whose voice matters?

proportions white authors and reviewers

From report by By Steve Rendall and Zachary Tomanelli at  Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting :

FAIR’s study examined every episode of After Words from March 2008 to January 2010, and the reviews of politically themed books in the New York Times Book Review from January 2009 to February 2010. In total, the study counted 100 episodes of After Words and 100 reviews in the Times. In each case, the author(s) and reviewer/interviewer were classified by ethnicity and gender. (Because some books had co-authors and some reviews encompassed multiple books, there were 120 authors of 111 books in the Times reviews studied.)

They find a strong White male bias overall. The strongest finding is that 95% of the US book authors  were non-Latino Whites and 96% of the US reviewers were non-Latino Whites (compared to 65% of the US population). There was a slant for non-US authors, too:  “Of the 12 non-U.S. authors in the Times (10 percent of the total), 10 were white British, one was Israeli and one—Tariq Ali—was Pakistani-British.”  Women were also barely represented: 13% of book authors and 12% of reviewers. Only two women of color made the pages of the NYTBR, both as authors; zero women of color were reviewers. After Words was also slanted, but much less so. Of the handful of non-White people in the NYTBR, the large majority were writing on “ethnic” topics.

In an interview about this study on NPR , Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review through 2006 (and so not necessarily responsible for these numbers) seems to gabble around the issue, as far as I can tell, suggesting that the numbers are shocking but can’t possibly be due to any kind of pro-White bias at the NYT. First he says: “But that’s always the aim is to find the most interesting books. They get, what, 50,000 books a year. They go through them. They are always conscious of the fact they were newspapers, so they respond to what seems politically important, what seems to be of interest to their readers. And that’s how those choices are made. They’re never made are we representing, you know, (unintelligible).”  And then, when pressed, seems to blame the major publishing houses for not publishing books by people of color. “Well, I think that, again, you have to go a little bit deeper. Publishing has become is going through a real crisis now. The most obvious thing is that the so-called midlist book, the book that isn’t going to be a bestseller, isn’t being published to the degree that it was, say, in the 1960s, where there was a conscious effort to represent diverse views, races and so forth.I think it reflects what’s being published. Does the book review – I don’t know what’s being published by smaller presses that might be publishing Latino writers, for example, African-American writers. But the major houses are simply doing less diverse books in every respect because they are aiming for the bestseller list.” When pressed about the lack of reviewers of color, he talks about the women on staff.

Edit: I couldn’t help it, I do this too much with crime and imprisonment data, so I calculated estimated disparity ratios from the given data. Relative to population, Whites  are about 9 times more likely to appear in the NYTBR as authors of “politically themed books” than non-Whites. Among Whites, relative to population men are 6 times more likely to appear as authors than women. Among non-Whites, men are 2 times more likely to appear than women.  Among men, the White/minority disparity is 11, among women the White/minority disparity is 4.  For reviewers in the NYTBR, the White/minority disparity is 13. Among Whites, the gender disparity for reviewers is 6, among men the White/minority disparity for reviewers is 11. The disparity ratio calculations for minority women reviewers are undefined, i.e. infinite, due to a zero divide.

Thanks to White Readers Meet Black Authors for the tip.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. It isn't hard to figure out my real name if you want to, but I keep it out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either!), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with.

7 thoughts on “whose voice matters?”

  1. While these numbers obviously don’t look good, and justify further investigation, I would like to see some “objective criteria” by which “review worthiness” might be judged. Then we could see whether the criteria were being applied similarly for books/reviewers of different ethnicities.


  2. MB: If I may draw the analogy to other kinds of disparities work, I’d ignore the “objective criteria” issue which in my opinion is a red herring. Instead, I’d assert that there is obviously a problem, because everybody’s opinions ought to matter in discussions of politics, and White dominance in the coverage of political themes is inherently problematic, no matter why it arises. So you want to know how the problem happens, not whether you can explain it away. The only methodological concern I’d have is the definition of “politically themed.” Assuming the definition of “political” is stable and reasonable, then you want to know what the universe is of such books published (among all publishers) and what the mix of authors looks like in that universe. Then you could study the mix of books published and the NYTBR selection processes from among those books. Lehmann-Haupt’s gabble actually offers two testable empirical hypotheses: (1) books by people of color are more likely to be published by the smaller houses, particularly those controlled by people of color, and (2) there were more books published and reviewed by people of color in the past, when there was more concern about diversity and less of a financial pinch on publishers. Notice that L-H implies that books by people of color only got published by the major [i.e. White] houses when “there was a conscious effort” — note the absence of any named actor here — to promote diversity. His very words imply that Whites control the system and the question is what their interests are, but he can’t even say that directly.


  3. Sorry for the slow reply. I absolutely agree with this:

    I’d assert that there is obviously a problem, because everybody’s opinions ought to matter in discussions of politics, and White dominance in the coverage of political themes is inherently problematic, no matter why it arises. So you want to know how the problem happens, not whether you can explain it away.

    I was just saying that we could gain a much better understanding how the problem happens if we simultaneously look at a broad range of factors which lead to publication, prominence, and reviewing. This sort of analysis will help us decide how best to approach the problem, and may or may not affect whether we find NYTBR editors morally culpable for these disparities. Do we disagree?


  4. MB: In principle we agree, but the phrase “morally culpable” to me signals what I consider to be the wrong way to think about the problem. What you are saying isn’t quite the same as what I criticized in an old post
    but I think it runs the risk of going in that direction.

    For the NYTBR, you don’t have to be peer reviewed in a blinded review process to get in the NYTBR, rather editors decide which books are “interesting” enough to get reviewed. A lot of the reviews actually end up being negative — saying the book is badly written, ill-argued, under-researched, etc. Publication is patently about an editor’s decision about what is “important” or “interesting.” If you think about it, these are by their nature inherently subjective criteria — important for whom? interesting to whom? Nobody has ever argued that only the best books get into the NYTBR — well-researched scholarly books almost never make it.

    If someone really wants to do a sociology project on this, they could treat it as a selection bias problem and bring in the literature on what gets in the news; this literature includes observations of how decisions are actually made in newsrooms.

    Or one could recognize that it is a chicken and egg problem: do White men dominate in the NYTBR because it is a high-impact publication? or is being reviewed in the NYTBR a high-impact event because it is a publication that is dominated by White men?


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