February 26, 2016

What will you follow Sunday night during the Academy Awards? Who’s wearing what? Who takes home those heavy-looking golden statues?

How about who didn’t bother to show up because of the ceremony’s ongoing diversity problem? The overwhelming whiteness of Oscar nominees isn’t new, but #OscarSoWhite has captured the rising backlash against it this year.

So how’s it being covered?

“The L.A. Times has made coverage of the #OscarSoWhite issue a major priority this year,” said John Corrigan, assistant managing editor for arts and entertainment at the Los Angeles Times, in an email. “It has informed every aspect of our awards season coverage, online and in print, where we’ve had a dozen stories on A-1 addressing the issue.”

Today, the Times published an update of its 2012 report that showed the academy was largely male and White. It shows that little has changed. The Academy’s diversity issues have also been a major thread in Oscars stories from The New York Times.

“#OscarSoWhite has been the dominant narrative of Oscars coverage this year and can’t really be separated out,” said Stephanie Goodman, The New York Times’ film editor.

The New York Times’ Melena Ryzik wrote a piece published Wednesday about what it’s like to work in Hollywood if you’re not a straight White guy. Ryzik started that piece before the Oscar nominations came out, but the resurgence of #OscarSoWhite tapped into a similar question raised by her article: Whether there’s a larger problem in the entertainment industry.

I spoke via email with Corrigan, Goodman, Dodai Stewart, Fusion’s director of culture coverage, and Nekesa Moody, the Associated Press’ global entertainment and lifestyles editor.

I asked them each a few questions about how they’re covering the story, what role the media should play in covering the issue and what (if any) issues have gotten this much attention in the runup to Oscar night. Answers have been edited for length.

How are you covering both the Oscars and #OscarSoWhite this year?

Moody: The lack of diversity among the nominees has been a huge part of our coverage. Even before the nominations were announced, one of our film writers, Jake Coyle, highlighted that this would be an issue given the attention surrounding the likely nominees. We’ve delved into the many layers of this issue, and the diversity issue is a key topic we will continue to explore even after the Oscars are over. The #OscarSoWhite has overshadowed much of the regular storylines, but we still have races to ponder and other interesting stories, so we have made sure we’ve kept up with that and written interesting pieces spotlighting those unique stories as well.

Stewart: Right after the nominations were announced, in January, we noted how much more diverse TV is and lamented the dearth of female directors recognized. (And, for what it’s worth, we had similar complaints last year.) In addition, more recently, we have looked at some historical moments: six White actors who won Oscars for playing people of color; the jokes Chris Rock made about race and the Oscars when he hosted the first time around, in 2005. We’ll be watching the Oscars on Sunday night, but Fusion is also airing the All Def Awards — so we’ll be writing about both. We’re really looking forward to seeing how Chris Rock addresses the lack of diversity this year. In 2005 he was making jokes about race — and four Black actors were nominated!

Goodman: Cara Buckley, the Carpetbagger columnist, has woven that theme through seemingly unrelated topics like a column on suggestions for improving the telecast. Even fashion coverage has been affected by it. The Oscars coverage is also a team effort, involving reporters in LA like Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply, who cover the film industry and the Academy more broadly, and Mekado Murphy, Rachel Lee Harris and others doing deep dives on the craft of filmmaking.

* * *

What should the media’s role be in covering the industry and this issue?

Stewart: There’s so much hype in the media about the Academy Awards — the stars gathering, the dresses, the diamonds, the idea of celebrating the “best” of the best. But entertainment is for everyone, not just rich White men. The well-made, well-told stories on big screens should be from all different kinds of people, all over this planet — those who have a burning desire to tell stories. But the system has major issues. Last year, seven out of eight Best Picture nominees were about a White man’s struggle. THAT is news. A headline that needs to sit alongside any about what the actresses are wearing. Women win Oscars for playing wives, while men win for playing criminals. THAT is news. Way back in 2010, Vanity Fair’s “Young Hollywood” issue featured only White women; if the “new generation” they were suggesting we all pay attention to is all White, is it any wonder, years later, there are no women of color nominated in the acting categories? The starlets and filmmakers get profiled; press attention leads to bigger and better projects being greenlighted, which means more money and more “prestigious” films, and that leads to awards. The cycle feeds on itself, and the media has been a part of it, for decades.

Corrigan: This is a place for accountability journalism. The entertainment industry is our hometown industry, and we take very seriously our obligation to be a watchdog and to bring strong original reporting to a major social and business issue such as this.

* * *

Social and political issues often intersect with the Oscars, right? Have other issues risen to this level of attention?

Goodman: They do often intersect with the Oscars. Think of:

  • #AskHerMore last year, where Amy Poehler and others campaigned to make sure the media treats female celebrities with the same level of respect that male celebrities get.
  • The raging debate over “American Sniper,” where the film seemed to serve as a litmus test on where people thought the country was headed.
  • The heated controversy surrounding Woody Allen after Dylan Farrow’s open letter, a controversy that dogged “Blue Jasmine” all during awards season.

What seems to set #OscarSoWhite apart from these more recent issues is that this is really about fomenting change in the industry directly affected by the Academy Awards. While it remains to be seen whether the steps the academy is taking will make a difference, it seems as if the renewed attention to the issue is at least creating awareness in Hollywood that the consumers they covet care about the issue. Not to mention the potential Oscar-night viewers.

Moody: In the past, we’ve explored the issue of women’s lack of progress, whether it was the pay gap or the lack of nominations for acclaimed women’s directors. It was a huge issue when Barbra Streisand wasn’t nominated for best director for “Prince of Tides,” and when Kathryn Bigelow won for “The Hurt Locker.” When “Milk” was in the Oscar race, it was during a time when there were serious battles going on about gay marriage. And the race discussion is not new: Who can forget Eddie Murphy taking the Oscars to task in the 1988? Or Marlon Brando rejecting his Oscar and sending Sacheen Littlefeather up to refuse it? The Oscars tend to be political. Some years, it’s more overt than others.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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