Globe Reporter On Covering Gates’ Arrest: ‘Dobbs Caught Me Off-Guard’

The higher-education beat at The Boston Globe produces its fair share of weighty stories as the economic crisis eats away at university endowments and the specter of swine flu casts a shadow on handshake-laden commencement ceremonies.

But the last thing that Tracy Jan, a higher education reporter at the Globe, expected to fall onto her beat was the explosive controversy that followed the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Suddenly, heated discussions about racial profiling, President Obama’s word choice, beers at the White House, and 911 tapes consumed the nation.

Because of her expertise as the hometown reporter covering this story, Jan was interviewed by National Public Radio, MSNBC, Fox News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs about the arrest.

But as a former reporter myself who covered race issues — and as a friend and former colleague (at The Oregonian) of Jan’s — I wanted to hear about the story from the journalist’s perspective.

What was it like to cover this strange and highly-scrutinized story? And, more to the point, what was it like to be a journalist of color reporting on a series of events that touched such raw nerves about race and discrimination?

I asked Jan about these issues for a Q&A. Her edited responses are below.

Angie Chuang: How did you first learn about Gates’ arrest? Briefly describe your reporting process as the story developed and how you tried to best serve your audience.

Tracy Jan: On Monday morning (July 20), my editor and I received separate tips that Gates had been arrested at his house upon his return from a trip. I immediately began making calls from home, first simply to verify whether the tip was true, and then to gather enough detail to post a preliminary story on our Web site. I focused on simply finding out the facts of what happened. How did one of the most famous figures in academia end up arrested at his own home?

The descriptions from Gates’ supporters and from the Cambridge, Mass., police report did not match, so I just presented both sides in our initial post on the Globe‘s Web site. (The first-day story followed on July 21.)

What kinds of responses did you get from readers? Did you notice any patterns in the responses?

Jan: This story clearly struck a nerve, generating a large number of comments on our Web site, e-mails to me and other reporters, commentary on blogs and an enormous amount of other media coverage. The responses ranged widely, from readers accusing the arresting officer of racism, to those accusing Gates of the same.

I think the reactions, in general, were split along racial lines. Many black readers connected the events to their own experiences with police and sympathized more with the professor, while many white readers sided with an officer just doing his job and faulted Gates for not being more respectful during the interaction.

What kind of interview invitations did you get from national media? What observations could you make about the questions they asked and how they approached your interviews?

Jan: I was woken up Tuesday by a call to my home from NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Later that day, I appeared on WBUR’s “Here and Now.” After Obama’s comments on the case further fueled media interest, I went on CNN with Lou Dobbs Friday night (July 24), MSNBC Saturday morning, and Fox News on Sunday.

NPR and WBUR asked the most in-depth questions. Dobbs caught me off-guard by asking me on air whether I personally thought Gates had been racially profiled — something inappropriate for me, as a reporter, to comment on. So I said I was not going to make that call, and instead presented the opinions of others I have quoted on both sides of the debate.

I think it would be fair to say that most Americans following this story probably have a personal take on Gates’ arrest. How did you juggle your personal responses with your duties as a reporter? 

Jan: I’m a reporter first, and having been one for more than 10 years, I’m accustomed to setting aside my personal feelings while reporting a story. We do it every day and this was no different.

Did you know, or had you interviewed Gates, prior to this? Did that affect how you managed your feelings about the arrest?

Jan: I interviewed Gates a year ago when I began covering higher education. At the time I was writing stories about racial tensions between Harvard University’s black students/faculty and its predominantly white campus police force.

Though the Harvard police were not involved in Gates’ arrest, the Globe was able to set the Gates incident in a larger context. What he experienced, and his feelings about the way he was treated by police, is not new to the Harvard/Cambridge community, as indicated in this second-day story on July 22. But knowing Gates did not impact my coverage of his arrest.

Did the fact that you are a person of color give you any unique insight into this case or affect your approach to it? 

Jan: We all come with our own experiences that help shape our perspective of the world, whether it be our ethnic or class background, gender, or even what we studied in college (which in my case included a lot of sociology and psychology).

I have black friends and former professors who have described being discriminated against by police. I also know police officers; at my first journalism job at The Oregonian, I had the crime beat, and I hung out with a lot of cops and understand the challenges of their jobs. And I have written about racial profiling.

Those experiences, as much as my ethnicity (I am Chinese American), all contribute to how I approach a story. I am sensitive to what may have been going through Gates’ mind when he opened the door and saw a police officer, as well as what the officer may have been thinking responding to a call of a possible break-in and encountering what he said was an uncooperative person. But as a reporter, I don’t pick sides.

Do you think the news media can learn anything in general from this controversy?

Jan: I think we should be responsible for elevating the coverage beyond “he said, she said” disputes and turn-of-the-screw coverage of unfolding facts to why an incident like this matters.

One of the more interesting stories I’ve read that came out of Gates’ arrest was written by my colleague, Eric Moskowitz, who interviewed half a dozen successful African Americans in the Boston area about their own experiences of discrimination and being racially stereotyped, despite having reached the upper echelons of American society.

It shows that although our country has elected its first black president, we are far from living in a post-racial society.

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