Loosening Up the Racial Dialogue

Courageous storytellers take risks and reap rewards

Stephen Magagnini, The Sacramento Bee

Stephen Magagnini, The Sacramento Bee

For Stephen Magagnini of The Sacramento Bee, one of the dilemmas he faced as a white reporter on his new race relations beat was how to get people to start talking about race – and keep talking. For Barbara Ciari of WVEC-TV in Norfolk, Va., her prominence as a black television reporter and anchor gave her easy access to African Americans, but her challenge was how to pursue a volatile topic that made many blacks uneasy. And for Aaron McGruder, his daily comic strip called “The Boondocks” unsettled many newspaper readers – no matter their color – as he questioned the notion of what it means to be young and black and living in a mostly white suburb.

All three workshop honorees accomplished their goals in a singular way: by loosening up the dialogue about race. And they did so by listening to oft-ignored voices, providing differing perspectives, tackling controversial subjects, and by asking people to think anew about race – even through the simple but profound platform of everyday cartoon characters.

“My focus and my perspective has always been on the reality of the situation,” McGruder told workshop participants. To sketch that reality, the 26-year-old McGruder created “The Boondocks,” a comic strip that features a couple of young black children who are transplanted from their familiar Chicago surroundings to a largely white, middle-class suburb and an unwanted new environment. The strip, which appears in 250 newspapers, has come under fire from both blacks and whites for being racist, militant and intolerant. But McGruder, who also has a loyal following, said the strip was intended to be an intelligent, satirical view of black/white relationships, as well as black/black relationships.

What he draws, he added, reflects what goes on in the minds of young black males, a perspective foreign to most readers and one that makes the comic unique. “I look at a whole world, my whole experience, that for the most part has never been played out in the American newspaper, which is why what I did in creating ‘The Boondocks’ was such a big deal,” McGruder said. The strip is so controversial, he explained, because it “pulls no punches” and “the reality of what goes on in the minds of young black males is a little bit too much for people to handle sometimes.”

Finding and reflecting reality was also Stephen Magagnini’s task. However, when he took over the race reporting beat at The Sacramento Bee, he encountered skepticism inside and outside the newsroom.  Some newsroom critics denigrated what they called “minority of the week” stories, while community critics – especially those of color – questioned whether a white reporter could effectively cover racial issues.

Barbara Ciara, WVEC-TV, Norfolk, Va.

Barbara Ciara, WVEC-TV,
Norfolk, Va.

Magagnini’s response was found in the stories he produced over the years.  Among them was his “Getting Along” series, which was honored by the workshop.  That series included pieces on the minefields that many whites and non-whites find in confronting race, the bonds forged during the Vietnam War that helped end one man’s racism, and the multiracial group of women called the “Rainbow Girls,” who reached across the racial divide to find friendship and an understanding of differences.

“Our fear all along was that few people actually cared about race relations and how to improve them,” Magagnini said.  “But the reaction inside and outside the paper was gratifying.” For many of those stories, he pointed out, the key was persuading people to talk openly and honestly about race.  And for the most recalcitrant sources – often skittish white people – that meant winning their trust and engaging them in conversations that usually involved small, intimate groups.

While Magagnini was working with racial and ethnic complexity in Northern California, Barbara Ciari had aired similar stories on a regular basis in Norfolk for  WVEC-TV, with most of them centered on the black community.

“I felt every year that it’s important that on some level I do a story about race and race relations,” said Ciara, whose work as an award-winning anchor made her a familiar face for viewers. But in pursuing the story that was honored by the workshop, she also had to overcome some fears and apprehensions among both blacks and whites in Norfolk.

Entitled “The N-Word,” Ciara’s piece reported on how a racial slur has been transformed into slang and is used by many African Americans themselves in comedy sketches, in rap songs, in mutual greetings, and in everyday conversation. The use of the term “nigger,” which is considered so hateful and offensive, takes on a different meaning when black people use it with each other, she said. But that usage has split the African-American community – usually along generational lines. “Young people who hadn’t experienced the civil rights movement or any struggle did not see it with the same kind of venom as my mother or my contemporaries,” she said.

Aaron McGruder, Creator of "The Boondocks"

Aaron McGruder, “The Boondocks”

In deciding to explore the use of the word, Ciara gained the backing of her news director (who had attended the Columbia workshop in 1999 and “returned with a whole new attitude”). She began interviewing comedians, rap artists, psychologists, ministers and students. Although she encountered some resistance from African Americans who were reluctant to air the issue, her greatest challenge was getting non-blacks to talk about the use of the N-word, particularly whites who feared that discussing the issue would label them as racist.

But she persisted and persuaded people to talk. The viewer reaction to the story was enormous. Ciara said it drew a record number of inquiries, telephone calls, e-mails and letters. The local public broadcasting station aired the report and followed it with a group discussion. The local newspaper conducted a telephone poll, and an Internet chat room for viewers also received an avalanche of responses.

Ciara was pleased that she triggered so much discussion. However, in response to questions, she did not recommend that a white television reporter attempt an N-word story. Why? Because many viewers, especially black people, will wonder, “Why is this white person doing this?” rather than concentrate on the message.


  • Widen your vision to include all ethnic and racial groups, not just “traditional minorities.”
  • Remember diversity exists within every racial or ethnic group. Beware of generalizing, in print, on the air, or in interviews.
  • If whites, or others, are reluctant to talk, try a group interview.
  • Give the audience a chance to share its views about an issue through telephone polls or chat rooms.
  • Explain the concept of your story to newsroom colleagues to reduce erroneous internal speculation.
  • Good yarns get good play.
  • Be prepared to defend a sensitive story and your reasons for doing it.