Overview: Honest Talk Yields Heartening Results

Challenge to Journalism: Raise the Bar for Race Coverage

By Victor Merina

Carole Carmichael,  The Seattle Times

Carole Carmichael,
The Seattle Times

They gathered on a June weekend, most of them strangers in the same profession, taking their seats in the high-ceiling room at Columbia University where Pulitzer Prize jurors search for the best in journalism.

They were newspaper reporters and editors; television correspondents, producers and newsroom managers — convened to discuss and debate what bedevils so many journalists: how to better cover race and ethnicity in America.

What participants discovered at the inaugural Workshop on Journalism, Race and Ethnicity was that coverage defects may endure, but ways exist to produce outstanding stories on a subject that remains both vital and vexing — inside and outside the newsroom.

Tom Brokaw, NBC news anchor and a workshop speaker, told colleagues that race “is the single most important issue that this country faces because it encompasses almost everything.  It encompasses culture and politics and the economy, and it really encompasses…what it is that we want to be as this immigrant nation.”

The theme of the three-day workshop, sponsored by Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Ford Foundation, was “Let’s Do It Better,” and attendees demonstrated just how that could be accomplished.

The more than 40 participants included journalists from newspapers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.  On the broadcast side, participants included journalists from local television stations in Chicago, San Francisco, Syracuse, Norfolk, Va., and Auburn, Me., as well as correspondents, producers and news executives from television networks and news magazine shows.

With topics ranging from Latino immigration and interracial romance to white flight and racial profiling, there were lively discussions about the psychology of race and about how to produce — step by step — a meaningful, evocative story while handling racial sensitivities, reluctant sources and newsroom skeptics.  Participants were reminded that most readers and viewers were not weary of race stories but, instead, wanted more imaginative, sophisticated approaches to a subject that will affect more and more Americans in the coming century.

Sharing personal and professional experiences, participants stressed the importance of establishing a newsroom environment that encourages frank discussions about race and ethnicity, even though candor can cause painful moments.  That point was underscored when an African American news executive spoke emotionally about the lingering influence of race on the careers of minority journalists.  During another session, a newsroom manager voiced concerns that he was being stereotyped because he was a white male.

Such searing moments were still fresh when one participant, in an evaluation of the workshop, wrote:  “This was the most candid conversation I’ve been involved in with journalists talking about stories with race and ethnicity at the core.”

While the workshop featured familiar names like Brokaw and reporters from major newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, it also brought together reporters from smaller newspapers and behind-the-scenes television producers and news editors.  In size and type of media, it was an exercise in cross-pollination.

The workshop showcased 15 “honorees,” recognized for outstanding newspaper and television coverage of race and ethnicity. They shared their work as case studies with 17 “gatekeepers”– newsroom managers and news executives — eager for practical ideas they could apply in their newsrooms.

Among honorees, chosen by a screening committee from more than 200 entries, were: A reporter from The State in Columbia, S.C., who detailed how Mexican immigrants had altered the region’s historical racial mix. An editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner who helped produce a series capturing the dramatic change in their city’s nonwhite population.  A reporter from Chicago’s WMAQ-TV who exposed body cavity searches at airports of women suspected of smuggling drugs – women who were mostly black.

Honored, too, were journalists of color who delved into their own racial communities, including African American women reporting on the myths and realities of black hair styles and on the sinister impact of racial profiling. There were examples of cross-cultural reporting as white reporters explored touchy issues in the black community, a Cuban-American reporter wrote about the travails of Guatemalan and Korean immigrants, and an Asian-American reporter examined educational struggles within the black middle class.

In all, the honorees voiced a recurring message: avoid the commonplace story and push harder for more creative, more insightful pieces that make readers and viewers feel they have encountered something fresh and frank.  Moreover, good stories that happen to involve race should be seen as simply good stories, not as “risky stories” merely because of the subject matter.

“We owe our readers more than a risk,” said Arlene Morgan, an assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, who served as a moderator.  “We owe them honest, authentic and fair stories.  We owe them stories that allow them to see themselves, warts and all, in our pages and on our screens.”

For many participants, the key to improved coverage was not merely diversifying the newsroom to include more journalists of color but also changing newsroom cultures. The newsroom should be a laboratory where story ideas percolate and meaningful discussions occur, participants said.

That, several stressed, means creating a  “safe place” to air ideas and differences – not a calm place but rather a venue where honest comments can be heard without recrimination.

To sharpen coverage itself, workshop honorees urged these steps:

  • Raise the bar and widen the scope for race-related stories. Too many stories about race and ethnicity are plagued by sameness. Ideas need to be more creative and rigorously executed.
  • Emphasize humanity.  As in other stories, the human angle is often the best way to engage an audience, illuminate a city’s diversity or disentangle a complex racial issue. To attract attention, find the right characters, use a human prism and frame the story in its most compelling terms.
  • Fight fear.  Too often, journalists approach the coverage of race and ethnicity with timidity or fear innovative ideas because the subject is viewed as a “minefield.” Such wobbly attitudes feed newsroom skepticism and lead to criticism or disinterest from readers and viewers.
  • Recognize demography is destiny.  Journalists and their bosses need to recognize more fully how immigration and demographic forces are transforming their audiences.  Keeping pace with racial and ethnic changes is both a challenge and a rich opportunity for growth in readers and viewers.
  • Find the diversity inside diversity.  Journalists must explore the layers within racial and ethic groups.  They must recognize the differences based on gender, age, geographic origin, language, religion and yes, skin color.  Be open to those differences and do not make assumptions or lump people together, even within racial groups.
  • Remember history.  Whether a story is about a city, a neighborhood or a person, the historical perspective is vital to understanding.  History also is important in newsrooms where reporters and managers should be conscious of their own outlet’s institutional history of race coverage, as well as the personal history of their own staffers, white and nonwhite.

In a packed weekend, not all of the lessons and meaningful conversations occurred within the workshop.  People used breaks, meal times and down periods to keep talking.  While pursuing one conversation, a white, male television journalist from California walked back to the hotel with a black, female television journalist from New York — a journey covering more than 50 blocks.  In another instance, a white newspaper reporter from Boston and a black newspaper editor from Baltimore walked two-dozen blocks eating Italian ices and talking about race, newsrooms and cities.

As one participant concluded in a final evaluation, the weekend only emphasized the need for a future workshop and more discussion:  “Keep hope alive…continue.  More talk is better than no talk.”

Victor Merina is a former Los Angeles Times reporter and a recent Media Studies Center fellow.