Across Frontiers of Race and Culture

Intrepid journalists find fresh, fascinating stories

Elizabeth Llorente, The (Bergen) Record

Elizabeth Llorente,
The (Bergen) Record

For Jonathan Kaufman, reporting and writing about race requires finding a compelling way to tell a story that readers may be tired of hearing. For Elizabeth Llorente, it means embracing the subject with sensitivity but not timidity. For Karen Saunders, it involves exploring the commonplace and using “lifestyle” stories to explain one culture to another.

For all three journalists–workshop honorees whose works venture across the frontier of race and culture–their shared goal is to raise the bar of what constitutes good coverage of race and ethnicity. In elevating their stories, the trio refuses to settle for superficial pieces on racial conflict or resort to the predictable piece about racial communities. Instead, they plumb further, ask more questions and invest more time to tell a fuller, fairer story.

“I think that readers don’t like being lectured to,” said Kaufman, a Wall Street Journal reporter. “In some ways, readers have a much more sophisticated understanding of race and of diversity than we give them credit for.” A white journalist, who has long written about the black community, Kaufman’s two stories featured in the workshop reflected his powerful narrative style and his determination to “show rather than tell.”

In one piece, he told of two African-American brothers whose successful business careers have been marked by both sibling rivalry and diverging views on issues such as affirmative action, thus shaping a story about both family and race.

He also told the simple but dramatic story of how the high incarceration rate of young black men affects a community through the eyes of a black, Baltimore sixth-grader and the four-square block incarceration complex that had become part of her everyday existence. The piece showed how an outsider could take readers through unfamiliar terrain with insight and sensitivity.

In his story about Sabrina Branch’s world, Kaufman led with a description of the 10-year-old “rambling through her neighborhood” and pointing out a modern brick building, one encircled by barbed wire and housing her Uncle Tony. It was the state prison. “She cranes her neck and points across the street to a soot-gray building dotted with Gothic turrets: the city jail,” Kaufman wrote. “‘That’s where my dad lived.'”

As a reporter, Kaufman knew he had a strong subject “But the real challenge,” he told the workshop, “was to find a way to tell the story that was going to be compelling.” The answer was the prism of childhood.

In contrast, Llorente, a reporter for The (Bergen) Record, discussed a series of stories cited as an exemplary explanation of the tensions in a northern New Jersey community where the largely white, working-class residents have been shaken by nonwhite newcomers.

The residents of Palisades Park were frightened and resentful of the growing number of Guatemalan day laborers crowding their street corners each day, hoping contractors would pick them up for work. They also were suspicious of newly arrived Koreans who were buying businesses and homes in the downtown area, even though the Koreans were reviving the local economy.

But as tensions rose between the immigrants and the longtime residents, Llorente wanted to delve deeper into both immigrant communities and to examine the reasons for their chilly reception and their attempts to fit into their new town. No easy task.

A Cuban American, Llorente found that her ability to speak Spanish was tempered by the fact that the Guatemalan day laborers spoke a Mayan dialect and saw her as a “city slicker” lacking their own rural background. Still, she visited their English classes and stood with them on corners as they sought work. Meanwhile, in the Korean community, she found people reluctant to talk to a reporter and interested only in shuttling her to official spokespersons until she, too, began showing up in their workplaces, homes and picnics.

While juggling her normal workload as a beat reporter, Llorente spent months in both immigrant communities and also spent time with white residents, overcoming their skepticism about her motives in reporting the inter-ethnic relationships.

In the end, her series provided insight into the two immigrant communities and prompted white Palisades Parks residents to acknowledge that the pieces made them more fully understand their new neighbors. All this was achieved without downplaying the friction between old and new–a conflict that Llorente had no intention of glossing over despite concerns in the town and in her own newsroom.

“We cannot go out there and do courageous reporting and shrink and try to hide what we’ve found because we’re afraid that people will not like the reflection in the mirror we are holding up to them,” she said.

For Saunders, a producer at ABC News “20/20,” her compelling stories on race had little to do with an individual person or community and were more like windows into a culture rather than mirrors. Indeed, her subject matter, at first glance, seemed commonplace. Yet her reports proved to be particularly revealing and layered in complexity.

Her piece, “Beautiful Bodies,” examined how differently black women and white women view themselves and their bodies. An African- American woman herself, Saunders revealed that while mainstream

America tends to view a virtually sleek, shapeless body as the ideal feminine figure, most black women–and many black men–do not consider thinness attractive and appear more at ease with larger, more shapely bodies.

At the same time, Saunders showed that while black women may be more comfortable with their bodies, they often obsess over their hair. In “Natural Beauty,” she explained that attitude, describing facts–unknown to many whites–about the often laborious, expensive process of caring for natural African-American hair. Moreover, some black women, she reported, encounter job discrimination and other painful biases because their preferred hairstyles, often chosen to simplify their lives, are labeled “extreme.”

Her stories provoked a strong response from both black and white viewers. “The reaction most surprising to me was from whites who had no idea that a black woman went to such an extreme [to deal with her hair],” Saunders said. Responding to questions, she said the reaction had encouraged 20/20 to do other racial lifestyle stories.

The work is still a challenge. “Reports delving into issues involving ethnicity are never simple story lines,“ she said. “There are always layers of complicated issues resting beneath the surface.” But it was clear in discussions among workshop participants that what is common knowledge in one culture is almost considered a “racial secret” in another and can be both a source of fascination and understanding.

The pursuit of such stories–and other coverage involving race and ethnicity–may be considered a risk by some newsroom editors and managers, yet that approach is wrongheaded, said Arlene Morgan, an assistant managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer who moderated the session. In lauding the work of the three journalists, Morgan urged gatekeepers to stop talking about good journalism as risky.

Kaufman acknowledged that race often induces inhibiting “fear in the newsroom.” The challenge, he said, is to “create a climate” where candid, sophisticated journalism can flourish. In response to questions, he also cautioned against softer, multi-ethnic “diversity” stories blurring the historic black-white issues in American. While the changing face of the nation must be covered, he said, “don’t take your eye off the black core issue.”


*            Recognize distinctions within racial or ethnic groups.

*            Be mindful of racial sensitivities but don’t shy from tough stories.

*            Challenge sources who voice stereotypes. Don’t just  parrot comments.

*            When handling a story, ask: How would I feel if my racial or ethnic group were described that way?.

*            Use your newsroom’s diversity to hash out issues.

*            Find narratives that capture racial complexity – and contradictions.