Marks of Excellence
Newsday dives into diversity, CBS goes to Jasper
At Newsday, strong coverage of race and ethnicity is linked to long-term survival. Thus, the paper tracks rapidly shifting demography in once white Long Island suburbs, builds a diverse newsroom (22 percent minority) and explores the interplay of race in everything from health care to high school sports. Meanwhile, at CBS News, coverage of racial issues is tied to a tradition of sturdy storytelling in news broadcasts and programs like “60 Minutes.” With those strengths in mind, each organization was cited for general excellence at the workshop’s opening night dinner hosted by the Freedom Forum’s New York Center.
Representing Newsday was Charlotte Hall, the managing editor and a force behind the paper’s Focus 2020, a program named for the year when 40 percent of Long Island’s population will be Hispanic, black or Asian. Representing CBS were Andrew Heyward, news division president, and Dan Rather, who had anchored a special edition of “CBS Evening News” from Jasper, Texas, the day John William King was sentenced to die in the dragging death of James Byrd, a black man.
Hall talked about her core challenge – building a new generation of readers as Newsday’s market becomes multicultural. Saying that Newsday was still “a work in progress,” Hall urged newsroom leaders to get on top of demographic change, rethink beat structures, hold every manager accountable for coverage that reflects audience diversity and invest resources in “enterprising and unflinching” stories about racial and ethnic issues. She pointed to an honored Newsday series, “The Health Divide,” which invoked human stories and “tough statistical analysis” to expose racial disparity in medical treatment. At the same time, she said, remember simple steps – such as snowfall photos that also depict children of color at play. “The tone of a paper,” she said, “is set by the visuals.”
Exemplary work by CBS took several forms over the weekend but the Jasper story was the dinner’s focal point. The coverage was notable for its length (more than half the news broadcast) and its scope. In-depth Jasper segments were augmented by other reports on race in America, such as the Amadou Diallo shooting, and by Rather’s closing reminder about how each citizen can affect race relations by “what we say, what we do, what we teach.” Thus, a breaking story provided a broader view of race in national life.
Moving the broadcast to Texas was expensive, Rather said, and the content was a ratings gamble. “But it was the right thing to do,” he said, noting that CBS had been a leader in civil rights reporting and that people “know that race matters.” Heyward added that while race is often under-covered, the Jasper murder was “so horrifying even to a jaded public” that it gave CBS a chance to focus attention on the subject.
Nonetheless, several workshop participants were critical that journalists of color were not more involved in the broadcast, arguing that their perspectives might have enriched the report. Although the executive producer was Hispanic, Rather conceded that “perhaps we missed an opportunity.” Yet both he and Heyward cautioned against tying assignments too closely to a journalist’s race. A lively dialogue did not resolve the question but minds were stirred – and as the workshop unfolded, the issue resurfaced.