Survey: Race in the news class develops savvy media consumers

For 16 years, students have participated in an open and frank online dialogue in Professor Karen M. Turner’s “Race and Racism in the News” class. But only now has she realized its lasting impact.

Prof. Karen M. Turner (photo by Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University)

Turner surveyed 66 Temple alumni who took the class between 1997 and 2010 and, through their responses, has found the lessons she taught are still put to use in their personal and professional lives. (During that time frame, 285 people received final grades. From that group, Turner contacted the 102 alumni who had a current email address in Temple’s database.)

The online course is taught in a format in which only Turner knows the identity of the students. They only know each other through user names like “Race 9” or “Race 2,” which creates an atmosphere that offers students the opportunity to err toward honesty, not political correctness.

“When we generally have conversations around race and class, we assume that someone who looks like us may have had similar experiences. So sometimes things that we maybe ought to say, we ought to convey, we don’t, because we assume there’s an understanding with what we assume is a ‘like person’ and that’s not always the case,” she says. “Requiring complete anonymity of the students when they post their comments is challenging — it takes them outside their comfort zone.”

An alien perspective
Each semester begins with the students pretending they’re from Jupiter. They are to characterize for their fellow Jupiterians each Earthling race, solely based on media reports. Over the years, she has found the stereotypes revealed in this exercise have been quite similar from students of any race.

The class continues with discussions about when they first became aware of race and how race is portrayed in the media, which has not evolved as much as Turner would have liked since she has taught the class. She says media have plenty of room for improvement.

“I would like to think that it has gotten better, but with the advent of an African-American president, it seems that we aren’t quite as far along as I thought we had been,” she says. “I found the media tended to repeat, and not report [or] put things in a context. I think it is really a missed opportunity.”

When reporting about the “birther” movement that questioned Obama’s residency, “the media should have been questioning why these are relevant issues. These are opportunities to provide readers, listeners and viewers with a context. This whole eight-year period really could be a time when we could have a much more meaningful and robust conversation around race, but it’s not really happening.”

Lessons learned
According to her survey, though, her former students are more aware of the media’s flaws in this area. The alumni who responded represent a diversity in race and age. Many work in media, PR, marketing and education.

One graduate responded that he or she has been complimented for including a “variety of voices” while reporting for a radio news station. Others have found lessons learned in the class have helped in personal situations.

“The course helped me to become comfortable talking about race and ethnicity,” one respondent wrote. “These subjects can at times seem taboo, but the course helps you to think and talk in a constructive way and face racial issues directly, rather than talking around these topics.”

“I want my students to be able to look back on this experience and feel that it was long-lasting, that the way they view media is much more critical, and certainly, if they are in positions of management, that they will reflect on some of the assignments, some of the discussions and incorporate them into how they have their newsrooms cover their stories in a more contextual way,” Turner says.