Where Race is a Competitive Story
Deep Digging, Candid Plunging in Multicultural Bay Area
In San Francisco where hearts are left and people seemingly depart and arrive like the tide, the city’s changing demographics and shifting racial mix have not only transformed neighborhoods and remade this famous port but also sharply changed how the local media cover it.
Today, San Francisco’s population looks like this: 39 percent are of European descent; 34 percent Asian and Pacific Islanders, 16 percent Latino and 11 percent African-American. Those numbers are a far cry from half a century ago when Italians frequented bocce courts in North Beach, only to be replaced today by Chinese families shopping at neighborhood markets.
For two media outlets–the San Francisco Examiner and KRON-TV—that transition has not been ignored in their news pages and television screens. In fact, race has become a competitive story in this city as the media strive to cover new neighborhoods and attract fresh readers and viewers.
For the Examiner, the revamped coverage led to a yearlong series about the dramatic changes in San Francisco, which includes the emergence of a blossoming Asian population. In its honored series, dubbed “The New City,” the paper told readers that San Francisco had become “a place that is older, less monochromatic and increasingly divided into haves and have-nots. A place that is losing its working-class roots. A place where the economy is booming and ‘growth’ is no longer a dirty word.”
For Sharon Rosenhause, the Examiner’s managing editor/news, the series that ran in 1998 opened a new vista. “You learn, after you get into it, that a project like The New City isn’t a story for a calendar year, but for the rest of your life,” she told workshop participants.
The newspaper had already been writing about changing schools, neighborhood issues involving immigrants and changing voter patterns, but honoree Annie Nakao, the Examiner’s race and ethnicity reporter who worked on The New City project, said the series refined that coverage. “Using ‘New City’ as a construct,” she said, “we were able to capture all those changes in a powerful way.”
At KRON-TV, tackling race and ethnicity in the changing Bay Area meant examining a touchy subject with depth, sensitivity and an uncommon commitment in air time. Producer Craig Franklin, an honoree, said some colleagues warned him about a race project, saying: “It’s a no-win subject. The audience doesn’t really want to hear about it. It will anger viewers. It can make the station and anyone involved look bad, and there is just no way to get it right. Do something else.”
Instead, Franklin and his team pressed ahead with a multi-part series they hoped would engage viewers on a constructive and personal level. They provided information that people can use to better understand the race issue. At the same time, they avoided preaching, finger-pointing, sensationalism and “unnecessary conflict.” They also looked for “models” of successful race relations.
Entitled, “About Race,” the project kicked off sweeps week with a 13-minute piece on the genetics of race and how people view each other differently through the prism of skin color. Despite its length and subject matter, the stories won public and critical acclaim. The series matched the sweeps week ratings of the previous year, and won a brace of journalistic prizes including a Peabody Award. Meanwhile, the initial five-part series evolved into another dozen stories throughout the year. An example shown at the workshop was “The Rape of Nanking,” a poignant piece about how, decades later, the wartime Japanese atrocity could still be cited by families unwilling to accept a romantic relationship between a Chinese-American woman and a-Japanese American man.
But before embarking on “About Race,” Franklin, who is white, had to examine his feelings about race. He also had to repair his rocky relationship with Karyn Holmes, a black film editor, with whom he would work closely on the project. Holmes had clashed with Franklin on a previous project about old-time Negro League players. At the lowest point, Holmes called Franklin a racist-—which so strained their relationship that they avoided each other. But when unexpectedly paired together on the “About Race” project, they realized they needed to talk frankly about their soured relationship.
Out of their conversations, emerged reconciliation. Holmes told the workshop: “We decided that…no matter what came out of this project that we were going to be honest and we were going to be respectful, and that was enough for me.”
Their experience struck a workshop theme: Excellent stories on race and ethnicity require a higher level of discourse among journalists of varying color and backgrounds –- and this means finding a “safe space” to talk. Franklin said that blacks usually seemed more experienced and willing to talk about race than whites, but both groups were needed in a dialogue and the most important element was “trust in each other.”
At the Examiner, its New City project also began with some thoughtful planning and decision-making about how to expand existing coverage of racial and ethnic communities. In that regard, Rosenhause stressed the value of race/ethnicity beats. Although some workshop attendees disagreed, she argued that, without such a commitment, coverage could languish.
The first New City piece appeared on April 26, 1998 and ran 175 inches plus first-person sidebars, graphics and photos. Over the year, 19 main stories and many sidebars followed on subjects ranging from housing projects where immigrants lived to the story on how a non-English speaking, Chinese-American coped with a jury summons.
In illuminating the city’s changing demographics, honoree Annie Nakao interviewed the man who founded the Italian American Social Club and who showed her the record he kept of every family that has lived on his block since 1945. Where he once wrote names like Poletti and Ciucci and Quinlan, he now recorded names like Wong and Ng and Luis.
At the Examiner, the realization that immigration and demographic forces were transforming their communities–and potential audiences–compelled editors to educate not only their readers but also their own employees. More than 100 staffers were shown the changing neighborhoods as they toured the city in vans and ate at unfamiliar restaurants.
Nakao, who is Japanese-American, also tapped people in her newsroom to help her understand and write about another culture. When she wrote a series called “Making the Grade,” examining academic underachievement of middle class African-American youths, Nakao supplemented her reporting with hours of conversation with black editors and reporters. She would never have attempted the series without her “peers of color in the newsroom,” she said. “They were my sounding boards from the inception of the story….They were instrumental in inspiring me to pursue the story.” In July, Nakao’s series won a first place among newspapers in the contest held by the National Association of Black Journalists.
* Be aware of your city’s diversity.
* Explore your own prejudices.
* Give reporters time to do stories.
* Create a truly diverse newsroom.
* Develop an ear for charged language and images.
* Resist simplistic framing of stories.
* Don’t be defensive about race, be honest.