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

Matt Lauer, Ann Curry

How race factors into the conversation about Ann Curry’s possible ouster from ‘Today’ Show

This week’s news of Ann Curry’s problems as co-host of NBC’s “Today” show makes my mind reel and my heart ache.

It makes my heart ache because, as the son of Asian immigrants, I’ve felt an instinctive pride as I’ve watched Curry’s slow and steady climb up to one of network news’ most high-profile jobs.

Finally, on morning TV, I could find someone who looked like me. I identified with her. I was inspired by her.

Now she is faltering and may even be forced out because of a decline in ratings.

No doubt, many factors lie behind the “Today” show’s drop in viewers. It now runs neck-and-neck with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” But some executives fault Curry, because the collapse has occurred in the year since she became co-host after replacing Meredith Vieira.

The news makes my mind reel, because Curry’s lack of rapport with Matt Lauer and the “Today” show family — real or perceived — and her possible ouster may have something to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing. (She is biracial with Japanese roots.)

Or these things may have absolutely nothing to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing.

She may just not be good at projecting the ease and warmth of Vieira or Katie Couric, the co-hosts who preceded her.

Simple as that.

And yet: In Curry’s saga, there’s enough of the whiff of race and culture to prompt Mike Hale, New York Times TV and film critic, to mention it in his in-depth feature story about her struggles.

I have long admired the intelligence and balance that Hale brings to his work. So I trust that Hale, who has Asian roots himself, raises the cultural issue only upon great reflection. (I contacted Hale but didn’t hear back. He and I are friendly acquaintances, as we are both members of the Asian American Journalists Association, whose governing board I serve on. My views here do not necessarily represent AAJA’s.)

Hale observed Curry for a month, and I’m drawn to his insights: “But as you watch the show,” he writes, “there’s an inescapable sense that Ms. Curry is outside the group in a subtle but unmistakable way, like the stepsister Cinderella without a prince…”

“I don’t know what personal factors might come into play in creating an on-screen distance,” Hale writes. “You could speculate about certain things. Ms. Curry is biracial (Japanese-American) and spent part of her early childhood living overseas, a situation that has been known to generate self-reliance and reserve. (Barack Obama probably wouldn’t make the warmest of morning hosts.)”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Hale or anyone else is arguing that Curry is being overtly discriminated against because of her race.

In fact, Curry’s Asian background, along with her strong reporting chops, hard work and credibility, has probably been a plus for her career, as “Today” and other shows recruited a diverse group of journalists to reflect the communities they cover and the audiences they seek.

What I am suggesting is that Curry’s Otherness, real or perceived, might have worked against her as she tried to fit in with — and take a more prominent role in — the chummy morning-show environment.

What do I mean by Otherness?

Think about the things in your background that set you apart from the others who surround you every day — not just your race or religion or age or sexual orientation or political convictions. Maybe you grew up with an easy-going Texas swagger and are having trouble fitting into an abrasive Boston workplace. (Hey, I can say that because I’m from the beloved Beantown.)

Maybe you were raised by an Asian father or Asian mother (or, God forbid, both) and were taught certain cultural norms — to be reserved, to not share private family matters, to not interrupt others, to not be showy about your feelings.

Or maybe you weren’t taught any of these things.

They are simply part of your personality and have nothing to do with your family and their traditions.

But there is this observation from Mike Hale: “There are moments in every show when you feel as if you’re registering Ms. Curry’s true feelings, and in the constructed world of the morning show that honesty can work for you or against you. It’s one thing when we know that you’re moved by the story of a sick child. It’s another when we know that you’re bored by and a little contemptuous of a visiting chef.”

Maybe, as in Ann Curry’s case, you’re just too honest for your own good. Read more


Monday, Apr. 02, 2012

How journalists can stop the spread of misinformation when reporting on the occult

Police in Fairfield, Conn., say new DNA evidence may help them catch the suspect who strangled a newborn boy and left his body by the banks of Lake Mohegan 26 years ago. But as police and reporters return the case to the public eye, they’re also resurrecting rumors that Santeria or Palo Mayombe were involved in the killing.

The infant’s body was laid on a piece of burlap pinned with crosses of St. Lazarus, surrounded by pieces of fruit, coins and food, according to police. Some inspectors claimed these were signs that the killing was part of a ritual, even though neither faith practices human sacrifice.

Police admitted the connection to Santeria was just a guess: “We called it Santeria because we had to label it something,” Fairfield Police Lt. Mike Gagner told the Fairfield Citizen. “There are similar religions; we just don’t know enough about the practices to say.” Local television took it further, connecting the crime to Palo Mayombe, which a reporter erroneously called “a dark offshoot of the Santeria religion.”

Santeria and Palo Mayombe, which are not related faiths, both developed in Africa. Neither is particularly well understood in the United States. Santeria has just tens of thousands of followers, most of whom keep their beliefs to themselves. It’s unlikely most Americans will knowingly encounter someone who follows Santeria or Palo Mayombe. Most of their exposure is through horror movies and the news, which usually don’t portray them accurately.

That leaves the public’s imagination wide open to suggestion when it comes to crimes with an occult element. Because reporters are eager to grab readers’ attention, it’s tempting to include an occult hook when there is one. Doing so without evidence, however, means spreading false — even defamatory — information about minority faiths and their followers.

There are plenty of ways to avoid these mistakes. Here are some tips for reporting on such crimes responsibly.

Don’t take what police or other sources say at face value

Police aren’t experts on the occult or minority faiths. Police academies don’t teach these topics extensively. Once in a while, an officer decides to self-educate, but it’s rare. Most police — like most people — don’t encounter Satanists, Wiccans, Santerians or Thelemites every day, so they don’t necessarily know more than we do about their practices.

When officers enter a crime scene, they seek items that might inform the investigation. For example, when Milwaukee, Wisc., roommates Raven Larrabee and Rebecca Chandler were arrested last fall for cutting an Arizona man 300 times, police noted the presence of two books at their apartment: the humorous “The Werewolf’s Guide to Life” and the more serious “Necromantic Ritual Book.” They also found a black folder titled “Introduction to Sigilborne Spirits.”

Reporters ran with the information and speculated about sexy werewolf rituals. It was remarkable how this story spread for the week or two after it broke. This spring, one of the women denied any occult inspiration for the incident.

Without in-house expertise, police have sometimes consulted self-styled “occult experts,” such as the late Don Rimer, whose handbooks and seminars for police departments were full of misinformation. If police claim a link between a crime and a specific faith or occult practice, be skeptical.

Likewise, crime-scene neighbors aren’t occult experts. In January, when a Cornwall, UK, woman’s horse was slaughtered, locals Googled the date and linked it to a holiday found on an online “Satanic calendar” — which had been fabricated by a fundamentalist Christian organization. Several news outlets, including the BBC, ran with the rumors before backing off in later reports.

Find & interview real experts

If the police say a crime has Satanic elements, find a local Satanist leader to vet the claims. If the neighbors say it’s Santeria or Palo Mayombe, talk to the nearest botanica owner. Many of these faiths have leaders or public figures who are happy to discuss the facts and clarify whether elements of a crime bear any resemblance to their practices.

Over time — particularly if you’re on the crime beat — you’ll build up a list of reliable contacts who can respond quickly when you’re covering a breaking crime story.

Relying on books is tricky, because so many are full of sensationalistic or false information. The Internet is worse; while there are reliable sites describing minority faiths and their practices accurately, it’s tough to know which ones are legit, particularly when you’re unfamiliar with the field and you’re racing a deadline.

Write carefully, with attention to relevant details

When it comes time to write, be as clear as you can. If the police claim a murder was a specific religion’s ritual sacrifice, but the expert you’ve talked to says his or her faith doesn’t practice such sacrifices, spell that out. This is a chance not only to report facts about a newsworthy crime, but also clear the air of readers’ preconceived ideas.

If you’re stuck and can’t find reliable information on the faith in question, be conscientious in your phrasing. There’s a big difference between saying “the police are investigating a Satanic murder” and saying “police say they found a pentagram at the crime scene.” Such information doesn’t necessarily belong in your lede; most crimes are attention-grabbing enough on their own.

Confessed suspects may provide their own clues, as well. When Murfreesboro, Tenn., police arrested John Lotts, Jr., in January on charges of stabbing a 5-year-old, they quickly latched on to his status as a member of the Church of Satan. Lotts told a reporter that he’d hurt the child after losing his temper — and that Satanism was not involved. Even so, his faith got more play than the fact that Lotts is a convicted sex offender — a much more relevant factor.

Prior criminal history and mental illness are more likely culprits in such crimes. And they make reader-luring headlines, too. Let these details take the lead, and tread carefully when police raise the specter of the occult. The reputation of the suspect, and of anyone who belongs to the faith in question, is on the line. Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 14, 2012

AP Stylebook updates entry on racial IDs in news stories

On Tuesday, the AP Stylebook updated its entry on when journalists should publish information about a person’s race.

The update says that race is pertinent in stories about crime suspects who have been “sought by the police or missing person cases,” so long as “police or other credible, detailed descriptions” are used. When the suspect is found or apprehended, the update says, the racial reference should be removed.

Some news organizations use racial identifiers in crime stories, as the AP suggests, despite criticism. There are many times, however, when a source’s race is irrelevant and shouldn’t be included.

One of the challenges, said AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn, is determining whether descriptions of suspects are accurate. “We have to use our news judgment on racial references, but if we have reason to believe that it’s from a credible, reasonable source and appropriate for the story, we would include it,” Minthorn said by phone.

But even when you do have an accurate description of a person’s race, is that enough to make it relevant?

My former colleague Keith Woods wrote that racial identifiers are rarely relevant or revealing and can perpetuate stereotypes. While they carry information about heritage and geography, they don’t describe much about a person’s physical appearance.

“What, for example, does a Hispanic man look like? Is his skin dark brown? Reddish brown? Pale? Is his hair straight? Curly? Course? Fine? Does he have a flat, curved nose or is it narrow and straight?” Woods wrote. “Telling the public that he’s 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, with a blue shirt and blue jeans says something about the person’s appearance. But what do you add to that picture when you say Latino?”

He pointed out that journalists probably wouldn’t say, “The suspect appeared to be Italian,” or “Police are looking for a middle-aged man described as ‘Jewish-looking.’”

“There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype,” Woods wrote. “And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don’t look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?”

This isn’t to say race is always irrelevant. In racially motivated crimes, such as the murder of James Byrd, race is an important element of the story. The AP Stylebook update explains other instances when it’s relevant:

  • “In biographical and announcement stories that involve significant, groundbreaking or historic events, such as being elected U.S. president, named to the U.S. Supreme Court or other notable occurrences.”
  • “When reporting a demonstration or disturbance involving race or such issues as civil rights or slavery.”

Minthorn, who is one of the Stylebook editors, said the update was added for clarity’s sake.

“What we’re trying to do is formalize practices that we know to be reasonable,” Minthorn said by phone. “I don’t think we have a definition here that covers all instances, but we’re trying to be fair and reasonable in our guidance.” Read more


Monday, Feb. 13, 2012


3 things journalists can learn from ‘Linsanity’

Like most sports fans (and many non-sports fans, for that matter), I’ve been caught up in Linsanity.

That’s the term fans use to describe Jeremy Lin’s stunning breakout performance as point guard for the New York Knicks.

For those who haven’t been following their social media streams, Lin emerged from the Knicks’ bench to dominate several games, including a 38-point, 7-assist performance against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Under Lin’s leadership, the Knicks are on a five-game winning streak headed into Tuesday night’s game.

What’s unusual about Lin’s story is that he is a Harvard graduate and an American of Taiwanese descent. There haven’t been that many Harvard graduates in the NBA. And, as best as I can tell, there have been only three or four Asian Americans in the league before Lin.

Add in Lin’s apparent good-guy humility and devout Christian faith, and his story resonates with a lot of folks, regardless of their appreciation for his fluid jump shots and acrobatic drives to the basket. (For an explanation of this watershed moment, read Jeff Yang’s exuberant piece for The Wall Street Journal.)

Lin’s story certainly resonates with me. As the son of Chinese immigrants — and an NBA fanatic — I can’t help but feel a sense of pride when I watch Lin play. He excels in an arena where I haven’t seen many people who look like me (except for my Asian brothers and sisters cheering in the stands).

So I’m going to enjoy Linsanity for as long as it lasts. In the meantime, with my journalist’s hat on, I’d like to sketch out three things we can learn from covering this phenomenon.

Even as Lin breaks stereotypes, let’s watch out for subtle stereotyping in our coverage.

I’ve seen Lin described as a quiet and thoughtful young man, as a hard worker. All of this may be true, and who wouldn’t want to be described that way? These are positive traits, and they speak to Lin’s good character.

The problem, though, is that many of these traits are typically ascribed to Asian Americans in a stereotypical way. We in the media often don’t go beyond these surface descriptions to try to understand who the individual is.

The fact of the matter is that Lin appears to be a natural leader – not just a quiet, hard worker. It would be interesting to explore how he has established that leadership on a team of NBA stars in such a short time.

I’ve also seen Lin described as a “shifty” shotmaker. I’m sure the writer’s intent was good; he was trying to describe how Lin uses various feints to get open shots against his defenders. But the writer also needs to be aware of the history of describing Asians as shifty — using deceit to gain an advantage.

The other problem is that when things don’t go well for Lin (and if Lin has a lengthy NBA career, there will be plenty of ups and downs), this shorthand may shift into the negative. I can imagine these statements: “He’s so quiet, he has trouble communicating with his coach and his teammates.” “He’s so thoughtful, he’s overthinking the game and turning over the ball too much.” “He’s a hard worker, but he’s got limited skills, and eventually they’ll figure out how to guard him.”

The great Yao Ming, for example, was knocked for not having enough of a mean streak for cultural reasons. When things don’t go well for Lin, let’s not fall into such simplistic thinking.

Let’s not pigeonhole Lin into restrictive categories.

Ivy League graduate. Asian American man. Devout Christian.

These are all categories that fit Lin, and I’m sure they are all important components to who he is as a human being. But they aren’t the only things that define him. We need to be cautious about stereotypes that linger underneath these labels.

When you think of “Ivy League grad,” what stereotypes come to mind? Brainy, elitist, arrogant? “Asian American man”– inscrutable, passive, reserved? “Devout Christian” — judgmental, moralistic, holier than thou?

I doubt that Lin has any of these traits, though he may have a bit of several of them. People are multidimensional, and it’s our job as journalists to capture some of their complexity. For a nuanced look at Lin as an Asian American Christian, read Michael Luo’s thoughtful essay for The New York Times.

In upcoming profiles, let’s avoid limiting Lin to these boxes. For example, someone likened Lin to the “Taiwanese Tim Tebow,” and I’m not even sure what that means. It seems reductive in the worst manner.

Instead, let’s find out what challenges and obstacles Lin has truly faced in his young life, and how he overcame them. Then we can begin to understand who Lin truly is and why his story may very well transcend the sports story.

This is a feel-good story, so humor should be a part of it. But let’s be careful about using humor that crosses the line.

Perhaps one reason journalists are ga-ga over Jeremy Lin is that his last name inspires a seemingly endless litany of play-on-words headlines: “Linning Time,” “Linning Streak,” “Lingenious,” “Lin the Knick of Time” and, yes, “Linsanity.”

And the signs that fans hold up at basketball games have been pretty creative, too: “Who says Asians can’t drive?”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Point Guard,” and “Me love you Lin time.”

All of this is in good fun, but at some point, the headlines will grow tiresome, and the signs will cross the line into racism. Already, there’s controversy over one fan’s sign at the Knicks-Lakers game: “The Yellow Mamba,” a play off Kobe’s nickname, “The Black Mamba.”

Let’s not kill the joy. But let’s also be aware that what’s funny to some can be offensive to others, especially when it comes to racially-tinged humor.

Jason Whitlock, a FoxSports.com columnist, found that out when, after Lin’s dominance against the Lakers on Friday, he tweeted: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.”

The Asian American Journalists Association swiftly called for an apology, arguing that the tweet didn’t “hold up to the conduct of responsible journalists, those in sports or otherwise, who adhere to standards of fairness, civility and good taste.” (I serve on the national advisory board of AAJA, but I was not involved in the Whitlock matter, and my views in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.)

On Sunday, Whitlock apologized, saying that he had given in to one “part of my personality – my immature, sophomoric, comedic nature…” As AAJA pointed out, “I debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

Jeremy Lin’s fast rise to fame is fascinating, because it emerges from the intersection of so many important issues: race, religion, education, sports, marketing, pop culture, social media. His is a fantastic sports story, but it’s so much more than that, too. And it will be interesting to see how this story plays out. Read more


Monday, Nov. 21, 2011

How to interview, report on immigrants when you don’t speak their language

Growing up, I discovered the easiest way to get rid of someone soliciting from door to door: Just say your family doesn’t speak English. Most visitors turned away quickly.

Occasionally, a church group would really persist and invite themselves in. After some awkwardness, they managed to communicate with us, even though my parents’ preferred language was Vietnamese. They used me as a translator, showed books with photos and after patiently sitting around for a couple of hours, found out that my father did speak a little English, albeit slowly and shyly.

Many journalists could take some inspiration from those Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses who visited our North Carolina home. Immigrant communities are rich with stories, but reporters often cite language as an obstacle.

Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for Sunday and enterprise at the Dallas Morning News, told me that some reporters he’s supervised have assumed they wouldn’t be able to get much information. In truth, he said, they feel uncomfortable. “It’s fear of the unknown,” he said.

Hiring more bilingual reporters is one solution for media outlets. But that has limitations, too. In many communities, dozens of languages are spoken, from Arabic to Yiddish. Moreover, reporting on people who don’t speak English shouldn’t be handed off as the responsibility of one or two journalists. Immigrants are important sources for every beat, from city government to public health to religion.

Here are some ways to maneuver around the language barrier:

Realize that there may be more English speakers than you think.

Being an immigrant doesn’t mean a person doesn’t speak English. As a reporter for The Washington Post, I wanted to do a story about Koreans immigrating to suburban Maryland so their kids could attend the well-regarded public schools.

I worried about my ability to do an in-depth story about a family with an interpreter tagging along for hours at a time. But eventually, I found a family in which both father and mother spoke English — they had been educated at American universities years ago.

Seek out long-time residents and younger people as “cultural brokers.”

Use them to help you get an overview of the community, brainstorm story ideas and meet others. Many immigrants who have lived in the community longest serve as church leaders, social workers or hired translators at nonprofits and governments. They’re often trusted by other residents and can smooth the way for you. On the other end, the younger people provide a different perspective. The generational divide is a terrific narrative thread.

Many reporters, including myself, have also used community leaders or young people as translators. This should be done with some caution. Be aware that some people may have self-interests or conflicts — as in any reporting situation. Teenagers, for example, might not tell you everything their parents are saying — that’s a fact that crosses all cultures.

Take your time.

The longer you’re with people, the more comfortable they’ll feel. In-person visits are infinitely better than on-phone interviews because you can see and respond to the source’s body language. Multiple visits are essential for more complicated stories. Shajia Ahmad of the Garden City Telegram in Kansas, who has reported on Burmese and Somali immigrants, said she doesn’t bring in a photographer until after she’s visited several times. Her theory is that most families probably prefer one stranger in their home at a time.

Spending time with sources is also important for the sake of accuracy. You might need to go over a point several times, to make sure you understand it correctly. WCCO-TV in Minneapolis recently aired a story saying that a New York City Chinese-owned market was selling dog meat from Minnesota.

The employee that a reporter interviewed by phone likely meant “duck” not “dog,” but the station ran with the story anyway. New York inspectors found no basis for the allegations, and the story has since been erased from WCCO’s website. News Director Michael Caputa acknowledges the station was wrong, but still seems to be defending the story. “The person we spoke to said he didn’t speak English, but then gave an interview in English,” he wrote in a staff memo.

Use your other senses.

Reporting shouldn’t be limited to interviewing. Look at what’s on their walls. Notice their gestures. What type of music is playing? What type of photos or written materials can they show you?

Sometimes, I’ve used what I notice in someone’s home as an icebreaker. People talk more openly and are less embarrassed about their language abilities when they’re at ease. When I asked one woman to tell me about the family pictures on her shelves, she lit up. By the time she got to the last photo, she was even comfortable enough to tell me that it was of the daughter she had left behind in El Salvador. The years of distance had made them strangers.

Matt O’Brien of the Contra Costa Times told me via email that he relied on his observations when he interviewed an elderly Taiwanese immigrant through a community worker. He noticed her family looking uncomfortable at the woman’s responses and then moved the interview to another room.

Develop a network of translators.

Reporters I know have depended on friends, parents or colleagues at other newsrooms. Alhambra Source, an online news site in southern California, taps into a team of more than 30 community volunteers. The site, a project of the University of Southern California’s journalism school, publishes in three languages — English, Spanish and Chinese. The volunteers serve as citizen reporters and translators, and they’re given credit at the end of stories.

Daniela Gerson, the site’s editor, has relied on the volunteers to help report on stories such as a health center serving elderly Chinese that is facing budget cuts. (Gerson speaks Spanish, but not Chinese.)

She wondered whether other media outlets could use community translators just as they ask citizen reporters for news and photos. “We’ve found that people really want to help us,” Gerson told me in an interview. “People value that they’re able to provide a bridge to their community.” Read more


Friday, Aug. 19, 2011

New Pew study confirms digital divide in mobile news interest

Someone once joked that my wife and I, then still both working for Newsday, were bridging the digital divide all by ourselves. Between the two of us, we own an iMac, two MacBook Pros, an iPad and two iPhones.

As black journalists with relationships forged in newsrooms and media organizations, most of our friends and associates, like us, are news junkies – and use mobile devices to stay informed, connected and productive.

But a report released this week by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, “How Americans Use Their Cell Phones,” suggests that most African Americans don’t use their cell phones for similar reasons.

Yes, the study says, blacks and Latinos have higher usage rates, compared with white owners, across a wide range of mobile applications.

As other surveys have found consistently, however, most blacks and Latinos primarily use their cells for texting and for entertainment. Even if their phones make it easy to access the Internet, it’s not news they’re after.

Some say it’s still about content.

Monica Rhor, a Houston-based freelance writer who writes about education for Latino Ed Beat and Mamiverse, says media companies face the same conundrum getting people of color to view their offerings on mobile devices as in getting them to read a newspaper or watch the evening news.

“There isn’t anything in there that appeals to the Latino community,” Rhor said. “Too often, portrayals of Latinos or stories about Latinos are reduced to immigration or crime or the annual Latino festival in your city – and not becoming part of the fabric of every story.”

Others say it’s about simplicity.

Even appealing or essential news stories can be hard to view, let alone appreciate, on most cells, said Melanie Eversley, a breaking news desk reporter at USA Today and a contributor to The Grio.

“It’s not easy to get breaking news on the phone unless you have an iPhone,” said Eversley, also a vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists’ digital journalism task force. “Entertainment apps seem to be a lot more easy to use.”

The other morning was typical for me: Wake up, say a quick prayer, then reach for my iPhone on the nightstand. Check what’s new in my three email accounts – one asks me to write this article. Next, see what’s interesting on Facebook and Twitter. Then tap screen icons taking me to ESPN.com and blogs about Apple and media diversity. Return to the email invitation and tap the link to read the Pew study. All before sitting up in bed.

How do we make this happen in more black and Latino bedrooms?

Media companies must better engage people of color as content creators and producers, not just users, said Chioma Ugochukwu, Ph.D., an assistant dean and my colleague in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University.

“When you have more minority developers/producers, you are also likely to have greater interest in creating mobile news apps that target minority audiences,” she wrote to me in an email.

Ugochukwu introduced a new media course at the University of South Carolina-Upstate and recently received a grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to study how college students use social networking sites.

Creating business models that target and attract black and Latino mobile users to news is only a start, she said.

“There is also the fact that minority kids need to be socialized early enough at home and in the classroom to value technology and news,” Ugochukwu said. She cited Intel’s Computer Club House program as an after-school model capable of creating developers from communities of color.

Rhor, who taught at a high school in suburban Houston for 18 months, agreed. Saying most teenagers want only to download mobile apps that show what they would look like if really fat or really skinny, Rhor said media companies should develop more access points with teachers seeking to present news in their classrooms.

“Every history teacher I know uses CNN Student News,” she said.

Then, again, Rhor said, it will remain hard for teenagers to develop a mobile news appetite when many schools ban them from using their cells during the day.

There is hope, of course. Educators have told Rhor that at least one Web-based publication is contacting high school journalism programs with online capabilities to see about aggregating their content.

“I think it’s really smart,” she said. “If kids’ stories appear on a national website, you’re going to have lots of kids reading those stories that wouldn’t read them otherwise. They’re creating a new generation of readers that way.”

Eversley and Rhor said mobile news appetites could increase as more black and Latino online news and opinion sites better utilize social media.

“Not just tweeting links to their stories, or posting them on Facebook, they’re doing a lot of engagement, asking people, ‘What would you do with this story?’” Eversley said of The Grio. “Even when it’s quiet, they’re encouraging conversation and getting people to come to the site.” Read more


Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011


Journalists value precise language, except when it comes to describing ‘minorities’

As journalists, we rely on details to enhance our stories. We “get the name of the dog” and try to be specific so we can offer clarity and tell the whole truth.

But when it comes to stories involving race and ethnicity, we’re anything but specific.

We often use the word “minorities” to describe anyone who isn’t white. It’s familiar and politically correct, but it does little to explain the people we’re referencing. And as people of color become a majority, the word is becoming increasingly inaccurate.

In response to Phuong Ly’s recent Poynter.org story about journalists’ use of “minorities,” one commenter called it a “dismissive” and “belittling” descriptive. Another said that people’s use of the word reflects “intellectual laziness.”

Merrill Perlman, a former director of the New York Times copy desks, told Ly that she has yet to see a good alternative for “minorities.” “Someone,” she said, “needs to invent a new word.”

Explaining what we really mean by “minorities”

There are some possible replacements for “minorities,” including AHANA — a term Boston College uses to refer to African, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans. But the problem with acronyms is that they, too, are vague. Coming up with a new term seems less important than explaining the meaning behind the terms we already use.

Terms such as “black,” “Hispanic,” “Native American” and “Asian American” are more descriptive than “minorities,” but they’re still general. Saying a girl is black only tells me the color of her skin and doesn’t reveal anything about where she or her family are from. Saying she’s Kenyan or Ugandan, however, does. This still doesn’t give me much information about the girl, but it’s more revealing than simply saying she’s a “minority.”

Some journalists have done a good job explaining what they mean by “minorities.” In an Aug. 15 story, the Boston Globe’s Martin Finucane used the word “minorities” then offered specifics:

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office has sued a Dorchester restaurant and bar and its owner, alleging that the establishment engaged in a pattern of not allowing minorities to enter. …

The lawsuit claims that one night in December 2010, two men of Cape Verdean and African descent were turned away from O’Neil’s on Dorchester Avenue. Then later that night, a group of friends of Cape Verdean, Spanish, and African descent were turned away. A third group of minorities was allegedly denied entry in April.

Finucane’s explanation provided an added layer of detail that gave me a better sense of who was turned away. It may have also made it easier for readers who are Cape Verdean, Spanish or African to relate to the story.

Knowing when race is relevant

There are many times when a source’s race is irrelevant and shouldn’t be included. Some news organizations such as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette still use racial identifiers in crime stories, despite criticism. In a related Romenesko post earlier this month, readers shared conflicting views. “When I read a crime story in a paper I immediately want to know race,” commenter Henry Potter said. But as commenter Rod Paul pointed out, “The racial description all too often is used only when the alleged criminal is not White.”

My former colleague Keith Woods once wrote that identifiers are rarely relevant or revealing. ” ‘Urban’ (a sociological term), ‘inner city’ (a geographic term), and ‘blue collar’ (an economic term), are employed to connote race and ethnicity,” he wrote. ” ‘Minority,’ a numerical term, is often used when the journalist actually has a specific racial group in mind, allowing for the ridiculous oxymoron, ‘majority minority.’ ”

Woods pointed out that “race often has relevance in stories. It’s just that the relevance goes unexplored and unexplained.” By offering context and avoiding generalities, we can help foster a healthy dialogue about race and ethnicity.

Being specific when race is relevant

When race is relevant, ask: “Is there a more specific way of describing this group of people?” And ask sources, “Which word or phrase do you identify with most?”

It’s easy to fall back on a blanket descriptive like “minorities.” When we tell diversity-related stories, we tiptoe through language to avoid linguistic landmines. We rely on widely accepted words and phrases because we feel safe using them. But in avoiding the appearance of bigotry, we also risk coded language that signals class or casts people as “the other.” In the process, we end up with stories that perpetuate labels rather than portraying people.

I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve often used the word “minorities.” When I’m unsure of what I’m trying to say, or I want to avoid sounding too critical, I write in generalities. But imprecise language can lead to misinterpretations and, in some cases, perpetuate stereotypes.

Capturing nuances, reflecting changes in the language

Now that demographics are shifting in the United States, it’s not as accurate as it once was to say “minorities.” As the world changes, language changes. Just think about all the AP Stylebook updates each year, and the new words and definitions that make their way into the dictionary.

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark said the word “minorities” may be going through a “semantic shift” — a change in the associations and meanings of words over time. “Sometimes the changes in a word take centuries,” Clark told me. “Other times it can happen very quickly.”

The word “girl,” for example, used to refer to a young person of either gender. The definition of “colored” has also shifted.

“The term ‘colored’ was used for a long time to designate African Americans until it was deemed offensive. And it only really referred to ‘black’ people,” Clark said. “Now we have ‘persons of color,’ which seems to be a synonym for non-white. As the population changes, a term like ‘person of color’ rather than ‘minority’ might be more appropriate.”

Some people, however, argue that “person of color” is as bad as “minorities” or worse. We also may be limited by the AP Stylebook or our newsrooms’ style. When that’s the case, it helps to be open with readers about why we use certain terms.

On its “About” page, the Asian American Journalists Association explains: “AAJA uses the term ‘Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ to embrace all Americans — both citizens and residents — who self-identify with one or more of the three dozen nationalities and ethnic groups in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands. We use this term to refer to our communities at large, as well as to our membership, which includes representatives from all these regions.”

Recently, the Los Angeles Times published a memo from Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann explaining why the Times uses “Latino” over “Hispanic.” Some readers applauded the Times for its decision, while others suggested the term is misleading and raises more questions than it answers.

That’s the problem with using one word or phrase to describe an entire group of people — it never fully captures the nuances of that group. Inevitably, some people  are going to feel slighted or mischaracterized.

There’s power in specificity, and in finding out more about the individuals behind the labels we use. The more specific we are about the people in our stories, the more accurate — and meaningful — our stories will be. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 04, 2011


As people of color become a majority, is it time for journalists to stop using the term ‘minorities’?

Is it time to stop using the term “minorities”?

The word has long been used to describe people who are not white. But changing demographics make the term outdated and oxymoronic.

Consider the word usage in these stories:

From the Associated Press:

For the first time, minorities make up the majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and growing divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.

From KTLA-TV in Los Angeles:

Not surprisingly, most of the states that experienced growth in populations of minority children are the ones where white children are in the minority: California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi and Maryland.

David Minthorn, deputy standards editor at the Associated Press, told me via email that the wire service uses “minority” as it’s defined by Webster’s dictionary — a racial, ethnic, religious or political group smaller and different from the larger group. The term is widely used by academics and demographers, he added.

Minthorn, who is one of three AP Stylebook editors, said the AP isn’t considering a change in usage, but “I have no doubt other precise terms will emerge as the situation evolves.”

Wordsmiths aren’t the only ones interested in this issue. In 2001, the San Diego City Council voted to ban “minority” and “minorities” in all official city documents. Terms like “underserved,” “people of color” or specific ethnic identifiers are used instead.

City leaders said “minority” implied being minor and inferior. And in many neighborhoods, Latinos, blacks and Asians were the majority of residents. By the 2010 census, all of San Diego County was officially minority-majority, with whites who were not Hispanics making up less than 49 percent.

(Boston’s city council voted for a similar minority-word ban in 2002, but the mayor vetoed the measure.) The San Diego Union-Tribune continues to use the word “minority” in its stories. Editor Jeff Light told me that changing the terminology isn’t a front-burner matter for the paper.

For the journalists who formed UNITY, though, the issue was important. UNITY leaders recognized the demographic trend in the early 1990s and decided not to brand the group as an alliance of minority journalists, co-founder Will Sutton said via email. Instead, UNITY calls itself an alliance for “journalists of color.” The coalition included the Native American Journalists Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and, until earlier this year, the National Association of Black Journalists.

Joanna Hernandez, the current UNITY president, said journalists should be as precise as possible when describing someone. It’s best to say someone is Latino, for example, and then go further by stating a country of origin.

Specifics keep readers from making assumptions. For example, “a lot of people assume that Latino means Mexican,” said Hernandez, who describes herself as Latina and more precisely, a “Nuyorican,” a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent.

Still, Hernandez said, there aren’t easy alternatives when a writer is describing a coalition of groups. As a multiplatform editor at the Washington Post, Hernadez said by phone that she can understand why it’s hard for journalists to drop “minority” from their copy. It fits into a headline — or a tweet — more neatly than saying blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans or people of color.

Hernandez and others who think that “minority” is outdated say they couldn’t think of a better replacement.

Merrill Perlman, a former director of the New York Times copy desks, rejected “ethnic” and “people of color” for being too vague. A term like “non-white” has negative connotations. “I haven’t seen a good alternative,” she said by phone. “Someone needs to invent a word.”

(Boston College uses the acronym AHANA to refer to African, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans, but the term has not made its way into popular use.)

To Hernandez, the conundrum shows the beauty of language. “When you start questioning it and start thinking about it,” she said, “then it’ll change.”

Your suggestions: Let’s replace the word “minority” with… Read more


Friday, July 01, 2011


Vargas’ essay renews attention to media’s use of ‘illegal’ & ‘undocumented’

Should journalists call Jose Antonio Vargas an illegal immigrant or an undocumented one?

Discussions about how to refer to an immigrant who isn’t authorized to live in the U.S. have popped up periodically in newsrooms. But Vargas’ recent New York Times essay — and his stature as high-profile, Pulitzer-winning journalist — has thrust the media into a bigger role in the debate.

In his essay, Vargas refers to himself as an undocumented immigrant. In a tweet last week, he noted that many people were tweeting about the controversial essay with the hashtag #undocumented immigrant. “Undocumented immigrant is trending,” he tweeted from his @joseiswriting handle. “So let’s drop ‘illegal’ and ‘alien.’” No person is illegal or an alien.”

Increasingly, immigration advocates are questioning the media’s language usage. Last fall, Colorlines, an online magazine that covers racial justice issues, launched a campaign called “Drop the I-Word.” Supporters are asked to urge media outlets to use “undocumented” rather than “illegal.”

Independent of the campaign, publications such as the San Antonio News-Express in Texas and the Monterey County Herald in California have made changes, and others are considering doing the same.

Many mainstream media outlets use “illegal,” following Associated Press style. AP’s Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn told me via email that “undocumented” isn’t used because the term “implies that the issue is more one of paperwork than the legal right to be in the country.”

The AP Stylebook also states that “illegal alien” and “illegal” as nouns should be avoided. Minthorn said that the AP adopted its entry in 2004 after “considerable discussion on adopting neutral terminology to describe this situation.”

The New York Times also uses “illegal immigrant.” Vargas was allowed leeway to use “undocumented” because he was writing a first-person piece, said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times spokeswoman.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, however, would like more media outlets to re-evaluate their style. The group’s resource guide says that the term “illegal” is often used as a pejorative. Calling immigrants “illegal” also unfairly criminalizes them, according to an NAHJ statement. Being in this country without authorization is not a crime; it’s a civil violation.

Last fall, it was language usage — not just content — that roused readers when the Fresno Bee published a seven-part series about the hypocrisies in the immigration policies and the farming economy of California’s Central Valley. Many readers protested the paper’s use of the term “illegal immigrant.” An English professor at Fresno City College, for instance, started a Facebook group asking people to boycott the paper during the series.

The Bee decided to continue using the term “illegal.” The paper believes it’s the “best option, but recognize that others disagree for various reasons,” Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye said in a story the Bee published about the controversy.

Claudia Melendez Salinas, an education reporter at the Monterey County Herald, pushed her newspaper to change its style to “undocumented immigrant.” The change was made in 2008, and staffers have been reminded when the term “illegal immigrant” slips into paper, Melendez said via email.

Melendez said that publications should change style when words describing a group have become outdated or inappropriate. Newspapers had previously used the N-word, she pointed out.

“I told them ‘illegal’ was offensive and compared it to other offensive labels like ‘spic,’ Melendez said of her talk with editors. “That’s how people use it, if you think about it.”

The San Antonio Express-News changed its style to “unauthorized immigrant” — a compromise decision. “It doesn’t have the bite of illegal immigrant or illegal alien … but it doesn’t have the sanitizing effect of ‘undocumented,’ which implies that said immigrant just misplaced his papers,” Public Editor Bob Richter wrote last year in a column about the change.

Recently, the San Diego Union-Tribune decided to re-evaluate its usage of “illegal immigrant.” Editor Jeff Light said the issue had been brought up last month by the publication’s Latino community advisory board, which works with the newsroom on staff development, coverage issues and Spanish-language products. Light has asked a few reporters to see how other news outlets are handling it.

“I am interested in discussing whether we should change it,” he said via email. “I have no idea whether we will or not at this point.”

Whatever is decided, the debate is a reminder of the power of words and the implications they can have for journalists, readers and sources.

Which term does your newsroom use, and why? Read more


Monday, Apr. 25, 2011


Barroom meetings one way St. Louis Beacon engages people where they really are

When the St. Louis Beacon launched three years ago, its staff made a conscious effort to get out into the community. They wanted to engage with readers not just online, but in person — at museums, coffee shops and hipster bars.

The nonprofit site, which covers a range of topics in the St. Louis region, frequently hosts meetups for community members who want to talk about diversity. And it has created local partnerships that have enabled it to reach new audiences in-person, online and on air.

Recently, I talked with St. Louis Beacon Editor Margaret Freivogel and Associate Editor Robert Duffy to find out more about how the staff’s engagement efforts have helped both the site and the community.

Meeting with members of the community

Every other Monday, Duffy heads to a local bar to lead a conversation about diversity. He’s led the conversations at various places throughout the city — at the Royale, a hipster bar in South St. Louis; the Schlafly Tap Room near downtown; and most recently the Six Row Brewing Company in midtown.

The conversations tend to attract a variety of community members, ranging from college students to an octogenarian college professor. Some weeks, two or three people show up. Other weeks, a dozen or more do. Participants have talked about tensions between African Americans and Jews, discrimination in housing, and “the brown paper bag test,” which distinguishes light-skinned African Americans from dark-skinned ones.

Duffy, who’s sometimes joined by other Beacon staffers, said he’s developed a connection with participants by sharing his own experiences.

“We talk freely about discriminations we have felt personally; I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am gay, and that raised some eyebrows at first,” Duffy said, noting that diversity coverage is integral to the site’s mission. “I think because we are all so frank about our situations, the participants feel it is safe to be frank.”

Freivogel said it helps that the St. Louis Beacon has a diverse staff — diverse in gender, age and race/ethnicity. She’s attended some of the conversations and taken note of the impact they have on both the staff and the participants.

“Frequent comments we hear go something like this: ‘I never thought about it that way. I never realized that the things I do could offend someone. Now I can see why you might feel that way,’ ” Freivogel said in a phone interview. “That tells us that we’re engaging people — and helping them engage with each other — in a way that builds the kind of deep and continuing relationship we aim to develop with our community. We haven’t yet figured out a way to quantify this, but we feel this kind of anecdotal information is an indication of what makes us valuable to people.”

The conversations give the site a way to promote their content, and they inform the Beacon’s reporting.

“What’s a question that’s on people’s minds? What are they grappling with? What do they want to know, and what can we do to offer that to them? You can ask these questions digitally, but it’s also nice to ask them face-to-face,” Freivogel said. “That’s one of the opportunities we have as a regional news organization. We’re not just a virtual community; we’re an actual community.”

Partnering with the local museum

Freivogel said that early on, the Beacon recognized the value of partnerships. One of its biggest partnerships has been with the Missouri History Museum. Last year they co-sponsored a series of race-related talks and events, which helped draw attention to the Beacon’s year-long “Race, Frankly” series.

The Beacon also helped provide material for the museum’s national exhibit, called “Race: Why Are We So Different?” The exhibit didn’t have any local content, so the Beacon wrote scripts for audio recordings of some of the site’s race-related stories. The recordings ultimately served as the audio tour for the exhibit, which attracted about 22,000 visitors.

The Beacon is partnering with the museum again this year and has launched a new series to complement the museum’s new series of speakers on class. The year-long series, called “Class: The Great Divide,” looks at how class divisions shape the lives of St. Louis residents.

Similar to “Race, Frankly,” the project has given the Beacon a chance to put a different spin on timely topics. On Opening Day, for instance, the series featured a story about how class divisions have played into the history of St. Louis baseball.

Freivogal said these types of stories add depth to the city’s diversity coverage, which she believes has suffered as a result of newsroom cutbacks.

Other local news organizations say they still value diversity coverage, but they’ve faced challenges. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch launched a “Conversation about Race” blog in 2009 but ended it last year after about half the staffers who wrote for it left the paper. Doug Moore, who covers diversity for the Post-Disptach, said the blog wasn’t generating the kind of conversation that he had hoped it would.

“It was really just becoming a depository for people who wanted to get into racists commenting,” Moore said by phone. “It was one of those things you had to constantly monitor. How long do you want to provide a voice for those folks to continue spewing ignorance?”

Partnering with other news orgs, building a loyal audience

Part of the St. Louis Beacon’s goal is to dispel ignorance and partner with other news organizations that want to do the same. During Black History Month, the Beacon provided the local Fox station with a series of vignettes that it hoped would educate local residents about the African American community.

The vignettes were drawn from the Beacon’s coverage of the African American community, which included a story on a local civil rights leader and a piece on Westland Acres — a historic African American neighborhood that’s now surrounded by a wealthy growing suburb. The Beacon wrote scripts for the vignettes, which ran on air and online.

By partnering with the station, the Beacon engaged new audiences on different platforms.

“We think part of our job is to reach people where they are with coverage they will find useful and interesting, not force them to come to us,” Freivogel said. “So working with partners like this is an end in itself because it helps us share our work with people who would not otherwise see it.”

While the site’s diversity initiatives aren’t directly funded, they’re the type of projects that the site’s donors value.

“Most of our money at this point comes from individual donors in St. Louis, and I think a lot of those people are very civic-minded people who want good things to happen in the future in St. Louis,” Freivogel said. “They see diversity as an important piece of that.” Recently, local donors contributed $2.6 million to the site.

The site’s diversity-related stories aren’t huge traffic drivers, but they’ve generated an engaged and loyal audience over time. From the beginning, this is what the Beacon staff had hoped to do.

“So often, people who work online make the assumption that your goal is always to build traffic,” Freivogel said. “Of course, we love to have a lot of people looking at what we do, but we try to think of measuring what we do in terms of the value of what we’re bringing people — and the quality of the engagement.” Read more