The Last Word
Participants share feelings, compile lessons
Near the end, the videos had stopped playing and the presentations had ceased. The workshop’s large-group format had given way to breakout sessions. The searching but polite queries had made room for rising candor. And the focus was on the final question: How can we take all this back to our newsrooms?
Hopeful answers to that challenge had floated throughout the three-day workshop, ever since the gatekeepers and honorees were welcomed to a place where the credo was “journalists teaching other journalists” and where the goal was to “invoke the best to inspire the boss.”
Newspaper stories were dissected, broadcast pieces examined. The subjects varied and the medium differed. But the breathtaking range of stories — and the impressive reporting, writing and cultural sensitivity they showcased — all underscored that distinctive coverage of race and ethnicity can be achieved.
There were doubters, at first, especially those fatigued from years of arguing for better coverage, of being the lone voice in their newsroom, of tackling a subject that sparks hostility. One honoree, Michel McQueen of ABC’s “Nightline,” even opened her workshop session by asking: “How many of you secretly dreaded coming to this because you felt it would be a bummer?” She nodded at faces around her. “So that’s my first lesson about covering race. Nobody really wants to talk about it, even when you get paid to talk about it.”
But talk, they did. First in large sessions around a formal table. Then, in smaller groups designed to foster openness and elicit recommendations for action that could be shared with the whole workshop (see below). In a sense, the groups became working models of the “safe place” for discussion that could be created in their own newsrooms.
“We talked a lot about safe places,” said Robert Barnes, metropolitan editor for The Washington Post, of his breakout group and the way people opened up about such prickly issues as white editors feeling they sometimes had been unfairly stereotyped during the workshop. When Barnes later raised that issue before the entire group, William Otwell, news director, WTNH-TV in New Haven, volunteered that he had been reluctant to criticize some statements made by journalists of color because he was afraid of being pegged as a racist. His statement met with sympathy and a sense of regret from one African-American television editor. “I feel impoverished that you didn’t share these feelings,” said Karen DeWitt, a “Nightline” senior producer, “because this is probably the safest environment you are going to get in.”
A safe environment is what the workshop had intended, a place removed from the pressure-cooker atmosphere and glare of the newsroom. But not too far away. And when the workshop was over, it was soon clear that the spirit of “journalists helping journalists” endured.
Workshop participants continued to debate and discuss issues on a computer list-serve. They swapped tip sheets. They exchanged phone calls. And six weeks after they were urged to form partnerships between media, a trio of workshop attendees did just that.
In late July, DeWitt and McQueen aired a “Nightline” report about the strained relationship between longtime residents and immigrants in Palisades Park, N.J. The piece grew out of a series by Elizabeth Llorente, of The (Bergen) Record, who spoke about her work at the workshop and was interviewed on “Nightline.” The collaborative effort, born at the workshop, helped answer that final question–how can we take this back to our newsrooms?
For the workshop, there is a last word. It is hope.
FOR GATEKEEPERS: A TO DO LIST
IN YOUR NEWSROOM
* Create a safe place where staff can talk about race. Consider using an outside facilitator.
* Leave your personal comfort zone and talk more openly about race.
* Challenge your staffs about use of stereotypes.
* Do a content analysis of race and ethnicity coverage.
* Educate your staff with brown bag tutorials, community tours, author series.
* Utilize checklists to encourage use of diverse sources.
* Consider partnerships with other media to increase impact of race stories.
IN YOUR STORIES
* Raise the bar and push for sophisticated storytelling.
* Humanize stories and enrich pieces with myriad voices.
* Avoid focusing only on racial flash points.
* Dare to cover the difficult story even if it takes more effort.
* Whether or not you have a “race beat,” conscientiously cover the issue.
* Paint a truly full picture of a community of color.
* Write with context and historical perspective.
* Have fun doing your job. Use occasional humor.