By: Richard Prince, "Journal-isms"

Steve Guinn, a white, 80-year-old Phoenix retiree, thinks there are too many African Americans — women, in particular — on the television channel he watches. Not that he objects to having them on television, just not when he’s trying to enjoy “NCIS” and “Law and Order,” he recently told Journal-isms by telephone.

Guinn watches “WE TV,” which stands for ‘Women’s Entertainment TV,” in order to see the “Law and Order” shows to which he is “addicted.” He has to endure programs such as “Mary Mary,” a reality TV series chronicling the lives of Erica and Tina Campbell, sisters and members of the contemporary gospel group by that name, and seeing black women with pink, green, blue and yellow hair and whose “English grammar is deficient.

“I’m not casting criticism,” he adds, but “the commercials are the biggest offenders.”

So Guinn wrote a letter to the editor of the Arizona Republic, which published it.

“By my count, nearly 50 percent of the folks in commercials are African Americans,” it began. “That is not the ratio of the general population. It is an attempt to be politically correct, but a feeble one.

“There are few Asians, Native Americans or Latinos. African Americans are way more sensitive and activist about their image.

“Does this diversity in advertising create more sales for the advertised product? I don’t think so, but that is only my opinion.

“Mixing a social issue with product promotion may only dilute the product message.”

The Republic published the letter under the headline, “Letter: Why are there so many black people in TV ads?”

Asked about that “nearly 50 percent” figure, Guinn says, “I’ve not researched that number, but I believe it’s awfully close.”

Andrew Rojecki, an associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois-Chicago, is co-author of “The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America,” published in 2000.

He and co-author Robert M. Entman found that in their sample of 1,620 ads on ABC, NBC, and Fox, African Americans appeared in 32 percent of them.

Additionally, 3.3 percent of the ads featured only black actors, 28.7 percent featured both black and white actors, 58.8 percent featured only whites, and 9.1 percent had actors of an “East Asian facial cast.”

Rojecki said by email that while he and Entman had not done follow-up research, “The thing to keep in mind is that the present media environment is sliced and diced demographically such that specific programs may have a different representation than others. In this respect the 50 percent figure, if accurate, may be misleading.”

It’s difficult to find any authoritative source that puts the number of blacks in television commercials near 50 percent.

It is a figure, however, that has been bandied about by white supremacists on sites such as Stormfront or a Rush Limbaugh fan page.

Guinn says those sites are interpreting what he sees the wrong way.
For newspapers, the question is whether such letters deserve fact-checking and publication. At a time when disinformation is in the news, are letter writers entitled to their own set of facts as well as opinions?

“We do fact check letters, but we do not vet them with the kind of rigor we would, for instance, a news story or editorial,” Phil Boas, editorial page director of the Arizona Republic, told Journal-isms by email.

“Letters to the editor are not considered authoritative. They reflect an opinion, the public pulse, if you will. Often those public opinions are highly controversial.

“In the case of this letter, the reader cites numbers based on his own count, which of course are unverifiable. The next question becomes is the issue a real one, one that is discussed in legitimate forums. And a quick survey of the web shows us that the issue has been discussed in responsible places:
“You’ll see the topic of minority overrepresentation in commercials and programming discussed on NBC, CNN, UCLA going back years… ”

Boas enclosed such pieces as “Race becomes more central to TV advertising,” an Associated Press story from 2009; “African Americans Remain Overrepresented on Television and Concentrated in Situation Comedies, UCLA Study Finds,” a university news release from 2002; and “TV too diverse? Why it’s only a start,” an opinion piece from CNN in 2015.

Boas continued, “Our next question became, is the letter racist? As I went through the wording of the letter, I found that the reader is animated by his concerns about the politicalization of advertising, political correctness, social issues. In other words, he seemed to be barking against what he believes is Madison Avenue social engineering.

“Two editors independently chose the letter for publication. I chose it for print. Another editor chose it for online. Interestingly, we both came to learn afterwards we disagree with the letter writer — that even if blacks were overrepresented in his own personal survey of ads, so what? Why is that a bad thing?

“We had put it out there for discussion.

“One of our reporters found the letter offensive and thought it represented the viewpoints of the alt-right or messaging you would find on racist message boards. I found the concerns legitimate, but a bit extreme. I didn’t think the letter revealed a white supremacist point of view. But I was open to evidence that I was wrong.

“I showed the letter to two of our editors who are minorities, who said they don’t believe the letter is offensive. They both would have published it.

“I later showed it to a third editor, however, who is also a minority, who felt it did not pass the test for good taste, that it was ambiguous enough that readers could find it offensive. I thought she put in a powerful way: ‘How would a 14-year-old African-American girl reading that letter feel about it, about what it says about her?’
“I found that argument persuasive and decided to pull it from the Internet.

“I think my final decision was the right one, but I still have doubts. A conversation had begun. The letter writer was starting to get some good push-back from our readers. Sometimes that’s how people learn and society progresses.”

Journal-isms asked members of the former Association of Opinion Journalists, now part of the American Society of News Editors, about the fact-checking practices for letters at their news organizations. Here are some responses:

Chuck Frederick, editorial page editor, Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune: “As the editorial page editor, all the fact-checking of submissions falls to me. . . . It’s amazing how many writers will make outrageous claims in a letter and then balk when I ask them for any sort of documentation to substantiate it. Which I do. A lot. I’m happy to do some googling, etc., but it’s on them as the one making the claim to provide the proof. I had a guy last week yell at me that apparently I don’t read my own paper closely enough. Actually, I read it quite closely and was able to figure out how he mixed up some of his numbers with regard to a proposed sales tax. If a loopy claim can’t be proven or substantiated we don’t publish it. We let the writers know. Usually they’re not too happy, but hey, that’s how it goes.”

Jackman Wilson, editorial page editor, Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.: “We can’t check every assertion in our letters to the editor. We also feel we should be generous in drawing the line between fact and interpretation — for instance, we know the statement ‘President Trump was born in Russia’ to be untrue, so we would not print a letter making that claim. We might, however, publish a letter that accuses President Trump of governing as though he were from Russia.
“The best we can do is watch for red flags — assertions of fact that seem implausible or unfamiliar. The ’50 percent of characters in commercials are African-American’ claim is one such statement. In those cases it’s a good idea to ask the letter-writer to provide a source or link. Letter writers’ response seems to fall into two categories: 1) We don’t hear back from them because they can’t provide supporting evidence, or 2) They understand that we’re trying to boost their credibility and welcome the chance to say where their information came from.
“A problem can arise when letter-writers provide sources or links that they accept as legitimate, but which look to us like something from the paranoid fringe. This is not really a new problem. Would we print a letter that based its arguments on information culled from ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’? No. We try not to print letters from its modern-day equivalents, either.
“We can rely to some extent on the self-correcting nature of the letters columns. If a letter makes a claim that is untrue and we don’t catch it, other letter-writers will be quick to blow the whistle. They’ll also expose questionable sources.
“In the end, we should remember that we’re working for the readers, not for letter-writers, and try to serve them as best we can.”

Susan Parker, engagement/community content editor, Daily Times, Salisbury, Md.: “There is little time for fact-checking at our lean organization. If there’s just one or two questions that can be easily verified, I will check myself or ask the writer for sources, especially if it’s a regular contributor. “If the questions involve the primary gist of the letter, it doesn’t see the light of day, because no one on our staff has time anymore to spend hours tracking down facts or sorting through conflicting information on various websites.”

Jay Jochnowitz, editorial page editor, Times Union, Albany, N.Y.:
We also have too little time and staff for extensive fact-checking. We do sometimes do our own search if it seems like something we can quickly resolve, or ask the author for his or her source(s). But generally we tell letter writers that we don’t use letters that require inordinate amounts of fact checking or which rely on self-reported facts, such as a personal anecdote or their account of a meeting that our paper didn’t cover. “We explain that the letters column is largely a forum for readers to talk about articles and issues that have already run in the paper and with which other readers are familiar. That way, they can focus on their opinion. “If a person sends us a letter to the editor that’s unusable but looks like a potential news story, we either forward it to news or suggest the writer contact a news editor directly.”

Gary Crooks, opinion editor, Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
“Essentially, this. I ask for sources. If they just give me someone else saying the same thing without sources, not good enough. If they say, ‘just watch (fill in the blank)’ … nope. Don’t have time (one-person shop). If they’d like to resubmit without that point, that’s available. “The catch in that letter is ‘by my count.’ Could be true given limited time frame or perception. Then again, it makes for a weak letter, and I would reject it if some data couldn’t be supplied to strengthen a shaky assertion.”
Responding to Jochnowitz, Crooks added, “That self-reporting point is an important one.

I get many disappointed writers who don’t understand why information must be confirmed. We don’t use self-reported letters. The Feb. 19 column noted that since the November election, “Calm, substantive argumentation has been overwhelmed by full-on personal attacks from writers of all political persuasions.” In its letter-writing instructions, it said, “We may bypass your letter if it’s filled with information we can’t readily confirm.”

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