News Organizations Signal a Public Debate About What Is And Is Not Racism

Newsrooms and media audiences contribute significantly to maintaining racism’s debatability.

Reviewed by Becky Mer


The media plays an essential role in shaping public opinion on complex social issues. This is why it is critical that journalists are equipped to cover topics of race effectively. The Associated Press signaled the seriousness of public discourse on racism when updating its stylistic guidelines in 2019: “Do not use racially charged or similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.” However, neither scholars nor the public have reached consensus on a fundamental definition of racism, and the boundaries around this term have long been debated. Scholar Gavan Titley calls this “the debatability of racism,” or constant deliberation about “what counts as racism and who gets to define it.”  

In this study, Dr. Danielle K. Kilgo explores how media coverage contributes to the perceived subjectivity around racism and how social media interactions can contribute to the dominance of particular narratives over others. By analyzing the Facebook posts of six major U.S. broadcast and newspaper organizations over a three-year period, Dr. Kilgo argues that debatability is triggered in journalism by at least three key presentations: 

  • First, subjectivity cues—like embedding topics of racism in opinion pieces or external attributions, prefacing racism with the term alleged, and placing quotes around “racist” or “racism”—signal debatability and allow the author to avoid making any definitive judgement. 
  • Second, journalistic descriptions of denial narratives (“I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world”) and reverse racism (describing people of color as aggressors against white people) reinforce the popular perception of racism’s moving boundaries. 
  • Third, confining discussion of racism to historic contexts —particularly to historical acts of physical violence—fuels the modern debatability of racism.

Dr. Kilgo is the John & Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research has focused on subjects such as media coverage of social justice issues and protests, social media behavioral effects, and the intricacies of news media presence in social media networks. 

Methods and Findings

To identify how news coverage shared to social media contributes to the debatability of racism, Dr. Kilgo analyzed posts from the Facebook pages of 3 of the most circulated newspapers in the U.S. (The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal) and 3 broadcast news organizations (ABC, NBC, CBS). The posts were collected in 2017, 2018, and 2019 using the search terms racist and racism. There were 1,644 posts in the final sample; 42.1% of posts were from newspapers, and 57.9% of posts were from broadcast media. The unit of analysis was each individual post, and social media engagement was measured by the total number of interactions.

Dr. Kilgo used a machine learning model as a guide to categorize and code the data, then trained two undergraduate coders to finalize the data. In addition to identifying linguistic and stylistic choices that signaled subjectivity cues and denial discourse, the coders also identified if the post was related to 10 contextual topics (white privilege, white supremacy, blackface, anti-Black racism, anti-immigration racism, antisemitism, foreign countries, historical contexts, racism’s intersections with sexism, and incidents at universities or schools) and 4 actor-oriented topics (Donald Trump’s direct affiliation with racism, other elected political figures, military/police, and celebrities).  

The major findings were:

  • When influential people talk about racism, it gets covered. In nearly half the coverage, racism was mentioned through external attribution—particularly by politicians and celebrities. Trump was central to this discussion, appearing in roughly a quarter of coverage. When coverage of racism included Trump, journalists were more likely to cover it, coverage was more likely to depict racism as debatable, and social media audiences were more likely to interact with it. When Trump or other politicians were involved, coverage was least likely to address racism directly, and several subjective cues were more likely to appear.
  • In 2019, coverage amplified denials of racism more than racism itself. Racism denial was mostly committed by politicians and celebrities attempting image repair by downplaying the immediacy of racism, thereby contributing to perceived debatability. This emphasis on denials might be a result of media norms obligating coverage of “both sides” of controversial events, ultimately legitimizing false equivalencies and narratives.
  • Direct mentions of racism were most likely to appear in historical contexts. Historical discussions of blackface incidents increased the odds that coverage would directly mention racism. This suggests that news coverage on Facebook reinforces the idea that blackface is historically bounded and that racism is primarily a historic, rather than contemporary, phenomenon.
  • Discourse about the structures underlying racism—white privilege and white supremacy—infrequently made headlines. The link between white privilege and racism appeared infrequently in posts, accounting for only 2.5% of mentions, and was much more likely to appear in opinion pieces. Minimal narratives in the media about white supremacy, white privilege, and their connection to racism contribute to the ongoing invisibility of whiteness and its effects on society. 


The Associated Press style guide changes of 2019 did not seem to generate major changes in journalistic practice. This study “suggests that history counts as racism, and sources, especially politicians, get to define (or blur) its meaning.” For news organizations and journalists, this research suggests the need for industry-wide examination and development of standards about reporting on racism and racists. 

To expand the generalizability of this study’s findings, future studies may explore coverage from a broader variety of news organizations. In particular, research on partisan media and news organizations with alternative ideological positions may advance our understanding of how the debatability of racism is furthered along political lines. Further research on social media platforms beyond Facebook would also support a more comprehensive understanding of news audience engagement and news distribution on social media.


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