Telling the Touchy Stories
Interracial love and white flight test journalistic skills
When reporter Gary Pomerantz won approval from his editors for a series on race in Atlanta, he had little use for experts. He was far more interested in “ordinary folk,” spending months interviewing them, listening to their personal stories of black-white relationships that sometimes teetered in a city that prides itself on racial tolerance. And with each interview, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution honoree drew closer to his goal. “I made certain that each person involved clearly understood what my series was about–stories from the heart,” Pomerantz told workshop participants. “I told them I wouldn’t be done with the interviews until I reached their heart, and I told them I would know it when I got there.”
To look at social segregation, Pomerantz accompanied a black caterer on the party circuit. To experience the tension over affirmative action, he reported on the breakup of an historic, cross-race business partnership. To glimpse the next generation’s view of race, he got close to an integrated football team.
When it came time to explore the taboo on inter-racial dating and sex, he told the story of a 7-year-old biracial girl named Lauren and her family. The tale centered on the brief romance between a black college student and a white waitress–and the daughter it produced, a girl who brought two grandmothers together, even as her parents remained apart. Pomerantz, who has since left the newspaper to teach at Emory University, used the story of Lauren’s embrace by the disparate sides of a broken family to highlight the humanity in a complex racial relationship.
“Too often in the media when we come to race, we are listening for the gunshots and looking for the smoke and fire,” he said, “and I think one area we might look is where things do work well.” For readers, the series proved enormously popular and Lauren’s story generated traffic at the newspaper’s Website second only to the story about the death of Princess Diana. “My E-mail melted,” Pomerantz said.
For many, the popularity of a series about race is surprising. But anchor Tom Brokaw, a fellow workshop honoree, had a similar reaction to his NBC special on the racial phenomenon called “white flight.” He turned the spotlight on the middle class Chicago suburb of Matteson, which outwardly seemed a wholesome slice of Americana–except that white families were fleeing because they had concluded that they simply could not live with even middle class African-American home-buyers.
They justified their move with complaints that property values were plunging, the quality of schools was dropping and crime was on the upswing –all because of a black influx. None of that was true, Brokaw found, but he also discovered that the facts meant little to the departing homeowners, which only made a good story more powerful. During one scene, Brokaw talks to a white woman whose family left Matteson after blacks began moving in. Back at the local shopping center, she watches as African-Americans walk nearby and says that she does not feel safe any more.
Brokaw asks whether she has ever had a problem in the shopping center or whether she knows anyone who has. When she says no, he asks if she would be surprised to learn that records show crime has not changed significantly. Nor have real estate prices declined. Nor have schools deteriorated. But her uneasiness persists as she looks at the mostly black shoppers around her. “No,” she answers. “It’s just what I see when I come here.”
Brokaw was unsettled by the response but he told the gathered gatekeepers that it was not unusual given the sometimes mixed messages that people get from the media. “What I found was that so many of the responses came from stereotypes that had been built up, in large part, by us,” he said. “We are as responsible for those stereotypes and the mischaracterizations that exist in places like Matteson as any of the people who were there espousing them at the time, and we have to be conscious of that.”
For Michael Adams, an African-American editor at the Baltimore Sun, the NBC piece reflected “a classic example of white privilege. You have people who because they are white feel threatened by the presence of blacks. Why? There’s no special reason except it symbolizes to them an erosion of their status in society.”
Adams also raised the question of what role class plays in racial stories and said that it is an often overlooked factor. “It seems that we talk about race a lot but nobody talks about class,” he said. Brokaw and Pomerantz agreed that class was an important issue, but Pomerantz said it tended to be “a subset of race.” He noted that Atlanta is famed for its large, prosperous black middle class, yet blacks and whites seldom live in the same neighborhood. “It’s race that is keeping them apart,” he said.
For Brokaw, the enduring challenge in stories about race is that few people want to discuss it openly. Thus he approached white homeowners in Matteson with patience and a non-threatening style, and at moments was able to elicit brutal candor. That low-key expository manner, he said, is missing sometimes among journalists.
“Even in the newsroom when the issue of race is introduced, everything is electrified,” Brokaw said. “It’s very hard to find that kind of common dialogue in which people will talk about it honestly. You have to kind of pull it out. Everybody has to work hard at finding that common ground.”
Pomerantz agreed with the importance of taking a risk in discussing a touchy subject and with the need to listen to others. Sometimes, he said, it is best for a reporter to just be “the hat rack in the corner.” He also called on the gatekeepers to show more courage in tackling tough stories on race. “Too often because of this lack of guts at the top when it comes to the coverage of race, we’re wanting to write to a safe and comfortable center,” he said.
Pomerantz, who is white, believes that a good reporter of one race can probe deeply into another race. But in reporting and writing such stories, he said, there is a need to tap into newsroom colleagues from other races and ethnicity for cultural understanding. He noted that he worked closed with a black editor on his series who was a “probing, perceptive journalist” and steady source of insight. He also suggested that reporters steep themselves in the history of the person or community they are writing about, and that they use the human prism and the personal story to tell the often searing racial truth. Too often, he said, race is covered from “the cloud level” when the better stories are at “the atmospheric level.”
As if to underscore that passion and emotion, Karen DeWitt, senior editor at ABC’s “Nightline” and a veteran black journalist, acknowledged that she found the day’s discussion both pleasing and “extraordinarily frustrating. I’ve been in journalism for 30 years, and I hear the same stereotypes and we talk about the same problems.” Tearful and distraught, she said: “I have good white friends. I probably live in much more integrated relationships than most people in this country and I am saddened by this country. I’m horrified by this country.” She left the room, to be comforted by others.
Later she rejoined the discussion, and ultimately had praise for the workshop. Yet the episode was both disquieting and cathartic. At the time, Pomerantz said it reinforced what he has learned from his years working on stories about race and what drew everyone to the weekend workshop. “We’ve just seen a very painful example of what this is about,” he said. “This is why we are here. This subject is that deep, and it’s that important.”
* Avoid race experts except as a background tool. “Sociological blather” repels your audience.
* Use non-threatening interview style to induce candid replies.
* Make certain subjects understand your purpose. Say: “I want this story to come from the heart.”
* Convey your story, not through a racial prism, but an emotional one.
* Use trusted people of different races as a sounding board.
* Immerse yourself in the history of a person or community. Be part historian.
* Allow your racial assumptions to be challenged as you go.