eighth black, appeared on Census forms. The current categories are still just rough approximations, especially when it comes to the self-defined category of Hispanic. "It has now become so commonplace to think of Hispanic as a race," explains William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan, pointing to a common fallacy.

Such distinctions become crucial when it comes to reporting statistics like Census data, especially since the government began allowing people to describe themselves by marking multiple races. On Tuesday, the Census Bureau released voluminous new information on the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. The data came without any comment, leaving reporters with the task of interpretation.

At the AP, policy prescribed the coverage. Since April 2001, the AP has used "black" to mean non-Hispanic blacks as well as non-Hispanic blacks who also describe themselves as belonging to a second or third racial group, like Asian, white, or Native American. The AP uses "Hispanic" or "Latino" to mean Hispanics of all races. "The decision was made to ensure that our reporting minimized confusion," explains Jack Stokes, a spokesman for the AP. As a result, the AP read the new Census data in a very specific way: It counted 36.1 million blacks and 37 million Hispanics, and thus concluded that Hispanics had outnumbered blacks.

The problem is that this formulation counts black Hispanics as Hispanic, but does not count black Hispanics as black, effectively erasing 1.7 million people from the total black population. Considering that 1.7 million uncounted blacks are more than the 900,000 difference the AP describes, the story’s headline comes into question.

Other reporters, who did not share the AP’s view of the data, found themselves in a bind when the story moved across the wires. Paul Overberg, Census reporter for USA Today, had to explain to his editors why he could not follow the lead of the AP. "Who wanted to believe me when I said, ‘No, that’s not the way we count these things’?" says Overberg.

He chose to compare two other numbers, the total Hispanic population (37 million) and the total population of blacks, including those who also claimed another racial identity, regardless of Hispanic ethnicity (37.7 million). This effectively double counts the 1.7 million Hispanics who consider themselves at least partly black. In this interpretation, which assumes that race and ethnicity are comparable minority categories, blacks are still the larger minority group. In the end, Overberg’s story carried a markedly different headline: "Hispanics Inch Towards Outnumbering Blacks." The Miami Herald and The Washington Post were also cautious, emphasizing the rate of increase for Hispanics. "Hispanics Close to Becoming Largest Minority," read the Herald’s banner. "Hispanic Population Booming In U.S.; Census Finds Growth Outpacing Blacks'," said the Post. The San Francisco Chronicle chose to be explicit: "America’s Ethnic Shift; Latinos Pass Blacks Unless You Count Black Latinos."

But several other papers opted for a third interpretation that supported the most news-making interpretation of the data. Both The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal Constitution decided to double count black Hispanics, but unlike Overberg, they did not count those who considered themselves black in combination with some other race. Consequently, they found that the total number of Hispanics (37 million) surpassed the total number of people whose only racial identity is black (36.2 million) by roughly 800,000. Both the Times and the Journal-Constitution mentioned multiracial blacks later in their stories. Like the AP, these papers chose a more provocative path through the maze of numbers presented by the Census, leading assertively with a single interpretation. Without qualification, the Journal-Constitution’s headline read, "Latinos Surpass Blacks As Largest Minority."

News organizations that simply trumpeted this new milestone might have served their readers better with a more cautious approach. As one member of the journalism email listserve Census-L noted, "I’m worried that the AP is drawing black-and-white conclusions from gray data." If nothing else, these stories show that American demographics are no longer black or white. In truth, they are a blended, difficult-to-define shade of brown.

Michael Scherer is an assistant editor at CJR.

Framing the Flag

One month after the first U.S. bombing of Kabul, Fox News correspondent Brit Hume delivered a short but stinging report on his nightly broadcast. "Over at ABC News, where the wearing of American flag lapel pins is banned," said Hume, his own pin firmly in place, "Peter Jennings and his team have devoted far more time to the coverage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan than either of their broadcast network competitors."

Citing a new study, Hume said that ABC spent exactly fifteen minutes, forty-four seconds covering these casualties over the previous several weeks, nearly twice the time spent at NBC and about four times as much as CBS. The implication was clear: war coverage on ABC, free of patriotic accoutrements, was quite possibly drifting from the national interest.

For the Media Research Center, the conservative watchdog that authored the report, Hume's dispatch represented yet another success in its campaign to hew reporters to open support for the war. Already the nation's most vocal critic of the media's perceived liberal bias, the center took on a "new and vital mission" in the months following the attacks on Washington and New York, according to its founder, L. Brent Bozell III. "We are training our guns on any media outlet or any reporter interfering with America's war on terrorism or trying to undermine the authority of President Bush," he wrote in a recent fundraising letter.

In terms of mainstream media exposure, the center has enjoyed significant success in its new role, often framing the discussions of journalistic objectivity. Between September 11 and December 31, MRC reports and staff members were quoted eighty separate times by major news outlets in the Nexis database. This included eleven interviews and citations on Fox News, CNN, and CNNfn. Bozell even made it onto Imus in the Morning in February.

"The fact that we have been received reasonably well during this period is good for us," says Rich Noyes, the center's director of media research. "I think you can tell when we are raising good questions."

Those questions often concerned the patriotic credentials of top broadcast news reporters, producers, and executives. The center praised Rather, Brokaw, and Russert for editorializing their support of the war; it chastised journalists who kept a greater editorial distance. "What we were looking for was home-team sports reporting," Noyes explains.

In practice, the center defined the home team as the Bush administration and its policies. Journalists and pundits who challenged them were tarred with the epithet "political activist," or in the case of the cartoonist Aaron McGruder, "America-hater." In one report, the center took Peter Jennings to task for suggesting on a talk show that Americans respect different views of patriotism. The center's editorial response: "Unlike Jennings, who is still a Canadian citizen, we are Americans."

After CNN submitted six questions to an alleged representative of Osama bin Laden, the Los Angeles Times quoted Bozell calling the questions a "slap in the face of the American people." The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor reported on the center's criticism of Reuters and the BBC for swearing off the term "terrorist." The center also spread the word about ABC News president David Westin's equivocation over whether the Pentagon had been a "legitimate military target," eliciting a prompt apology from the network chief and a flurry of embarrassing press coverage. "They put stuff out there and either it speaks for itself or it doesn't," said Hume, who worked at ABC News for twenty-three years before joining Fox. "The value of these people is their research."

Some media watchers agree. "Senior network executives tend to dismiss the center a bit too reflexively," said Howard Kurtz, media reporter for CNN and The Washington Post. "This is clearly because the organization has such a conservative agenda, but that doesn't mean their barbs aren't hitting the mark sometimes."

In many ways, Bozell's group has continued the mission begun in 1969 by Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media, which helped found MRC in 1987 by sharing its mailing list. But Bozell, a syndicated columnist who served as finance director in Patrick Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign, has developed a much larger organization. Funded by such conservative groups as the Sarah Scaife Foundation, his center boasted an income of $15 million in 2000, more than eighteen times as much as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the largest liberal media watchdog.

From September 11 until Christmas, a staff of eight full-time researchers recorded and reviewed all the broadcasts on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, said Noyes. Any possible evidence of "liberal bias" or wavering support of the military mission was flagged for distribution through the group's Web page, e-mail list, and "Notable Quotables," a biweekly newsletter delivered free to many of the nation's newsrooms.

While the center's direct impact on those newsrooms is difficult to measure, television coverage has been far more supportive of the Bush administration's policies than have newspaper reports. In November, for instance, a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 54 percent of broadcast segments "entirely" supported official U.S. viewpoints, compared with 23 percent of applicable newspaper coverage.

At CNN, NBC, MSNBC, and ABC, reporters and producers said that while they are aware of the center's criticisms, they keep partisan assaults from influencing their news judgment. Still, says Tom Nagorski, the foreign news editor at ABC, "I suppose in a subtle way it's in the back of your mind." For supporters of the Media Research Center, that may be all they can ask.

Republished with permission from Columbia Journalism Review March/April 2002; © 2002 Columbia Journalism Review