Let’s Do It Better: Invoke the Best, Inspire the Boss

By Sig Gissler

For three decades, critics have waggled the bony finger of blame at editors and broadcasters for defective coverage of race and ethnicity in America.

I know. I’ve done my share of waggling, first as an editor and now as a journalism teacher.

Recently, however, I had a chance to test a different approach when Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, with Ford Foundation funding, held a weekend Workshop on Journalism, Race and Ethnicity.  I played director.

Instead of condemning gaps, we honored excellent coverage of race and ethnicity by a dozen newspapers and television news operations, ranging in size from The Wall Street Journal and ABC to The (Bergen) Record in New Jersey and KRON-TV in San Francisco (see list of honorees).

With topics spanning everything from white flight to interracial romance, we invited honorees to share their work and their lessons learned with an audience of  “gatekeepers” — 17 newspaper and television newsroom managers from the Northeast.  We asked those leaders to look, listen and discuss how to improve coverage in their own shops.  In short, we invoked the best to inspire the boss.

The workshop developed its own personality. Honorees received high praise but also some sharp questions. There were laughs and a few tears. Some black participants voiced frustration about  news media inertia.  Some white managers felt unfairly stereotyped.  Yet as candor deepened, the value of the gathering increased.  

In anonymous evaluations, most gatekeepers said the workshop had showcased outstanding work, offered practical tips and provided incentives for action.  For one manager, the best aspects were “the emotional release, the examples of strong work, the high caliber of participants.”   Most left with a recipe – or at least key ingredients – for more effective coverage of race and ethnic issues.

The honored stories and projects brimmed with individual talent. But they also underscored the value of newsroom leadership.  For instance:

  • Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kaufman wrote powerful stories on race partly because editors insisted that he tell them “something they didn’t already know,” prodding him to meet a higher standard.
  • The San Francisco Examiner’s “New City” project, which explored dramatic demographic change in the Bay Area, was advanced by Managing Editor Sharon Rosenhause’s desire to dig deeply despite the strain on resources.
  • ABC Nightline correspondent Michel McQueen did a story on America’s skin-color ranking and probably the first network report on “driving while black” partly because of Nightline’s commitment to its series, “America in Black and White.”
  • Reporter Pat Butler, of The State, did a series on Latinos altering South Carolina’s historic racial pattern partly because all reporters at the paper can compete for investigative projects.
  • Producer Karen Saunders did reports for ABC’s 20/20 on the black standard of beauty and on black women’s struggle with their hair partly because her executive producer was her advocate.  Similarly, KRON-TV in San Francisco launched a yearlong examination of race – delving even into genetics – partly because its news director took some risks.

During the weekend, as journalist helped journalist, other themes emerged. These struck me:


Repeatedly, honorees called for imaginative, sophisticated stories. The audience is not weary of race and ethnicity but of bland, predictable coverage.  In Atlanta, thousands responded to honoree Gary Pomerantz’s series, “From the Heart,” on how race affects everyday life.  “My E-mail almost melted,” he said.  Such enterprise requires a lot of time.  Yet, sometimes only a fresh eye is needed.  A story well known to one racial group can intrigue another (Saunders’ report on black women’s hair became the talk of the workshop).  Sharing “race secrets” might also loosen tongues on other issues.


The human angle can engage an audience, illuminating a city’s diversity or explaining complex race issues. To raise the bar, find characters that advance the story in compelling terms. Too often, journalism neglects the power of the human prism.


Frequently, timidity clouds coverage of race and ethnicity. Participants often spoke of a racial “minefield.” Worries can range from adverse newsroom reaction to audience backlash.  Be mindful of sensitivities, it was said, but do not become fearful.  Again, raising the bar means transcending timidity.


News organizations see the demographic forces transforming their communities, but often fail to pull all the pieces together, as was done by The San Francisco Examiner or The State.  How should news media keep pace with racial and ethnic change? How do they penetrate the diversity inside diversity – differences within racial and ethnic groups based on class, language, age, skin tone?  New beats or specialists may be needed. As in San Francisco, it may require putting the staff in vans to tour obscure parts of a changing city. But rich stories await the explorer.  And, as Mark Willes, chairman of Times Mirror told the workshop, once you strengthen coverage, be sure to “market it.”


Newsroom culture advances or retards journalistic excellence. It is here that gatekeepers can make the most of diversity. They can create a climate that encourages frank discussion of coverage, combats racial isolation, sorts out misperceptions, nails stereotypes, supports “content audits” and helps managers hash out issues such as appropriate “mainstreaming” of racial images and the on-going debate over having a “race beat.” Honoree Annie Nakao, of the Examiner, said  she would have never attempted a controversial series on the academic woes of middle-class black students if she lacked black colleagues to offer reaction as she worked.

Many participants emphasized the need to make newsrooms a “safer place” to discuss race – a subject that, honoree Tom Brokaw noted, can “drain honesty from the room.”  Judging from comments, safe does not mean placid.  Rather it means honest comments can be heard without recrimination, requiring a spirit of generosity from all concerned.

On its last day, the workshop grew in candor and provided a working model.  Thus, when a white manager finally said he resented being stereotyped by remarks earlier in the weekend, the roof didn’t fall. He found some empathy. One black participant said she felt  “impoverished” by his hesitancy to speak up. 

To me, it showed that honest talk about race can narrow distance.  It might even make a newsroom larger than the sum of its parts.             

Gissler, former editor of The Milwaukee Journal, is a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

This article was first published in The American Editor.