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Douglas Blanks Hindman, Robert Littlefield, Ann Preston and Dennis Neumann


North Dakota Newspaper Coverage of Americans With Disabilities and Ethnic Minorities

This study examines how editors' perspectives on coverage of ethnic minorities and Americans with disabilities are shaped by the nature of their communities. Findings indicate that editors from more pluralistic communities place higher value on news about ethnic and other minorities, and a lower value on stories about Americans with disabilities. Local newspapers appear to be more responsive to the majority groups' interests than those of the excluded groups.


Among the small communities in North Dakota, change is the norm. Many small North Dakota communities, particularly those communities that are economically dependent upon agriculture, are adjusting to declining populations, aging residents, and the increasing consolidation of local services such as schools, health care and retail into regional centers (Rathge & Highman, 1998). However, the most significant changes affecting small communities are often those changes that are imposed by large-scale bureaucratic groups headquartered outside the community (Warren, 1978). Civil rights legislation in the 1960s, and Americans with Disabilities Act legislation of 1990 required local schools and businesses to comply with national standards. Both types of civil rights legislation were bureaucratic attempts at adjustment to nation-wide changes that required state and local compliance, regardless of local conditions.

Local newspapers are often considered to be an important tool for community adjustment to social conflict and social change (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1980). However, the way in which a local newspaper reports community conflict and community change has been shown to be related to the nature of the community itself. Newspapers in smaller communities tend to contain fewer reports of conflict than do newspapers in larger communities. The conflicts that do appear in the small-town newspapers tend to involve disputes between a unified local community and an outside enemy such as a state or federal agency (Olien, Donohue & Tichenor, 1968; Hindman, 1996).

This is a study of community influences on the perspectives of local newspaper editors. The question being raised here is to what extent does the nature of the community affect local newspaper editors' coverage of news about ethnic and other minority groups such as Americans with disabilities? This study is grounded in the observation that local newspapers tend to serve supporting roles in the community, often reinforcing the power and authority of local elites (Donohue, Tichenor, Olien, 1973). In larger, more diverse communities, there is a more complex structure of leadership and power. A local newspaper in a large community likely has more news sources to choose from, each of which might have conflicting views. Because local newspapers are interdependent with the dominant institutions both within and beyond the community, variation in community diversity, or community structural pluralism, is expected to be related to variation in editor perspectives. Structural pluralism is defined as the degree of social differentiation and complexity among occupational and organizational groups within the community and as leading to potential diversity in the local power structure (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1980, p. 16).


Communities and Non-local Influence

Small, rural communities are increasingly affected by the decisions of large-scale bureaucratic groups located outside of the community (Donohue, Tichenor, & Olien, 1985). State-level governments often provide incentives for local schools and governmental services to consolidate into larger-scale operations that serve wider areas (Martindale & Hansen, 1969). A multitude of local retail businesses have been replaced by national discount retailers such as Wal-Mart (Flora & Johnson, 1991, p. 49). The decline of small-scale agriculture is, in part, the result of federal and state programs supporting large-scale, capital intensive production agriculture (Hightower & DeMarco, 1973).

Although many outside-imposed changes on small, rural communities result in a decline in status for individuals or groups, other changes are designed to raise the status of specific groups within the community. The imposition of national standards based on the civil rights of minorities and Americans with disabilities attempts to ameliorate injustices by providing a legal means of raising challenges against acts of discrimination.

As with any system-wide attempt at change, some communities find it easier to adjust than others. Smaller communities with lower levels of social and economic diversity may find national standards to be particularly burdensome when the mandates are not accompanied with funding. Local citizens and leaders in homogenous communities with small populations of ethnic and other minorities may question the necessity of local enactment of civil rights legislation, and local newspaper editors may similarly question the need for coverage of an issue that does not, on the surface, appear to affect their communities. However, in these types of communities, persons of color or disability may be more likely to be excluded or oppressed, so the need for such coverage is potentially greater.


Ethnic and Minority Groups in Rural and Urban Communities

An increasing number of small agricultural communities in the United States are adjusting to growing immigrant populations settled in the community by non-locally controlled agricultural processing firms. Local schools and social services are then required to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse clientele (Farmer, 1997). Local newspapers would be expected to cover local officials' attempts to adjust to the changing community population, given the newspapers' traditional reliance on official sources. However, the majority of small, rural communities are not dealing with an influx of ethnic minorities, but instead are facing the problems resulting from a declining population, and economic stagnation. Thus, the need for newspaper coverage of ethnic minorities is expected to be greatest in larger, more diverse communities. In more pluralistic communities, ethnic and other minorities are likely to be more visible and more vocal in expressing their concerns.

Because there are more formal mechanisms for raising challenges and airing grievances in more pluralistic communities, such as public hearings, labor unions, and organized interest groups, local newspapers in these communities are more likely to cover stories providing information about minority issues, particularly when conflict or debate is involved. However, there is great variation in the extent to which newspapers recognize various groups, and that variation may be related the degree to which the group is organized.


Diversity and Cohesion of Minority Groups

Americans with disabilities have not achieved the same degree of cohesion as other excluded groups (Scotch, 1988, p. 159-161). Part of the reason for the lack of organization among Americans with disabilities is the diversity of physical and psychological manifestations of disability (Fine & Asch, 1988, p. 6). Another barrier to organization as a social movement is the social and political isolation of persons with disabilities (Scotch, 1988, p. 161).

Regardless of whether or not any one individual sees him or herself as having a disability, chances are good that their options in life are limited in systematic ways as a result of socially constructed barriers such as discrimination and lack of physical access (Fine & Asch, 1988, p. 14). Fine and Asch (1988, p. 6-7) argue that persons with disabilities are best conceptualized as a minority group. However, news media are not likely to include the comments of any group that does not provide a steady, reliable source of news, or that does not have a clearly identified spokesperson who can speak for the membership of the group.

Traditionally-defined ethnic minority groups such as Native Americans, African-Americans, and Latino/Hispanics are also more diverse than their social labels would indicate. There is great variance in the degree to which individual members of a minority group identify with their ethnic roots. As was the case with Americans with disabilities, however, discrimination and oppression are the result of social labels that limit all members of a group in spite of their individual differences. News media are often part of the process by which minority groups are labeled as deviant and are given unfavorable or superficial news coverage (Martindale, 1989). However, the amount of news coverage, regardless of is quality, and regardless of how favorable or superficial it appears, would be related to the nature of the minority group and the nature of the community. Local newspapers depend for their news primarily upon purposive sources, such as spokespersons for agencies and groups. Thus, a local group may receive coverage because of its degree of power or organization within the community, or because the group is the focus of non-locally imposed rules or regulations.


Coverage of Americans with Disabilities and Other Minority Groups

Americans with disabilities would rank among the largest minority groups in the country. As many as 33.8 million people of all ages living in households had some limitation of activity in 1990, or 13.7 percent of the household population (LaPlante, 1993, p. 3). However, persons with disabilities tend to be stigmatized as being different or strange (Fine & Asch, 1988, p. 16). Media portrayals and insensitive use of language by journalists may contribute to that perception. Smith (1991) argues that newspaper coverage often uses language insensitively by referring to Americans with disabilities as "handicapped." Similarly, newspapers tend to run feature stories instead of covering current issues affecting persons with disabilities. (p. 10).

Clogston (1990) found newspapers tended to apply a "traditional model" to discussion of disabilities rather than a "civil rights" or "progressive model." The "traditional model" presents people with disabilities as medically or economically defective, reinforcing notions of powerlessness and incompleteness.

Haller (1996, pp. 14-16) found that the dominant frame for media coverage of Americans with disabilities changed after the ADA was passed in 1990. Governmental groups were more closely connected with stories about the Americans with Disabilities Act than were disability groups, and stories citing business groups tended to focus on costs associated with passage of the act. Rather than investigating the impact and enforcement of the ADA, mass media tended to frame the story as one of a hardship placed on businesses and local communities (Haller, 1996, pp. 18-19).

Negative mass media treatment of ethnic minorities or of Americans with disabilities is consistent with media treatment of all groups defined, by the non-excluded groups, as deviant (Shoemaker, 1985, p. 12; Hertog and McLeod, 1995).

Contrary to expectations, however, Fedler (1973, p. 117) showed that minority groups enjoyed far greater access to print and broadcast media than established groups. As would be expected based on Shoemaker's (1985) "deviance" hypothesis, Fedler (1973, p. 117) showed that the type of coverage minority groups received was less favorable than that of more established groups.

Greenberg, Burgoon, Burgoon, and Korzenny (1983, p. 65) found that Mexican-American community leaders said media coverage was more critical of Mexican-American teens than of Anglo teens. The leaders also criticized media for emphasizing negative rather than positive news about Mexican Americans, and criticized media for being unsupportive of the leaders' attempts at strengthening the community. Hispanic readers were more satisfied with media functioning than were Anglo readers (Greenberg, Burgoon, Burgoon, and Korzenny, 1983, p. 117). In an analysis of six metropolitan daily newspapers' coverage of Hispanic-Americans, the authors found that Hispanic sources were regularly used in stories. They also found the papers consistently included a variety of stories about Hispanic Americans (Greenberg, Burgoon, Burgoon, and Korzenny, 1983, p. 220).

The disparity between Hispanic community leaders and the rest of the communities in the Greenberg, et al.'s (1983) study may simply be evidence of the diversity that characterizes the Hispanic population. There is no reason to expect that all members of an ethnic group would view news coverage or any other local issue in exactly the same way. The diversity of perspectives among a group of Mexican American respondents was the subject of Lewels' (1981) study in which he found five distinct perspectives regarding Mexican American attitudes toward the mass media, but also found that all Hispanic respondents did not trust mass media, big business or government.

The current study differs from previous studies of media treatment of ethnic minorities and Americans with disabilities. Rather than focusing on content of newspapers in ethnically diverse communities, this study uses a wide range of communities from an ethnically homogenous state--North Dakota. Rather than focusing on newspaper content, community leader perceptions or audience perceptions, this study focuses on the perspectives of local media gatekeepers.


Editors and Community Structural Pluralism

Editor perceptions of ethnic groups and other minorities have been shown to be systematically related to the structural pluralism of the community. Editors from more structurally pluralistic communities were more likely to consider members of ethnic minorities as members of the local power structure, were more likely to consider one or more members of an ethnic minority as among their most important sources, and were more likely to consider as important news about ethnic and other minority groups than were newspaper editors from smaller, more homogenous communities (Hindman, Littlefield, Preston, & Neumann, 1996).

In spite of the increasing educational levels of newspaper editors which tends to minimize community-based differences (Weaver & Wilhoit, 1986), editor orientations have been shown to be related to community structural pluralism on a number of dimensions. Editors from less pluralistic communities are more likely to describe community boosterism and identity-building as among the main things their newspapers do for the community (Hindman, 1996). Editors from less pluralistic communities are more likely to emphasize local news over state, national, and international news about business and education (Donohue, Olien, Tichenor, & Hindman, 1993).

The local editor serves as a gatekeeper in determining what kinds of stories are published, but is also constrained by both professional standards and community standards. Generally speaking, the local editor is responsive to the degree to which local groups, particularly socially legitimized groups, are organized.

Given the above discussion, the first hypothesis was stated as:

H1. Newspaper editors from more pluralistic communities will consider news about ethnic and other minority groups to be more important than will editors from less pluralistic communities.


Editors are expected to place importance on news about ethnic and other minorities in response to the greater ethnic diversity in more pluralistic communities. In more pluralistic communities, members of the local power structure are more likely to be concerned with minority issues, if only in order to comply with federal laws regarding equal employment opportunities. Editors in more structurally pluralistic communities may also place importance on news about ethnic and other minorities because one or more groups has achieved critical mass and has established itself as among the local power structure. This is expected because ethnic minority groups have a better chance of being represented among the local community power structure in the more structurally pluralistic community.

The second hypothesis is related to the first, but instead is based on the specific types of groups that are included in stories:

H2. Newspaper editors from more pluralistic communities will be more likely to cover stories about ethnic minorities than will editors from less pluralistic communities.


Larger minority populations in more pluralistic communities make stories about ethnic minorities more likely to emerge from this type of community. Sources representing ethnic minority groups are more likely found in the more pluralistic community which also will likely have a more diverse power structure. A very different relationship is expected for editor perceptions about Americans with disabilities:

H3. Newspaper editors from more pluralistic communities will be less likely to cover stories about Americans with disabilities than will editors from less pluralistic communities.


The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act placed this story on the agenda of local newspapers, particularly those in less pluralistic communities. Editors in small, homogenous communities are sensitive to the concerns of local business and governmental leaders who had to struggle to comply with the "unfunded mandates" contained within the ADA. Less pluralistic communities tend to receive a larger proportion of their local funding from nonlocal sources, and are in turn more dominated by outside agencies than are the economically diverse regional and metropolitan centers.

Local news coverage can be expected to be responsive to the concerns of local businesses and local governments who must work out the implications of these externally imposed mandates. Community leaders in smaller, more homogenous communities tend to use conflict with nonlocal groups such as the federal government in order to reinforce populist traditions and to enhance local solidarity.

In addition, rural, less pluralistic communities tend to have higher concentrations of elderly who are more likely to have disabilities than the rest of the population. Editors may cover more news about this group simply because of the visible presence of persons with disabilities within the community.



Data for the study came from a 1996 telephone survey of a purposive sample of 52 North Dakota newspaper editors from one newspaper per county throughout the state. The sample includes the main newspapers from each county in the state and represents a diversity of community types. Three interviewers trained for the project called the editors after the editors had received an introductory letter. The sample includes editors of weekly and daily general circulation newspapers in North Dakota.


Independent Variable

The independent variable was community structural pluralism, defined as the degree of specialization and differentiation within the community. Operationally, it is defined as the additive index comprised of standardized measures of city and county population, number of residents with a B. S. or higher education level, and percent of the work force in non-agricultural, forestry, and fishery occupations. Indicators of pluralism were derived from the 1990 U.S. Census. The Chronbach's alpha reliability of the index was .89. Chronbach's alpha reliability coefficients greater than .80 are considered to have an acceptable level of internal consistency. In other words, the individual items making up the pluralism index appear to be related. Community and county population are measures which can indicate the potential of the region to support a greater degree of division of labor and more complex organizations, which can be expected to lead to an increase in formalization of social interaction. The work force measure is an indicator of the degree to which the community has diversified the local economy beyond a basic dependence on agriculture. The education measure, when combined with the other measures, is expected to indicate the potential for development of social power among diverse groups within the community. The variable was dichotomized so that the groups would represent more and less structurally pluralistic communities by ranking communities on the index, and then dividing the sample into two equal groups.


Dependent Variables

Editors were first asked a series of questions regarding the importance the editor places on various types of news from various levels, ranging from local to the national and international level. Specifically, editors were asked:


"How important is it for you to carry stories or editorials about ethnic and minority groups, such as African Americans, Native Americans, Latino/Hispanics, Asian Americans, or Americans with disabilities."


Respondents indicated importance on a ten point scale with one representing "no importance" and ten representing "extremely important" for each of five levels: local, county, neighboring counties, state, and national and international levels.

Editors were then asked an open-ended question which was stated as:


"What kinds of stories and editorials does your newspaper tend to publish about ethnic groups and other minorities?"


The responses to the open-ended question were probed by asking, "Any other cultural or ethnic groups." Responses to the open-ended item were coded as to the type of group mentioned in one or more of the stories, including: African American, Native American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American, Americans with disability, and Other (Including Norwegians and Germans from Russia).

Two individuals coded each answer and compared findings. Percent agreement between the coders was 92%.



The first hypothesis was stated as:

H1. Newspaper editors from more pluralistic communities will consider news about ethnic and other minority groups to be more important than will editors from less pluralistic communities.

Table One shows the results and indicates support for the hypothesis.

As expected, there were lower levels of importance placed on news about ethnic and other minority groups by editors from less pluralistic communities, although differences at local and county levels were not statistically significant. The differences were greatest at the levels most distant from the community which reflects the local orientation of residents of smaller communities, and also reflects the tendency of small town newspapers to specialize in local news and events. When the ratings were summed into an index, the overall means were significantly different, and in the hypothesized direction.

The second hypothesis was stated as:

H2. Newspaper editors from more pluralistic communities will be more likely to cover stories about ethnic minorities than will editors from less pluralistic communities.

Table Two shows that the hypothesis was partially supported.

The two main groups of ethnic minorities mentioned by editors were Native Americans and Latino/Hispanics. As expected, a significantly larger proportion of editors from more pluralistic communities were likely to mention stories about Native Americans. The proportions for Latino/Hispanics were in the expected direction, but were not statistically significant. Over four times as many editors mentioned Latino/Hispanics in more versus less pluralistic communities (19.2% versus 3.8%). Thus, this hypothesis received mixed support.

The last hypothesis was stated as:

H3. Newspaper editors from more pluralistic communities will be less likely to cover stories about Americans with disabilities than will editors from less pluralistic communities.


Table Three shows support for this hypothesis.

Nearly three times the proportion of editors from less pluralistic communities mentioned stories about Americans with disabilities when asked what kinds of stories and editorials the newspaper publishes. This is consistent with the idea that residents of less pluralistic communities are more vulnerable to the influence of external agencies than are residents of more pluralistic communities. Editors of small-town newspapers devote a greater proportion of local coverage to the local impact of non-local mandates, particularly when local leaders are resistant or when the community has difficulty with adjustment (Hindman, 1996).


Editors' Descriptions of Coverage

By examining the comments of the editors, it appeared that most recalled stories were features as opposed to routine news. For example, a weekly newspaper editor contrasted his coverage with that of a daily:


[We cover] cultural stories. [The] dailies emphasize bad things. My tendency is to emphasize cultural items--pow wows, historical aspects. I want to find out what people say. [We] had a woman who adopted a Black child--did a story. [We] did stories about a sacred site--learned native name for places.


A daily editor described his paper's emphasis on culturally sensitive coverage:

[We cover] quite a bit about Fort Totten and White Earth (MN), Turtle Mountain [area tribes of Native Americans]. [We are] also aware of cultural events and holidays--Native American and Hispanic.


The migrant laborers in some communities are the subject of feature stories, as indicated by the following editors, both from more pluralistic communities:


[We write] educational stories about migrant population.

[We write] stories on migrant farm workers. [We do an ] occasional feature on individuals and stories on migrant school. In summer [we] try to do stories that will be of interest to Hispanic migrant workers.


Other editors from pluralistic communities tended to reflect the concerns of non-excluded groups:


[We have a] large Native American community nearby... [We] try to stress positive news--discuss gambling issue as Indian gaming grows. [We write] editorials about alcoholism and Native Americans.

[We cover a] lot of legal news about Indian affairs out of the legal court system.


Based on editor comments, it appears the relationship between structural pluralism and inclusion of stories about ethnic minorities stems from a combination of service to the local ethnic minority group and service to members of majority groups. Minority groups may need coverage to feel included in the community. Newspaper coverage of minority groups may also serve "surveillance" functions for majority groups who seek to monitor their environments, observe social changes within the community, and, perhaps reinforce their concerns about the growing status and visibility of minority groups in the community (Wright, 1986).

One of the main assumptions of this study was that communities tend to report issues that are sources of difficulty or conflict. It was expected that smaller, more ethnically homogenous communities would be more likely to experience difficulty in adjusting to the Americans with Disability Act. An examination of editor's responses does not reveal that the communities had any difficulty adjusting, however. An editor from one of the less pluralistic communities mentioned Americans with disabilities in the context of local response to non-local mandates:


[We] covered the] Americans with Disabilities Act when courthouse/schools forced to comply stories.


Another editor from one of the less pluralistic communities mentioned the ADA, while also explaining why his paper did not cover stories about ethnic minorities:


[We cover] ADA stories. There are no ethnic minorities [in the community except for]... Germans from Russia...[and] one black man in county.


However, the majority of editors tended to mention the type of coverage that would tend to reinforce stereotypes about Americans with disabilities:


[We do] features--people with disabilities achieving goals etc. [We don't] seek it out.

[We write an] occasional feature about [a] disabled person [or] individual [such as an] older person [who is] hanging in there.


It can be argued that these types of stories tend to serve majority groups who may be reassured by the idea that disability is an individual problem that can be overcome through sufficient personal effort. The perspective which seems to underlie the type of coverage recalled by the editors in this study is at odds with the underlying idea of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA suggests that "disability" is in a large part, socially imposed through the creation of physical barriers (Fine & Asch, 1988, p. 16). When Americans with disabilities are portrayed as heroic individuals who are "overcoming disabilities" and achieving goals, local media tend to reinforce the stigma associated with disability. Similarly, Wilson and Gutierrez (1995, pp. 152-158) argue that coverage of ethnic minority groups achieves the most advanced levels when nonwhites are reflected in all types of news, not just in features stories or crime stories.

It would appear that there are significant differences in the way editors from different types of communities report stories about ethnic and other minorities. However, all newspaper coverage appeared to fall short of Wilson and Gutierrez' (1995) standard in which minority status is treated as being incidental to the story. Local newspapers vary in the way that different types of minority groups are covered, but in all cases, tend to most closely reflect the interests and concerns of powerful, non-excluded groups within the community.



This study has examined community influences on local newspaper editors' perspectives on coverage of groups affected by non-local mandates such as the 1960s civil rights legislation and the 1990 Americans with Disability Act. Editors from more pluralistic communities were shown to place higher value on news about ethnic groups and other minorities. A greater proportion of editors from more pluralistic communities could recall including stories or editorials about ethnic minorities, but a smaller proportion of editors from more pluralistic communities could recall including stories about Americans with disabilities. The greater coverage of Americans with disabilities in smaller, less pluralistic communities can be explained by observing that these types of communities are increasingly comprised of elderly residents who are more likely to have disabilities. However, an examination of the types of stories mentioned by the editors leads to the conclusion that the coverage is more likely to serve the majority population than persons with disabilities. The stories focus on the local enactment of the ADA mandates, or are feature stories about individuals who have triumphed over their disabilities. In either case, the local newspapers appear to be more responsive to the majority groups' interest in ethnic groups and other minorities rather than being responsive to the interests of the excluded groups.



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