Taking Special Projects to the Peak
Talent, rigorous reporting always make the difference
They were powerful, painstaking journalistic packages. In the State of Washington, where a crucial decision loomed, The Seattle Times mobilized to explain, dispassionately and factually, a controversial ballot measure to roll back affirmative action in state schools and other public agencies. In South Carolina, where newly-arrived Latinos have reshaped a state largely untouched by immigration, reporter Patrick Butler of The (Columbia) State traced the roots of Mexican newcomers to their impoverished hometowns thousands of miles away and described how they had transported their dreams and culture. And at ABC’s “Nightline,” where the longtime series, “America in Black and White,” was born, correspondent Michel McQueen gave viewers not only the first network-level portrayal of racial profiling but also candidly explored “colorism”–the tendency of many whites as well as blacks to equate lighter skin with desirability and intelligence.
The three workshop honorees were cited for special projects that not only advanced the coverage of race and ethnicity but also shared some common traits: rigorous reporting, insight and depth, reliance on facts and exquisite story-telling.
At The Seattle Times, the coverage of Initiative 200 began with a corporate culture that for years had promoted diverse voices in the newsroom and encouraged openness about race, said Carole Carmichael, assistant managing editor for features, who represented the paper. The culture included frequent staff discussions and reliance on a “diversity checklist” that, among other things, encouraged reporters to use varied sources and asked everyone to combat stereotypes in stories.
With that backdrop, the newspaper began its coverage of Initiative 200, the 1998 ballot measure that sought to effectively ban affirmative action for minorities and women in state and local public employment, public education, state colleges admission and public contracting. (The measure ultimately passed.)
Carmichael said the Times wanted to assess the initiative by using a “brainstorming” team of reporters and editors to look “hard and fast at the facts. We wanted the facts to lead us through that story.” To anchor coverage, the paper began with a series based on an exhaustive computerized study of employment patterns under affirmative action and then looked closely at public contracting and higher education. The paper also published an array of features, editorials, columns and letters to the editor.
There also were some unusual twists to deal with. When the newspaper’s publisher, an ardent supporter of hiring and training programs for minority journalists, decided to place paid advertisements opposing the Initiative 200, the paper’s commitment to fair coverage was under extra scrutiny. Thus, Carmichael said, The Times treated the campaign ads like any other, subjecting them to stories about their truthfulness and accuracy.
Later, when it turned out that two reporters were officers in minority journalist organizations debating whether to hold a joint national convention in Seattle if Initiative 200 passed, the journalists’ roles were reviewed to guard against clouded credibility. The paper determined that a conflict of interest did not exist.
Summing up the efforts of The Times, Carmichael emphasized its “very collaborative environment.” Week in and week out, she said, “we teach one another and we mentor another.”
For Pat Butler of The State, collaboration on his series “Migrant No More” was on a much smaller scale. At the 122,000-circulation daily, he was joined by only an editor and a photographer. But the finished product was no less extraordinary.
In reporting the influx of Latino immigrants into his state, Butler depicted a town that had changed virtually overnight by the arrival of Mexican workers brought in to work at meat and poultry plants. He told the story of black and white South Carolinians, perplexed and sometimes hostile toward their new neighbors. He also immersed himself in the workplaces and homes of the newcomers before journeying back to their hometowns to show what they had left behind.
“Through this narrative and through these photos, we wanted to really get at the emotion,” he said. “We wanted people to feel what these people were going through and why they were coming here.”
To accomplish this, Butler, who is white and speaks Spanish, used intermediaries (he called them “tour guides”) to help him navigate through the immigrant community. He had to overcome the newcomers’ distrust of a white outsider while at the same time keeping his professional distance. As an example, Butler described how he took a Latino immigrant to an employment agency and watched as the man was confronted by a clerk who could only speak English. The clerk then handed the Latino worker a thick list of list of jobs that he could not read.
“The temptation was for me to go down the list and point out jobs that he might be able to apply for,” Butler said, “but if I had done that how could I possibly write about the frustration of this man going into an unemployment office where no one can help him where he is desperate to find a job and feed a family?”
His choice drew criticism from some workshop participants who argued that he should have helped and then reported that fact in his story. But Butler maintained that doing so would have altered the piece. Others agreed. The workshop debate exemplified what McQueen said should occur in newsrooms–a vigorous discussion and willingness to use the newsroom as a laboratory to hash out differing views and perceptions. If an issue raises “the temperature” in the newsroom, she said, it is probably a good story, adding: “I think that we have sublimated a lot of the racial conflict in our newsroom and pretended it wasn’t there.”
In reporting on skin-color prejudices, McQueen, who is African American, showed her session with college students who had taken part in a test and were asked to view photographs of people of varying hues. Among the photographs were two versions of the same African-American woman, one with light skin and the other with darker skin. Asked their impressions, the students responded with startling conclusions.
One white female student said the woman with the darker skin looked “more slutty” than the same woman with lighter skin. A white male student suggested that the darker woman seemed overweight and probably had emotional problems although the same woman with lighter skin was considered to have none of those attributes.
McQueen noted that black students had similarly adverse reactions. “The problem is that color caste hierarchy is a social issue,” she said. “It is not a black issue. It is a race issue.”
To tell her “driving while black” story, McQueen focused on complaints that the Maryland state police used racial profiling to make traffic stops and search cars for possible drug smuggling. She blended research data with the first-hand accounts of people, including the story of an elderly black couple who sat on the side of the road for more than three hours as troopers went through their belongings in a futile search for drugs.
Before doing the story, McQueen found her own newsroom divided on the scope of racial profiling. As a consequence, she insisted that a skeptical white producer accompany her on interviews. She wanted to assure balance. As she explained to the workshop:
“The white producer didn’t want to go. He said, ‘I don’t want to be the white guy.’ I said, ‘Well, I need you to be the white guy.’ I said, ‘If I can be black for you, you can be white for me.'”
* Really know a community. Don’t rely on first impressions.
* Use someone trusted by the community as a guide.
* Make sure subjects understand the media ground rules.
* Be honest with people. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
* Avoid getting too close to your sources.
* Use neutral, precise language.
* Involve photographers and designers early in the project