Coverage of the Vernon Jordan Attack: A Race And Sex Case Study

Hanks, William; Morgan, Hugh
April 1982
Newspaper Research Journal;Apr1982, Vol. 3 Issue 3, p14
Academic Journal
Circulation size of the newspapers in this study, except for the New York Times, seemed somewhat related to number of references to race and to the marital status of Martha Coleman, while geographic locale did not. Smaller circulation papers were less likely to carry such references. When the context of the references was examined, race frequently appeared in background information which seemed newsworthy. such as the allusions to racial slurs possibly linked to a motive for the attack on Vernon Jordan. Sometimes, however, Coleman's race and the facts of her divorce(s) were linked without any bearing on the focus of the story. Both quantitative and qualitative measures reveal that the Chicago Tribune was most likely to link elements of race and private life in a non-newsworthy manner. Noteworthy is the fact that four of nine newspapers declined to mention Coleman's black ex-husband, apparently regarding that information as unrelated to the story from the very beginning of their news coverage. Finally, based on their study of press coverage of the attack on Vernon Jordan, the authors offer two general observations which stand as pointers for practicing professionals. 1) Journalism educators have long taught that care should be taken in not pointing out the race of a person unless it is connected in another way with the news story. Caution especially has been urged in including race in crime stories. Adherence to this caution was apparent in the references to Jordan and Coleman. Generally, editors did not go out of their way, with the noteworthy exception of the Chicago Tribune's story of June 15, to dwell on the white-black issue. 2) Some restaurant should be shown in describing the life of a private person involved by coincidence in a public episode. This restraint was not demonstrated in referring was not demonstrated in referring the fact Coleman was divorced. However, it was generally from the low number of references to the frequency of her and to the fact a former was husband was black. Some reporters came up with a catch phrase, such as a "36-year- old white divorcee," undoubtedly without realizing it violated a new consensus on journalism conventions. Professionals need to be aware of the inappropriateness of the use of labels such as "divorcee." As race is being used more and more in context with newsworthy elements, so should a person's private life.


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