Diversity at Work: Fresh ways to encourage & enhance journalistic storytelling from different perspectives.

Diversity in Hard Times: Hard Choices, Hard Work

For most of us, newsroom diversity is a fine idea, the fruit of a process few see the same way and many would rather not talk about. It works well for a lot of folks in the abstract, this notion of a multicultural mesh of thought and experience. But things get especially uncomfortable during times like these, when once-in-a-career jobs come open or the industry’s relentless retraction hits the headlines.

Here, where rubber and road meet, you get down to real people, real openings, real layoffs, real choices. Down here, you learn a lot about how deeply folks are thinking about these matters. Or not.

In recent months, the Dallas Morning News has laid off about 60 people. Newsday cut upwards of 50 newsroom jobs through buyouts. The Hartford Courant eliminated seven jobs as the year neared an end. One of the people cut helped the newspaper recruit racial and ethnic minorities. There were cuts at ABC News, at Hearst newspapers in Houston and San Francisco; at Tribune Co. properties across the country.

The losses weren’t total. Many people went to other news organizations. There are no reliable numbers to tell how many people of color were among those laid off or bought out, but any employment hit taken by journalists of color is significant, given their relatively small population in the industry.

Thus, alarm bells have sounded in organizations that advocate for journalists of color. After the October cuts in Dallas, Joseph Torres, deputy director of communications and media policy at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, called upon the industry to beware it doesn’t “reverse the modest gains being made in the push for newspapers to better reflect the communities they serve.”

At the National Association of Black Journalists, leaders urged decision-makers to remember that “Even during the toughest times, increasing and maintaining diversity must be paramount.”

While all that was going on, The Washington Post named a new managing editor, NBC Nightly News replaced Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather announced his upcoming retirement at CBS, opening a job for another network anchor. The first two big-time openings were filled by white men, and there’s strong reason to believe CBS will follow suit.

In times like these, the pressure to nurture and advance racial and ethnic diversity in journalism collides head-on with corporate pressures to cut budgets.

“…Doing the hard work before the openings and cutbacks: Recruit a larger pool of journalists. Build a diverse staff…” The pressures would be less crippling if newsrooms could address them with significant diversity already reflected in their ranks. Instead, many organizations are struggling with a perpetually inadequate career ladder that some call a meritocracy – one that functions badly even in good times. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to prescribe a painless way to emerge from such conflicts in the current environment.

As distressing as it is to witness the loss of black, Asian, Native American, and Latino journalists – especially when you recognize the names – it’s harder still to single out the white journalists whose jobs should be sacrificed instead. As tough as it is to see a black man, Gene Robinson, lose out in the running for The Washington Post’s No. 2 newsroom job, it’s tougher to declare that Phil Bennett should be eliminated from consideration because he’s another in a long string of white men. Here, diversity ideal meets workplace reality. Rubber, meet road.

Not everyone sees things in such black and white terms, and hardly anything is. When conversations get past the diversity ideal, down in the uncomfortable details of changing the culture and complexion of the news and news organizations, the road gets wide and winding. Listen in on a couple of listservs set up for journalists dedicated to talking about race matters:

  • “If we (those in the minority category in a newsroom) were treated with more respect, and our concerns/interests given more credence on a regular basis, perhaps there would not be the threat of a mass defection when “the one black editor” is laid off. Perhaps we would feel more invested in the organization we’ve been working for.”
     – Alysia Tate, The Chicago Reporter

  • “My concern is not whether journalists of color will lose their jobs, but whether they will do so disproportionately. For a hyperbolic example, if a news organization decides to get serious about diversity and hires 30 minorities in two years … then has to lay people off on a “last hired/first fired” model, then those new hires will be most vulnerable.”
     – Rafael Olmeda, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel

  •  “Seems to me (that) valuing a diversity of viewpoints means being willing to surround yourself with people from different points of view. How about if we judge a hiring decision by that standard? Did the executive seek out someone outside his or her peer group? This does not help you with firing, but it could guide hiring.”
     – Robert Smith, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

  • “My answer is management should examine its mission statement. If the mission is to gather and deliver news from and to all communities, then laying off certain journalists could harm that mission. If the newspaper wrote a lot about science, it would protect its science writer from layoffs. If a newspaper wrote about classical music, it would protect its concert-pianist-turned-writer staff member. If a newspaper was finding it difficult to penetrate minority communities and to craft nuanced, compelling stories from within them – and almost all media outlets struggle there – it might consider the merits of developing and retaining minority staffers to help serve as a link to minority communities.”
     – Martin Evans, Newsday

Opinions may range, but two things are irrefutable: Racial and ethnic minorities, once actively excluded from newsrooms, make up less than 13 percent of print journalism’s workforce and just more than 21 percent in broadcast. And when you look at top leadership of newspapers and television stations, it gets much, much worse.

Slash away with layoffs and buyouts and those numbers drop. Factor in the normal comings and goings of employment, throw in a little lingering suspicion that prejudice still informs decision-making in news organizations, and you end up with the unsettled air we’re now breathing.

If the industry’s intention is to correct for the injustices that made diversity efforts necessary; if it’s to live up to its promise of delivering a fuller report to the public by tapping into under-covered communities; if it believes that there’s some bottom-line value to delivering journalism to people once ignored by the media, then leaders have to stand up and make diversity count.

That means doing the hard work before the openings and cutbacks: Recruit a larger pool of journalists. Build a diverse staff. Improve the reporting and writing about the whole community you’re covering. Teach the entire staff how to navigate matters of diversity in craft and management. Give people of color assignments that cause careers to soar, then add the value of that diversity to the mix of merits when the so-called meritocracy is called upon to commend the next big promotion or guide the next round of layoffs.

The secret to avoiding the kind of paralyzing paradox that seems to pit one vision of fairness against the other in times like these is to work like hell to avoid getting to this intersection where values collide and diversity ends up as road kill. Read more


Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2004

Traveling for Difference

I am thinking of travel as a metaphor for our pursuit of journalism with a difference.

What sparked this line of thought? I recently picked up the 2001 anthology of “The Best American Travel Writing.” A passage by the editor, Jason Wilson, resonated with me: “This obsession with preparedness is perhaps part of a larger obsession in our society: to eradicate fear, from every situation and at all costs.”

“But fear and travel nearly always go hand in hand.”

Fear and the pursuit of diversity nearly always go hand in hand, as well. Fear keeps us home, with our passports gathering dust. Similarly, fear keeps us in our journalistic routines, clinging to our old source lists of people whom we can call, quickly and efficiently, from the safety of the newsroom.

Why, after all, should we step out of that comfort zone and venture into communities of people who are different – people who are black, white, Latino, Asian, straight, gay, conservative Christian, liberal Jew? And even if we make the effort, what can we truly understand about them, if we are merely visitors?

*     *     *

I know smart, good-hearted people who do not like to travel. It takes time, money, and energy. It takes preparation. It can be scary. And it’s not always a pleasant experience. Visions of crowded airplanes, food poisoning, and dingy hotel rooms dance across one’s mind.

There’s not always a clear payoff.

I know smart, good-hearted journalists who are not passionate about diversity. They might understand its importance in an abstract sense. They might include diverse people in their stories if asked to, but they do not necessarily embrace it. Seeking diversity, after all, takes time and energy. It takes preparation. It can be scary. And it’s not always pleasant.

And so I’ve come to believe that, like the taste for travel, an appreciation for diversity does not necessarily depend on a journalist’s intelligence or moral compass.

Maybe that realization can help us all find common ground. In many newsrooms, our conversations about diversity have bogged down or become fraught with tension and conflict. One way we can move our conversations forward is by not being so self-righteous about the issue.

Which brings us back to the travel metaphor.

A love of travel does not make a person better or smarter than others. But what lovers of travel can do is share their stories from the road and inspire us to think of travel in different ways – as not only a form of education and escape, but also an act of discovery, and an act of self-discovery.

In the same way, the pursuit of diversity shouldn’t be a holier-than-thou directive to include an arbitrary quota of minorities in our stories. We need to challenge one another to see that the pursuit of diversity, in journalism and in our lives, can be an act of discovery, and an act of self-discovery.

*     *     *

In his introduction to the travel-writing anthology, Jason Wilson quotes another writer, Edwin Dobbs: To travel well, “one must court difference.”

Wilson tells a story about his father’s cousin, Bob, who traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, years ago. Alone at a restaurant, unable to read the menu, Bob ended up dining with a young Portuguese man. The two men could barely communicate with each other, but they became friends and dined together for the next three nights.

Bob learned that the young man had once lived in Lisbon, but no longer did. Now the young man was revisiting restaurants that had once been his family’s favorites. On the last night, the young man began to cry and tried to explain himself. But Bob couldn’t understand what he was saying.

After returning from Europe, Bob received a letter in Portuguese. Unable to read it, he put it in a drawer. Years later, a Brazilian friend found the letter and translated it for him.

What they learned made Bob weep: The wife of the Portuguese man had written Bob to let him know that the young man had died soon after their dinners together. The man, whose family had been exiled from Portugal, had been terminally ill, and had made one last visit to his homeland before he died. The wife thanked Bob for keeping her husband company at that time.

Now, did Bob, merely the visitor, understand the totality of the Portuguese people and their culture through that chance encounter? No, of course not. Not any more than a journalist is going to fully understand other cultures by writing a narrative about a young girl’s quinceanera or a traditional Vietnamese wedding.

But it’s safe to say that Bob learned something about grief and the love of one’s homeland, as well as the capacity of strangers to help one another in their time of need. Such a powerful moment in one’s life – it would not have happened had Bob not courted difference and confronted the fears that come with travel.

Can we, as journalists, inspire one another to court difference and confront our fears about diversity? And if we do so, what will we learn about ourselves? Read more


Monday, Nov. 15, 2004

A Reporter’s Privacy

Every column begins the same way: “To reach Mary Sanchez call (816) 234-4752 or send e-mail to msanchez@kcstar.com.”

The line is printed at the end of each column. But it is the first thing I type, a recognition of the information’s importance.

Editors want writers to be accessible to readers, a reasonable request.

The Kansas City Star began listing direct phone lines and e-mail addresses at the bottom of all stories and columns several years ago. Other papers have similar rules. But what about the need to be inaccessible? What about the privacy of a reporter?

As a syndicated columnist, my desire to draw a line between work and my personal life has increased. I am not only a byline, but a recognizable face, my photo affixed to every column. Thankfully, nothing has occurred — save for the discomfort of being verbally accosted in public by a disgruntled reader.

But in my years of reporting there have been a few unnerving incidents:

  • The abortion protester who called to let me know he took down my license plate number and car type.

  • The Ku Klux Klan leader who, as a young reporter, I naïvely called from my home phone. I got an interview. He, with caller ID, got my home number.

  • The reader who used to wait somewhere near the building as I arrived for work. He liked to call me at my desk and describe, in detail, what I was wearing that day.

  • And the rabidly anti-homosexual preacher who pickets the building from time to time, upset with my pro-gay rights columns.

Ask around the newsroom. Most reporters have stories of being hassled and sometimes even stalked by a source or a reader.

This is not something I recall learning about in journalism school. Yet it is an important topic, especially for young female reporters who might find themselves with the attention of an unwanted suitor/source.

The scariest story I heard came from Barbara Shelly, an editorial writer for The Star.

In 1992, Shelly wrote an article about a religious group often used as a guise for gang members who want to meet while in prison. As members of a religion, they gain the right to meet, even while incarcerated. Shelly’s piece angered a man who disliked her characterization of the group.

He was a convicted murderer.

The man stormed into The Star building, brandishing what turned out to be a toy gun. The director of personnel didn’t know the gun was fake when the man entered his office, demanding to see Shelly.

The man fled. Police were called. Shelly wasn’t in the building. She had just left for maternity leave.

“I was about to give birth,” Shelly recalled. Not the optimum time to be stalked.

The man appeared at the paper again that night. Turned out, he was a former mailroom employee and knew the building well. He had been fired for beating up a co-worker.

Shelly and her husband left their home and stayed in a hotel. A police guard was assigned.

“I really just wanted to be left alone in peace and quiet,” Shelly said. Three days later, after a day-long labor, her son was born.

“The doctor said I appeared to be in stress,” Shelly said. Baby boy and mother were fine. But when Shelly returned from her maternity leave, the newspaper had changed.

“Badges, guards, locked doors,” Shelly said. “It was all different.”

This is an extreme example of work intruding upon personal life. But it is good for journalists to think about how to separate life as a reporter from private life.

It is a personal choice.

Reporting will never be a nine to five job. And good reporters gather news tips wherever they go, on the clock or not. But boundaries, however a person defines them, are necessary.

I draw the line at becoming the basis for someone’s rant.

I’ve known reporters who nearly gloat when they receive hate mail, unsolicited attention that takes issue with something they have written. It is as if to offend is somehow a badge of honor.

Certainly, listening to reader feedback is a part of the job. And listening to a different opinion should be part of the learning process for any columnist.

Writing about sensitive areas like race and immigration has probably put me in line for more than the average reporter’s share of enraged callers. Most can be calmed by listening, offering a few examples of how they might be using misinformation to form their opinions.

But I do not want to create the veneer necessary to take on the most extreme racists of the world. That’s not my job. E-mails are answered — except for the ones containing derogatory catcalls. Those are deleted. Letters with such hate are promptly torn and tossed into the wastebasket. This is a job. There is life outside of journalism.

Some reporters give sources their home or cell numbers. I do not.

After all, my work phone and e-mail is at the bottom of every column.

To reach Mary Sanchez call (816) 234-4752 or send e-mail to msanchez@kcstar.com. Read more


Monday, Oct. 18, 2004

Dear Oprah

Dear Oprah,

You might think that I look to The New York Times or The Economist or Entertainment Weekly or even the latest blogs for innovative ideas on how to save newspapers. 

But no, Oprah, I look to you and your magazine to take us to the Promised Land.

More and more readers are leaving their newspapers on their doorsteps, unopened and unread. Many other folks no longer even subscribe. How do we win them back? There’s no silver bullet. But Ms. O, I think you’ve got some of the answers, particularly when it comes to attracting women and minority readers.

Newspapers need to break news. That’s what keeps readers coming back. We should never abandon our franchise in going hard after news.

But at the same time, we have to do more than that. Our front pages and our features sections need to appeal to the aspirations of our readers – people of all incomes and cultural backgrounds who want to live better lives.

That means offering them relevant, helpful stories and local resources on the topics they care about: health, food, home, family, fashion, and travel. And we need to deliver that information in a personal and engaging way. (For supporting research, consult the Readership Institute of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University: www.readership.org.)

Oprah, you and your magazine’s staff know how to approach these lifestyles topics. And you do so in a way that’s inclusive.

That’s key. Our readers have a lot in common. They want healthy families, loving relationships, good homes, and safe neighborhoods. But their experiences and approaches in creating those environments can be different according to their cultures.

If we journalists ignore that diversity, we’ll risk making our lifestyles coverage inauthentic and monochromatic. We’ll risk turning away more readers.

Recently, Oprah, I leafed through your magazine (the one with the headline: “The comforts of sex”) and had these Aha moments about what resonates with readers:

Advice: Your readers gobble up Dr. Phil, Suze Orman and the Satellite Sisters. Your readers want advice on relationships, finance and other topics, but they also want to know what other readers are going through. Newspaper editors need to take a second look at the advice columns they run – and whether they appeal to a diverse readership. Two years ago at The Dallas Morning News, we launched “Consejos,” a bilingual advice column geared toward young Latinos. It’s now syndicated and runs in several papers across the country.

Success stories: Your magazine is full of stories about ordinary people who have overcome challenges in their lives. Readers want to know who these people are, and how they succeeded. In a newspaper, that sense of hope and accomplishment (along with tips and local resources) can offset the gloom and doom in the rest of the news report. We journalists need to examine how we cover health, fitness, nutrition and parenting, and make sure we include success stories from diverse communities.

Personalities: The success of your magazine rests on the credibility that you’ve built over the past two decades. Oprah, people trust you and have faith in you. We in the newspaper business need to look at the writers who’ve developed similar long-term relationships with readers. We need to promote them as personalities in the community. That’s one way readers can feel more connected to their newspaper. Our metro and features columnists are just the right kind of personalities to do this, and they’d better be diverse. Recently, our features section launched a Sunday column called “Building Bridges,” which encourages readers to ask questions about race. It seems to work, because the writer, a veteran columnist, has an ongoing relationship with readers. He has a track record of reporting about race in an even-handed way.

The staples of everyday life: Oprah, your magazine includes departments on health, books, relationships, food, style, fashion and beauty. We must commit space, staff, and resources to these topics. Not only that, but we need to hire a diverse group of journalists to cover them. Which is not to say that only minority journalists can report on their own cultures. But a diverse features staff will help us pay attention to topics like hip-hop fashion, interracial dating, Latin fusion cuisine, Asian-influenced home design and Ha Jin’s latest book – and cover them in a way that’s informed by personal experience.

Reader orientation: The stories in your magazine are clear, simple and relevant to readers’ daily lives. Your editors ask: What will readers take away from this story? Why should they care? How can readers apply what they have learned? You know who your readers are: Intelligent, engaged women from diverse cultural backgrounds who are balancing work, family and relationships. We as journalists need to know who our readers are, and what they’re interested in, and what matters to them. That doesn’t mean that readers necessarily know what they want. And it doesn’t mean that we pander to them. And it doesn’t mean that we shy away from bad news. But it does mean that, with each and every story, we ask: How is this relevant to our readers? How can we better connect with our readers? Again, diversity on our staffs can help us begin to answer those questions.
Read more


Tuesday, Oct. 05, 2004

Opening the Door to Better Immigration Stories

The latest work by the reporting duo of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele published with a challenge: Journalists must cover immigration better.

“I began (reporting) in 1956 and never have I seen a more badly covered subject, and there is no question it is a political correctness issue,” Barlett said. “I find that offensive as a reporter.”

Barlett, half of the twice Pulitzer winning partnership, formed the conclusion reporting on the September 20 Time magazine cover story, “American’s Border: Even After 9/11, It’s Outrageously Easy to Sneak In.”

His 34-year reporting partner Steele concurs.

“This is not just a victimless crime as people like to portray illegal immigration,” Steele told me in a phone interview.  “But to tell that story would run headlong into community groups in that arena and a general reluctance to take on a controversial story.”

Editors and reporters do need to stiffen their journalistic backbone to cover immigration well. And they also will need to shift from the traditional reliance on hard numbers, concise economic formulas, and think tank studies.

Few of these things exist when you’re talking about immigration. And the ones that do often conflict with one another, largely because immigration is such a polarized issue.

One side leans far toward seeing all immigrants, but especially Latinos illegally in the country, as harmless, humble, poor workers.

The other side argues the same immigrants can be blamed for every economic and social woe.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. But proving it is another thing.

Even Barlett and Steele took some criticism for their story.

Former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization head Doris Meissner questioned some of the statistics, especially the number of illegal immigrants and their cost to social services and the economy.

Meissner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, wrote a letter to the editor of Time, which was co-signed by her INS successor, James Ziglar.

The leadership of the advocacy group The National Council of La Raza wanted to meet with Time editors to voice similar complaints and address the overall tone of the piece.

The opinion of the general public? They were thrilled.

Time magazine has received more than 600 e-mails and letters. Barlett and Steele are not including in their tally nearly 100 identical letters that were apparently part of a letter-writing campaign, although those letters also supported the story.

The responses from individual readers were largely in praise of the 12-page story that detailed the effects of illegal immigration on the people who live at the border, especially in Arizona, where government policy changes several years ago redirected the flow of illegal migrant border crossers.

To many readers living near the U.S./Mexico border, the work was recognition that a mainstream media organization took their problems seriously.

The disparate reactions back up Barlett and Steele’s contention that deeper, better reporting on immigration is needed.

The general public, and probably many reporters and editors, are woefully under-educated about immigration policy and the complexities of the problem.

In that context, groups like the D.C.-based La Raza aren’t crazy to worry that pieces like the Time published can fuel backlash against the immigrants themselves.

But that doesn’t mean papers shouldn’t be doing this sort of work.

They just need to do it thoroughly.

Time focused on showing the negative impact of illegal immigration and tracked its root causes: immigration policies that keep the door open by not cracking down on those who hire illegal immigrants, or finding a way to bring the needed workers here legally.

“We as journalists should be hammering away at this,” Barlett said. “And when we don’t, we let the politicians off the hook.”

In that way, the authors say journalism is complicit in the problems of immigration.

Barlett and Steele also wrote about a side of illegal immigration that counters the common assertion of the illegal immigrant as a hard-working person simply trying to better his or her life. They described immigrants who commit violent crimes and showed the border as a place where terrorists can find easy access into America.

Both images can be true. So both should be found in newspapers.

Barlett and Steele chose their focus by deciding such balance is not available.

They found many stories that show the immigrant as the victim: the dangers they face in crossing the desert, exploitive workplaces where they toil, and articles about anti-immigrant efforts.

Both Barlett and Steele said those were all legitimate stories.

But they argue the other side of the story should be told as well.

“Almost nobody has written a story like we have written,” Steele said. “What people write about are the hardships.”

Barlett contends that much of the hesitancy can be laid at the feet of editors unwilling to take on a controversial subject.

“Editors are pandering, absolutely pandering,” he said.

In many cases, Barlett is likely right.

Editors have to get comfortable with openly listening to critics without automatically flinching under the charge of “racism.” A good defense: Editors who trust their reporters to know the nuances and complexities of minority communities. The bedrock of journalism – accuracy – can stave off critics who huff and puff, alleging racism if there is no other legitimate complaint.

But too often, editors make decisions as if they believe one or a few angry minority voices represent all minority readers. That is not the case.

Minority readers deserve and expect thorough, accurate reporting about their communities even when the truth is difficult to hear.

“Editors are pandering, absolutely pandering,” said Donald L. Barlett. Another reason these stories are often untold is that the hardship story, once language barriers are bridged, is simply an easier story to tell.

As Barlett and Steele found, there are no hard numbers which everyone agrees can be used to measure the impact of illegal immigration. That alone means this story will have to be approached differently by editors and reporters.

Much of the criticism Barlett and Steele took dealt with the number of illegal immigrants in the country.

They said the number could be as high as 15 million. Other estimates have put the figure at eight to 10 million.

The fact is, no one knows. Barlett and Steele said they came at their estimates by taking into account many factors: The opinions of people living and working at the border, government and think tank observations, and the fact that the U.S.Census 2000 is already outdated and likely an undercount.

Another figure Meissner took issue with was the estimate for the number of new illegal immigrants entering the country annually. Barlett and Steele said the number is possibly three million. Other reports put it at about 500,000 people.

Again, each side can present their evidence, but neither can actually prove its contention.

So if an editor insists on hard statistics that all agree on, good luck getting anything about immigration into the paper.

Ditto for a newspaper that wants to wait until a government or university study is released. Those are often five years or more behind the action.

Barlett and Steele ran into that problem trying to assess the costs to provide medical care to illegal immigrants.

A Time researcher called hospitals around the country for cost figures, but couldn’t get any figures because the numbers aren’t tallied. So doing that story requires that it become anecdotal or it simply doesn’t get done.

All of this might make an editor skittish about printing a story.

Add in the possibility of agitating a minority group, Hispanics. Knowing a community well would be a good start.

Being fearful of that community will not.

But legitimate groups that study immigration will readily admit there are problems with the current system, and that immigrants can be the source of problems and the scapegoats.

Legitimate organizations do not want loaded words used. They want context offered to show how a problem was created and grew. And they want images that do not simply paint immigrants as the cause of all social evil.

Too often, instead of going this extra mile, newsrooms just take a pass. Read more


Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2004

Remembering What We’d Rather Forget

On the day the nation remembered those killed three years ago in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I was in Atlanta talking to a group of college journalism students about covering the volatile stories of race and ethnic relations.

I wanted to teach a lesson about the importance of context and the hidden layers of fairness and accuracy that need exploring when someone says something deemed insensitive, insulting, or just plain racist. The students had something to teach, too.

It was a wonderful exchange with young people whose forthrightness and curiosity transcended the fact that it was a Saturday morning, that many had been compelled to attend by a teacher’s assignment, and that they were among strangers taking on one of America’s most taboo topics.

We talked about a few volatile stories of recent years:

  • The white anthropology professor who ignited a firestorm last September when, in describing herself to several dozen other professors in her department, she inexplicably used the phrase “six niggers in a woodpile

  • The university president, a white man, who called the university system chancellor, a black man, an Oreo

  • The white police chief who compared a combative black man to an orangutan

  • The young man of mixed heritage who put a noose around a young black man’s neck

We debated the problems with a sports headline over a story about a black professional football player that called him a “Buffalo soldier.” A student told of a friend whose white editor was afraid to use the word “boy” to describe black children.

My point in all those examples was that journalists need to include in such stories the kind of contextual information that helps the public understand the nature of the problem and the history that gives it its power. Without that context, it’s easy to leave the public confused over how seemingly small things can escalate into scandal, protests, and court cases. And it’s easy to dismiss those who complain as reactionary, unreasonably sensitive, or as political opportunists just “playing the race card.”

The students had a lot of questions, but I could sum up a number of them with two words:

Say what?

Most of the nearly 75 students had never heard the “woodpile” phrase before the professor said it. Only three people professed to know what it meant, and each offered a different definition. Few understood what the “Oreo” remark was all about. A student in the back raised his hand sheepishly at one point and asked, “Could you explain the thing about calling black men ‘boy?’”

Only one student would even chance a guess as to why a headline about a Buffalo Bills player – the “Buffalo soldier” headline – would be deemed insulting and hurtful. She thought it had something to do with a Bob Marley song. And Indians. A student, stumped by the controversy that cost the police chief his job because he compared a black man to an orangutan, began her question with the words, “Maybe I’m naïve, but …”

There would be something redemptive, even hopeful, about that naiveté if these weren’t future journalists.

It will be a grand day when all racist slurs and their attendant allusions go the way of the woodpile in the age of global warming. But I believe that one of the reasons so many of today’s stories about explosive racial and ethnic incidents are put before the public without adequate context is that many journalists don’t know history. Not this history, anyway.

Even if the truth is that journalists leave out context because they think the public already knows that history, our Sept. 11 conversation proved them profoundly wrong. And if you want to close this circle of reasoning, consider that stories bereft of context are contributing to the public’s growing ignorance of this nation’s racial history. And that public includes tomorrow’s journalists.

My pitch to the students was that their ability to tell these stories well will determine how close they’ll come to fulfilling the journalistic mission of providing people with enough information to make intelligent decisions in this democracy.

Obviously, the past has modern resonance, because the stories keep coming. Racism lives. America hasn’t forgotten.What’s indisputable is that our society would rather not remember a lot of its racial past. Who wants to keep reviving the memory of lynchings that gives the noose story its poignancy? Who wants to revisit the way white people degraded black men and women by refusing to call them “mister” or “miss,” using “boy” and “girl” instead? Wouldn’t it be better if we all just forgot the genocide of the so-called Indian Wars that employed the Buffalo Soldiers?

Obviously, the past has modern resonance, because the stories keep coming. Racism lives. America hasn’t forgotten.

There’s a reason to remember the Holocaust or the Indian Wars, and the more journalists know about them, the less chance there is that a sportswriter will blithely use “Holocaust” to describe a rout, or that a copy editor will use “massacre” in a headline when the winning baseball team hails from Cleveland. It happens.

The more we understand of the past, the more we’ll be prepared to report out the nuance of present-day controversies: Sen. John McCain refers to “gooks” on the campaign trail. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, intending to say “negro,” lets a slur slip out instead. Sen. Robert Byrd introduces many Americans to the phrase “white nigger.”

Journalists who want to fully report on the recurring racial rifts in this society need to know more. At the least, they need to know that there’s plenty they don’t know; that they need to pause every time a story of racial conflict arises and ask some elementary questions: What does that mean? Why is it a problem? How do I put this in context?

Look it up if need be. Ask somebody. Then put the answer in the story. We too often leave out that last step, and everyone, including future journalists, is poorer for it.

Near the end of our workshop in Atlanta, one of the college students asked a question someone inevitably raises in these discussions: Aren’t we headed toward the day when we’ll be so hamstrung by linguistic landmines that we won’t be able to say anything? Will there ever come a time, he wanted to know, when we can just get over history’s hurts?

Maybe. We may one day be able to have some fun with the Chinese Exclusion Act or Japanese internment or the Atlanta baseball team’s “tomahawk chop” the way people today joke about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. (Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?). Maybe the day will come when some folks won’t wince when a story makes light of concentration camps or plays around with the phrase “Trail of Tears.”

And maybe a sportscaster will once again be able to refer to two tall basketball players as “twin towers” without summoning the images of fiery death and raising the ire of a traumatized public. Not on this Saturday in September, though. Probably not next year, either.

As long as people believe that vigilant memory keeps history from repeating itself, they will remember. And their suspicion or pain or anger will re-emerge each time they feel we’ve taken a step backward. That convergence of past and present is often what makes news.

It’s not the job of journalists to decide when it’s time to forget. It’s our job to help people sort it all out, to distinguish the legitimately aggrieved from the politically shrewd, to explain so that the public can decide what next.

That’s hard to do if you don’t know history. Harder still if you prefer it that way.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article had the wrong title for California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004

Mentoring Across Race

Rick Dunham feels content as he watches the closing ceremonies – a gospel brunch — at the Unity Convention in early August.

The final performers exit the stage. The last speech concludes. Dunham stays seated, returning goodbye hugs from the young journalists popping by his table. Most are reporters, carefully navigating their first and second years in the profession. They are Latino, Asian, and bi-racial.

Dunham, a white male, has been their guide.

“I was looking for a way to give back to the profession,” said Dunham, a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek, explaining how a white journalist became associated with a convention associated with journalists of color.

As the program was first being organized, fellow BusinessWeek reporter Cathy Yang asked Dunham if he would be interested in volunteering for the now-defunct Unity Mentoring Program.

He hesitated at first.

“I asked her to make sure it was all right for me to apply,” Dunham said, thinking there might be an unwritten rule that “only minorities need volunteer.”

Yang said there would be no problem. So Dunham filled out the paperwork and soon received a letter of acceptance, which came with the request for a bio and a photo for the program website.

Dunham hesitated again. He sent the program director an e-mail.

“I didn’t want the photo to be a shocker,” he said. “So I asked, ‘Does everyone know who I am?’ “

Again, the answer: “No problem. Thanks for applying.” That’s how Dunham became the sole white male in a mentoring program for minority journalists.

Dunham realized he needed to formally join Unity. Membership usually comes through association with one of four groups: The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA).

Dunham hesitated once more.

He chose AAJA because the first person he mentored was Asian. Since then, he volunteered to work with a young Latina. And he has organized several training sessions for the entire group.

“It was not my whiteness, but my experiences that I had to contribute,” said Dunham, a 25-year veteran. “I thought that being a White House correspondent, I could help a young person get ahead.”

Professional development is central to his goals.

Dunham is vice president of the National Press Club. He hopes to become president next year and is already devising ways to ensure Press Club seminars are offered to diverse groups of reporters.

Dunham said his race did not matter 99 percent of his time in the mentor program. “But I was the minority,” he adds. “And, sometimes I realized that this must be what it is like often for everyone else who is a minority.”

Overall, Dunham said, he received little feedback, positive or negative, about his joining the program.

“I don’t feel like this is any kind of political agenda,” Dunham said. “It is just the right thing to do.”

News organizations should be more diverse, he said, because it’s good for them. “I just think that many valuable perspectives are lost when you don’t have a staff that looks like your readers.”

Dunham said he doesn’t understand why industry numbers lag so far behind in staff diversity. “Why in the world are newspapers not more diverse?” he asked. “You have all the talent you need, excellent young talent. There’s no excuse for not moving in that direction.”

“Going to Unity, I thought, ‘I could hire a whole newspaper just from the enthusiastic, talented young people who are here,’ ” he said. 

But even when minority journalists are hired, Dunham believes they often face newsroom attitudes that can deflate their ability  to succeed.

And those who are hired and who do succeed may be caught in a trap of their own. “So many white reporters and editors assume that minority reporters don’t get where they are because of talent.”

“It is so utterly unfair,” he said. “Look at the mentees. They are being told time and time again by white reporters at their papers that they didn’t deserve to get where they are. It is just not fair to impose that kind of guilt on anybody.”

Dunham thinks such beliefs will not leave the industry for another generation. “There are a lot of burned out, middle-aged people who will believe that until they retire,” he said. But this too will pass, he predicted.

He softly added that maybe he is naïve, too idealistic. Surely, it is more complicated, he said. He paused. Then he offered this summation: “But why not? Why can’t you affirmatively act and look for people? I guess it is easier not to.” Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2004

My Untold Stories

Like our readers and viewers, we live stories that are often left untold. In this personal essay, Tom Huang shows one approach to bringing such a story to life. – Aly Colón, editor of “Journalism with a Difference”

Here is a story I have not told you. The boy is 11 years old. He is small for his age, and skinny, with straight black hair falling into his face. His glasses frame his soft brown eyes. He is standing outside his elementary school. The bright orange belt strapped around his chest and waist reveals that he is the captain of the school’s safety patrol.

Class is about to start, but he waits to make sure the last of the young children have crossed the street safely. He sees three tall teenagers. They are running in T-shirts and shorts. They are probably on the track team at the junior high school nearby.

As they approach, the boy looks down, studying the sidewalk.

“Gook,” one teenager says.

Before the boy can turn away, another teenager summons something from his throat. He spits in the boy’s face. The teenagers laugh and continue with their morning run. The boy wipes his face with his shirt. He can taste the salt.

Why do the teenagers hate him so?

Why have I not told you this story?

I imagine you as a girl. You have told me this story many times. It is more than 50 years ago, and you are 15. You are pale and thin, sick with fevers. There has been little to eat at your boarding school.

Mao’s army is coming. It is time for you and your sister and brother to run. You want to join your parents and other siblings on an island off Hong Kong. But first you have to take a train south from Hanchow. You dress as peasants. You do not speak, so people will not suspect you are trying to escape. You push away the men who try to touch you and your sister.

In Hong Kong, you meet a family friend. He helps you and your sister and brother get on a boat. As the boat leaves the port, gunshots ring out and people yell. You drop to the floor, and for a moment you think men are coming after you. But it’s nothing. The boat lurches forward, the sea opens up. You will not see your homeland for another 25 years.

I imagine you as a young man. You are a quiet, intense man, a scientist, busy in your study, so there are only parts of this story that I know. More than 50 years ago, your family fled the war, too. But your family had money, so you were able to escape by taking a plane to Taiwan. It was the first plane ride you had ever taken in your life.

You were the best student in your high school and university in Taiwan. You were a shy man, and only met my mother, a college classmate, when you tried to sell her a slide-rule. You were a romantic man, and took her to American movies, and wrote her letters and poetry. At the age of 23, you left everything that you knew to come to the United States to study. My mother followed you a year later.

When I think of both of you, I think of courage, I think of constant movement, I think of departures and arrivals.

As your son, how can I explain to you the decisions that I have made?

Daddy, I attended the university where you got your doctorate. I trained to become a scientist. You and Mom expected me to become a professor, to find success in something you knew and understood, to find stability and security in my work.

And yet I turned away from that. I remember the moment I turned away. I was a reporter for my college newspaper. I had met some homeless people who were protesting the lack of affordable housing in Cambridge. I summoned the courage to talk with them. They took me to the abandoned house where they had found temporary shelter. They slept on dirty mattresses. They kept old, stale loaves of bread in a broken oven.

I looked out the window of the abandoned house and looked at the people who walked by. I imagined that I was homeless, uprooted. Something moved inside me.

I wondered: Why have we not told your story?

Can I tell it?

As your son, how can I explain how I feel about what I do? Let me try to tell you another story. The boy with the straight black hair grew up. While in college, he visited his grandmother. She lived in Los Angeles. She spoke loudly and liked to play mah jong. She kept hugging him. He could not really speak with her, because she did not know English, and he did not know any of the Chinese dialects.

She took him to a dim sum restaurant in Monterey Park where he was surrounded by dozens of Chinese families. He ate his dumplings and spring rolls and crullers, and he smiled at his grandmother. But he felt a distance. He did not feel that he belonged in that room or in that culture. He felt he was in limbo.

He did not know his grandmother’s name.

A few months after he graduated from college, the young man worked as a reporting intern for a newspaper in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was writing a story about a family of migrant workers. The father had hurt his back at a construction site, but the company would not agree to pay any compensation.

The reporter visited their house. They had not been able to pay bills, so the heat had been turned off. It was winter. The mother turned on the oven and left its door open. She held her baby and looked out the window and cried. What had she left behind, and what had she found here? Something moved inside the reporter, and he wondered: Why have we not told your story?

I look back on those years, and I think about your son: the young reporter, who, starting out, lived out of two suitcases and worked in four cities in 15 months. I can remember how excited he was. I can remember how scared he was. He had turned away from something that he and his family knew, and he was venturing into something that he did not know.

Why have I not told you this story? Why have you not told me all of your stories?

Let’s begin. Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2004

The Meaning of Unity

Here in the afterglow of Unity 2004, I’m giving some thought to that word, unity.

The Washington, D.C. mega-convention was a wonderful event, heavy on heft and relevance and all the hugs and handshakes that give the annual journalists of color gatherings the quality of a family reunion. It was also, by any measure, the largest convention of American journalists ever, a fact largely lost on those who feel compelled to force the word “minority” into that sentence.

When President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry made back-to-back appearances before the group, it was clear that Unity had arrived at a new day.

The third time was truly charming, and it hardly seems the right time to mess with that. But here goes.

The next step is to become truly inclusive. Open the doors and let gays and lesbians in. And while you’re at it, pull the Society for Professional Journalists in as well. Then you’ll have true unity.

Given the impressive turnout of black, Asian, Latino, and Native American journalists in the nation’s capitol, I’m not even sure this is practical. The District’s convention center comfortably absorbed the crowd of more than 8,000, but with predictions that the 2008 convention figures to top 10,000, Unity might not be able to grow much bigger.

Let’s try anyway.

Put logistics aside, and there’s hardly a valid argument against this. There are less valid ones, though.

A year before Unity 1999, as the American Society of Newspaper Editors was coming to grips with the fact that it would fall well short of its 20-year-old goal of racial and ethnic parity by the new millennium, the Unity core gathered with editors for a meeting in San Francisco. In the room were presidents from NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA, and NAJA. There were board members from ASNE, top officers of NLGJA and JAWS, and diversity leaders from across the country.

On the table was the suggestion that ASNE include white women, gays, and lesbians in its annual diversity census. An even bigger question was why NLGJA couldn’t be part of Unity. The answers for the former were, from where I sat, feeble: It would dilute the diversity effort to step outside of race/ethnicity and into sexual orientation. Someone said it wasn’t “the right time” for that.

I’d hope that the leadership at Unity can see now that the time has never been more right to stand up for people — many of them members of the Unity organizations — still fighting against the kinds of workplace and journalistic ignorance and bigotry that brought the likes of NABJ into existence nearly 30 years ago.

There’s room enough for that diverse crowd. There’s room enough for the predominantly white SPJ, too. I don’t know that anyone from that organization has ever asked to come to the Unity party, but I missed white journalists in D.C. And in their absence, Unity missed a chance to magnify its impact monumentally.

I’d hope that the leadership at Unity can see now that the time has never been more right to stand up for people…The convention was an extraordinary balance of general, professional development workshops and sessions designed specifically to move the needle on newsroom diversity and fair, accurate coverage. That mixture felt right. It felt like this fledgling entity had matured so quickly and so profoundly that it was ready to take the lead as the nation’s premier journalism organization.

The convention was already peopled by an alphabet soup of journalistic groups, many of them — IRE, SEJ (Society of Environmental Journalists), RTNDA, NAA, ASNE — majority white. There were white editors, news directors, professors and recruitors. All were there, though, to serve journalists of color, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a limited thing.

Look through the schedule of Unity 2004, and for every investigative reporting session that might help Latino journalists reach a new reporting plane, there was a session on covering Latinos that could help white journalists take coverage to a new high. For every “What it Takes to be a Publisher” session that lifted the aspirations of Asian or Native American journalists, there was a “Covering Changing Communities” workshop that might have helped white journalists do the kind of work that these organizations so want to see done in their local newspapers and television stations.

There’s more to this, I know. The annual convention fills the coffers of the four Unity organizations and makes other things possible, so opening Unity up to even more groups could make it less profitable for some. Yet, far from the whispered fears of some leaders within Unity, NAJA, NAHJ, AAJA, and NABJ seem to have emerged from three mega-conventions stronger, more vibrant, and more relevant than ever.

They seemed to prove this year, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their distinct identities and purposes remained intact before, during, and after they combined for this historic gathering.

So if there are other reasons not to pursue more diversity, let’s hear them and debate them.

I’m grateful for the difficult work Unity leaders have undertaken over more than a decade, creating and sustaining a coalition that has put to test every tenet of diversity ever uttered. I’m proud of what Unity has been and what it has become.

The challenge now is to take the great risk of leading American journalism into the full realization of diversity. Open the doors. Let everyone in. Show this country what it really means to call something unity. Read more


Monday, July 26, 2004

Beyond Stereotype

The scene: Plano West Senior High School, just north of Dallas. Here comes Russell Woo, big man on campus.

“Russell can’t walk 10 steps in the hallway without a high-five, and teachers often hush him for talking in class. He wears jeans with holes in fashionable places, and amber highlights tint his strategically mussed hair. His sunglasses sit atop his head throughout the school day.”

That’s an early scene in a narrative by Kim Breen, an education reporter at The Dallas Morning News. The story ran on our front page last spring (“For 3 dedicated teens, it’s a race to the top,” May 23, 2004).

Kim focused on three Asian-American teenagers who competed against one another to become class valedictorian. Her story has all the ingredients of a compelling narrative: clear focus; strong character development; simple plot; powerful scenes, details, and dialogue; and a central conflict or transformation.

The reader is driven to finish the story. We want to know who wins the top spot. But Kim’s story is not just an engaging narrative. It’s also a good example of reporting and writing about diversity.

The story is not strictly about race or culture. Kim would have reported on the valedictorian’s contest regardless of the students’ backgrounds. In fact, her story does not include the word “Asian.” Still, culture is the story’s undercurrent. And reading the narrative, we begin to understand what it’s like to be a high-achieving child of Asian parents – with all the subtle pressures, tensions, and contradictions that entails.

I am tired of reading newspaper stories about high-achieving Asian kids – the valedictorians, musicians, and science fair gurus. But that’s because most of these stories don’t get below the surface of the young people’s experience. They only reinforce the stereotype of the Model Minority.

Kim’s narrative breaks the stereotype by humanizing Russell and his classmates, Tiffany Lin and Alice Li. It shows them as real flesh-and-blood people, quirks and all. Kim spent enough time with them and got close enough to understand something about their distinct personalities.

Narrative storytelling is a crucial tool in covering diversity. That’s not to say that hard-hitting investigative reports and social trend pieces aren’t important in exploring issues of race and ethnicity. But narratives require a more intimate approach: The reporter starts with an individual, and through that individual’s experience, illuminates something larger.

* * *

The fact that I finished Kim’s story with mixed feelings about Russell Woo says a lot about her reporting. He’s neither the stereotypical Asian nerd nor Mr. Goody Two-Shoes. He has an arrogant side. He doesn’t pay attention in class, yet aces all the tests. He’s cool, popular. But when presented with a pop quiz, he’s suddenly all business.

Then Kim reveals Russell’s inner tension: His father was class valedictorian 35 years ago. His father gave him a copy of his old valedictory speech. But Russell didn’t read it.

Russell’s competitors are equally complex. When Tiffany was a little kid, her dad kept a to-do list for her. She works hard to make people like her and tries to minimize the importance of grades. She craves harmony. She wears gray sweatshirts to school, saving her stunning outfits for the prom and piano recitals. She’s one of Russell’s best friends and wants him to do well. Her inner tension: She wants to be the best but doesn’t want to upset others.

Alice studied a page out of the dictionary every day when she was a kid. She reads during her lunch hour and spends four hours a night on homework. She hasn’t had time to get her driver’s license. But there’s tension within her, as well: She is passionate about the violin and won’t drop her orchestra class even though it poses a risk to her grades.

What Kim’s story reveals is that, even within the narrow confines of West Plano, the Asian-American experience is not monolithic. These three students pursue excellence in different ways. They respond to their parents’ pressures – and the pressures they put on themselves – as individuals.

Kim and her editor, Kamrhan Farwell, say they learned these lessons in producing the valedictorian story:

  • Be there. You have to spend a lot of time with the people you’re writing about to gain that level of intimacy.

  • Watch how the best photographers do their work. They know how to act as flies on the wall and capture the most powerful moments.

  • Avoid cliches of vision. You might think you know how people in a certain culture will act, and you’ll shape your story according to that stereotype. Intimacy can help you cut through those cliches.

  • Show, don’t tell. That’s especially important in stories where diversity plays a role, because you need to observe and then reveal the nuances of culture.

Kim’s approach to reporting and storytelling brings to mind a narrative series that sets the standard on the subject of diversity: Anne Hull’s “Rim of the New World.” In the series, which was a 2003 Pulitzer finalist, Hull traces the lives of four young immigrants as they make their way through the changing multicultural landscape of Atlanta.

In an e-mail interview with Poynter’s Matt Thompson, Hull wrote:

Be conscious of the distancing language that inhabits most newspaper stories. Set a goal for intimacy. As a reporter, be physically present to witness and absorb, if even for three hours. Have all your sensory pistons firing: seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. In trying to convey the nuances of a culture or neighborhood, the drama is in the small observed or spoken exchanges, and one needs to be there to see it unfold.

Read more