Spotlights on the Racial Frontier
Alert angles, deep digging make familiar themes fresh
A druggist shoots a robber to death; a university struggles with affirmative action; an urban school strives to raise academic performance. In the realm of race and ethnicity, those are familiar story lines. But each of the tales had an unusual twist when three workshop honorees – one from a newspaper and two from television – presented their distinctive work, underscoring how strong storytelling can illuminate the frontiers of race and culture.
In the dramatic drugstore killing, Angelo Henderson, a Wall Street Journal reporter, turned what had been a brief Detroit crime story into a wrenching, 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative. He relentlessly wove together the life of a young black man who had decided to rob a pharmacy and the life of an older white pharmacist who killed him with a single gunshot.
In the affirmative action story, called “Vice Versa,” producer Alden Bourne of CBS News “60 Minutes,” focused on efforts by Alabama State University to recruit minorities on campus by offering them scholarships and other incentives. Unlike most programs across the country, this effort by a historically black university was aimed at white students.
In the urban education piece, producer Paul Gallagher, also of CBS News “60 Minutes,” zeroed in on the achievements of a public school program started by two young white teachers. Using discipline, long hours and parental involvement, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) raised the test scores of low-income black and Hispanic students in New York and Houston.
Henderson, who had long wondered what it was like to kill someone, took readers down the differing paths that brought two men toward their fatal confrontation – one an armed man intent on grabbing some cash, the other an armed man determined to defend his business and his employees. Henderson faced several challenges. One was to determine if race played an important part in the shooting, which meant he had to spend weeks piecing together the robbery and getting to know the pharmacist and his relationships with his African-American customers. “It was really a robbery story not a race story,” Henderson concluded. “But part of it is if I had done surface reporting, I could easily have painted the picture of the white guy shoots the black robber.”
Another obstacle was getting the traumatized pharmacist to trust him and to share his feelings. More than once, Henderson said, the man worried aloud that he might be painted a racist. Gentle persistence prevailed, Henderson said. Similarly, he worked hard to reconstruct the life of the robber, finally tracking down and interviewing the man’s mother in Chicago, steps that made the man more than another fatality. Ken Wells, Henderson’s editor at The Journal and a gatekeeper at the workshop, said that his reporter’s ability to get people to talk is what enriches his stories. “In the beginning of the process, nobody wants to say a word,” Wells said. “So his mission is to get everybody to talk to you on the record about things that are really hard to talk about.”
Henderson also said his experiences as a black man – where he shops, attends church, watches movies – help him find story angles. He called it his “different lens.” An example was another provocative Henderson piece on how black business people sometimes hire a white “front” person in hope of drawing and holding customers.
Getting people to open up was part of the initial hurdle for Alden Bourne in his story about an affirmative action program for whites at Alabama State University. Officials at the largely black school were reluctant to cooperate because of litigation over their scholarship program, Bourne said, but he managed to get students to discuss the scholarship program and to talk about complaints that whites were coming to the university with lower grades and test scores.
In many ways, this criticism was a mirror image of that voiced by affirmative action foes questioning how nonwhites obtain scholarship assistance at other schools. And that twist, Bourne said, is what made his piece so intriguing. Indeed, whatever the subject of a story, he argued, journalists should strive for “nuanced” reporting that challenges the viewer – “where you get to the end of the piece and you’re not sure if this scholarship program is a good idea or not.”
But some workshop participants raised concerns about the story. One noted the absence of black students in the piece who support the scholarship program. Another questioned the premise of the piece itself, calling the story clever but not particularly “wise.”
Others, such as Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., said the CBS story was laudable because it was different and challenging. “It makes you think a little more and that’s a big part of what we’re up against,” he said. “You can be critical of different aspects of it, but the important thing is that…more people may think a little bit in a different way. It has real appeal.”
Less controversial but no less interesting was the piece by the other “60 Minutes” producer, Paul Gallagher, who examined how the stereotype-defying educational project called KIPP had made breakthroughs in a largely Latino neighborhood in Houston and a largely black and Latino neighborhood in New York’s South Bronx. “What particularly attracted me about this story was that we had two different schools here with two different minority populations,” he said, “and that seemed to suggest that there was some sort of method, some sort of teaching practice or curriculum that was getting these students who come from different backgrounds, with different obstacles and different skills to excel.”
Gallagher added that he was intent on not doing just a story about good intentions in the minority community by the school’s founders (two “Ivy League Jewish guys”). So he looked at how the youngsters respond to the curriculum in a program that is “showing some pretty remarkable signs of success” and has resulted in $3.5 million in scholarship assistance to students.
Asked whether CBS plans to follow up on the KIPP students to see how they fare after leaving the program, Gallagher said he intends to do just that. He wants to determine whether the students who have graduated from the program still succeed once they are on their own and away from the support structure provided by the school.
- Make them care! Race stories should be compelling enough to engage members of any racial group.
- Invest time when reporting in a minority community. Try to see life as members see it. Do what they do. Get inside their heads.
- Look for stories about racial groups that actually surprise those groups as well.
- Good characters are the most important ingredient.
- If you’re white and reporting on race, be sensitive – but beware of overdoing it. Don’t lose your critical eye.
- A good story about race and ethnicity can come from any source, including conservative groups.
- Don’t shy away from a story because it has shades of gray. It might be fascinating.