Covering Race and Ethnicity
(and doing it better)
A report for Columbia University
By Keith Woods, Director of Diversity Programs
The Poynter Institute, St. Petersburg, FL
What’s in the Genes? Characteristics of Journalistic Excellence
A “Defining” Moment: Finding the Vocabulary
They Were Framed! Common Themes in Race Relations Reporting
The Value of Analysis: Complexity, Context, Voice and Authenticity
Examples of Excellence:
The Changing Face of America (or, La Nueva Vida)
Assimilation: Fitting In or Selling Out?
Common Ground: Finding Peace Across Racial and Ethnic Lines
Discrimination Detected: Covering Racism
About Race, History and America: The Power of Context
This is Personal: Authenticity in Personal Writing
In December of 1998, Columbia University’s Sig Gissler handed me the just-completed listing of all the entries for the first “Let’s Do it Better” program. It was impressive and immense, and Sig was worried.
He fretted aloud about the challenge of sifting through the stories and documentaries and book-length series; about the daunting task of separating serious journalism from sham with a little money and a little help; about finding a place in cramped quarters to store all that paper and videotape.
I, on the other hand, was seized with envy.
In those stacks, I figured, was a message from the industry. In those entries was the measure of journalism’s shared values and common understanding. They contained the profession’s definitions of diversity; of race relations; of excellence.
In Sig’s mountain, I saw a gold mine.
That’s why I was so thrilled when Arlene Morgan asked me to do this report. To produce it, I would read and watch everything that was entered: more than 100 print entries and close to 50 from broadcasters. The entries came from network stars like Tom Brokaw and from the country’s smallest local TV markets; from the New York Times to one of the tiniest papers in Texas. We wanted to know what covering race and ethnicity meant to these organizations. We wanted to know what kind of job journalism was doing.
The answer? It depends.
There is good news. Journalists, particularly newspapers, brought new energy to reporting on Latinos, Asians and the many people whose numbers were swelled by immigration. Most of the stories went well beyond the “Look who’s here!” journalism that once made discerning readers cringe.
Broadcast giants like ABC News and ESPN brought depth, time and care to stories about race relations and ethnic diversity. Newspapers in places like Hartford, Baltimore and Jackson, Tenn., invested time and resources in writing hard-to-tell histories about race relations in their communities. The winning stories analyzed for this report boast the best of journalism’s qualities.
There is bad news, too. With the significant exception of the New York Times’ summer 2000 series, “How Race is Lived in America,” there was not enough imagination or depth brought to bear on the issue of race relations. Though the stories of racial profiling, school inequities and environmental racism got a lot of appropriate coverage, the daily realities that define race relations – brought to life in many of the Times’ stories – got short shrift.
Stories about Mexican immigrants – the bulk of the entries concerned with “new Americans” – frequently wrote with a distinctive “them” and “us” tone, often framing a story as an examination of the problems the immigrants caused. That problem was often exacerbated by the confusing and inappropriate use of “Hispanic” and “immigrant” as synonyms.
Many of the broadcast entries – too many– were hour-long special programs with panel discussions and “town-hall” settings. Too few were the sort of investigative journalism done by KRON in San Francisco or WCCO in Minneapolis. Some newspapers submitted stories under the heading of race relations that seemed to have no other qualification but that there were people in the story who were not white.
What all of the stories, the best and the worst, had in common is that journalists made a bid to do important work. And while we ought to pay attention to the ways our work falls short, it’s even more critical that we study why things go right. So we will.
The paradox of reporting and writing well about race and ethnicity is that it is at once exactly the same as all other excellent journalism and, at the same time, unique. Those who have risen above average in this arena seem to have met the challenge of that contradiction
The two are the same in that they stand on the common foundation of journalistic excellence: factual and contextual accuracy, fairness, precision, comprehensiveness, indep
endence, giving voice to the voiceless, holding the powerful accountable, informing, educating, taking people where they can’t or won’t go.
The craft of reporting and writing is at its best when stories are rich in vibrant details, meaningful quotes and sound bytes, strong active verbs, spare, purposeful adjectives, three-dimensional characters, clear sentences, logical transitions, a sense of place, surprising, thought-provoking twists. In those ways and more, reporting on race and ethnicity is the same as any other storytelling.
What we celebrate here, in part, is the fact that the qualities of excellence were brought to bear on stories that too often go untold or are poorly told.
Part of what makes this subject different is the subject itself. A very important difference lies in what journalists have to do in order to rise above superficial, ordinary and, in important ways, harmful journalism. More than anything, that involves breaking away from stereotypes, plumbing the depths of personal discomfort and stepping into a conversation that seems to provoke pathological avoidance in journalists and the public they serve.
Throughout this report, we’ll explore some of the ways that stories on race relations and ethnicity go awry. For now, though, let’s talk about doing it better.
In January 2001, a group of journalists and educators from across the country got together at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida, to look at stories adjudged some of the best in the arena of race and ethnicity. Their mission: Boil the stories down to their journalistic DNA and reveal the genetic code of excellence.
The stories to be studied had been culled a month earlier from hundreds entered for recognition in Columbia University’s annual “Let’s Do it Better” program, which honors good work by asking the winners to use their stories as teaching tools for newsroom leaders. Judges chose finalists by grading the work in seven categories: 1. Overall quality; 2. Originality; 3. Candor/courage; 4. Diminish stereotypes/illuminate diversity; 5. Explain social problems; 6. Explore race/ethnic relations; 7. Likely to promote journalistic discussion.
The Columbia judges determined whether the stories met those criteria. The group at Poynter tried to determine why.
What they found were all of the elements of excellence listed above, plus an important few that seem to apply specifically to coverage of race and ethnicity. The best stories, the group said, seem to be written from communities, not about them. The stories are intellectually curious, not merely voyeuristic. They answer some questions and raise others. They challenge, inform, and are delivered with authority. And here, perhaps, the most distinguishing quality: They explode or redefine existing story frames.
The Poynter Group reduced those ideas to four, fundamental measures of excellence, phrased here as questions:
1. Does the story provide context?
Does it offer the kind of historical and supporting information that helps the audience make sense of things? Has the reporter given race its most appropriate place in the story?
2. Does it embrace complexity?
Does the story rise above one-dimensional explanations and the polarized, black-or-white, saints-or-sinners framing to reveal the gray truths of race relations?
3. Do we hear the voices of the people?
Is this story from, not about, bringing the voice of people to the listener, viewer or reader? Are the quotes and sound bytes purposeful and clear? Do they advance the story, convey character and personality, reveal new truths or otherwise add value to the piece?
4. Does the story have the ring of authenticity?
Is the reporting broad and deep enough, the details fine enough, the opinions open enough to provide true insight? Is the writing clear, direct, active and free of euphemisms? Are the sources representative of the groups for whom they speak or are they assigned an undue leadership role by the media or by themselves?
Include most of the ingredients above and produce excellent work in most stories. Answer yes to the questions above in stories about race and ethnicity and you’re sure to “Do it Better.”
Because discussions of race and ethnicity are often muddled by the lack of a common vocabulary, it’s important at the outset to define terms. “Race relations” is too narrow of a phrase for what we’re talking about, and “diversity” is too big.
In journalism circles, as in the world beyond, the term race relations is sometimes applied to stories simply because the stories involve people of color or people from more than one race. And diversity is used to define everything from hiring white women and people of color to affirmative action to covering under-covered groups to uncovering racial profiling to reporting on riots to battling bias against gays and lesbians to including elderly and poor people in coverage to so-called political correctness in office politics. That’s diversity, and that’s too much work for any one word to do. Better, here, that we use more words to draw the boundaries of this analysis.
In this report, stories about race relations focus on how people are getting along across historic racial and ethnic boundaries. The important word here is “relations.” That will help distinguish such stories from those reporting on racial discrimination or racial pathology, each of which is a subset of race relations.
If we’re talking about cultural diversity, the story is informing people about “other” people. These stories typically reveal cultural truths, focused first on who the people are, then on how they’re fitting in – or not fitting in – with the larger society. The term cultural diversity should include white cultures, though it rarely does. Companion to those stories are those about demographics: Trend stories. Census stories. Neighborhood profiles.
What follows, then, is a look at how journalists in the United States have approached these topics. Guided by the standards set by the best stories, we’ll take a frame-by-frame tour through the stories submitted to Columbia, extracting the lessons provided by those whose work was judged as excellent.
Even though journalists place a premium upon originality, we still work within a number of pre-existing frames. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Frames are the first iteration of a story’s theme, and themes have always, in one way or another, guided storytelling. In fact, the universal nature of most themes is the bridge that connects people to one another through stories.
Stories about heroes and villains, love, self-understanding, about tumbling from grace and rising to redemption, about high ambitions and dashed hopes – about those and so many other things – all offer the public a chance to find common ground with the people on television news or in the newspaper.
Unexamined and unchallenged, frames can restrict, stereotype, over-simplify, hurting not only the people about whom journalists report, but also those who are poorly informed as a result. Used thoughtfully, freshened or – as is the case for many of these stories – turned on their heads, frames can enlighten, explode stereotypes, help the audience better understand the world and the people in it.
The dozens of stories sent to Columbia fell within some fairly distinct frames. Stories about race relations fall into a handful of categories.
Discrimination Detected stories investigate accusations of racial and ethnic prejudice in social institutions – criminal justice, education, housing, employment, commerce, athletics. The best stories avoid the easy, saint-or-sinner route that fails to account for the complexity of human relations.
Racial Pathology stories look at inequities – in test scores, for example – as they play out in racial or ethnic terms. They often suggest discrimination, but outcome, not intent, is frequently the focus of the story. When done well, such stories include the sort of context that helps readers, listeners and viewers understand why race is important in the story.
Common Ground stories emphasize those moments when people of different races – most often reported in terms of black and white – join forces to consciously cross a racial divide.
Personal Journey stories, found in cultural diversity and race relations categories, tell parallel tales of human relations and individual revelations. Though there are only a few such stories in this collection, they are often the most powerful.
Stories about cultural diversity include the Changing Face of America stories, which mark demographic shifts brought on by immigration. They are often numbers-driven but not dependent upon such institutions as the U.S. Census alone. Assimilation stories recount the personal, cultural and societal challenges of fitting in when you’re from someplace else. Diversity Discovered stories highlight pockets where racial and ethnic groups have been integrated into communities that are new to them.
More and more, news organizations are also finding ways to include once-excluded racial and ethnic groups in stories that fall within a far broader set of frames. The practice of mainstreaming emphasizes inclusion of oft-excluded groups in stories that are not about their race or ethnicity. The San José Mercury News’ food section, led by section editor Carolyn Jung, reports on a broad cross-section of the community’s culinary set. The stories routinely feature a broad palette of ethnic and racial palates ranging from Eastern Europeans to Southeast Asians to Africans and African Americans. A typical story might be the May 3, 2000 section front headlined “fridge-a-dare,” a clever look at the chilly contents of Silicon Valley’s refrigerators. The story featured white, Asian and Latino food-lovers who opened their (fridge) doors to reveal the cultural, familial and lifestyle influences on their dining habits.
Journalists have complained at times – legitimately – that the mindless pursuit of mainstreaming has led to tokenism, where people with little expertise and less to say have been forced into stories simply because they fit a demographic quota. Adhering to the standards of excellence, where journalists learn enough about their communities to draw upon a fuller palette of people, allows professionals to pursue an important diversity goal and also achieve excellence, rather than tokenism and mediocrity.
In today’s journalism, the frames overlap, and some stories fit more snugly into a frame than others. There’s great value, still, in a frame-by- frame analysis of these stories, testing them for the ingredients of excellence, particularly the final four: complexity, context, voice and authenticity.
Even as new generations of journalists cover an evolving American landscape, these frames will endure, and journalists need to stop every so often to examine how well they’re handling things, especially if they want to do it better.
Easily the most dominant cultural diversity story of the new millennium has been the booming immigration that is transforming large and small towns across the nation into test sites for cross-cultural relations.
Between 1999 and the end of 2000, the topic was tackled by The Columbus Dispatch in “Latinos: Destination Columbus.” The Record in Doylestown, Pa., wrote about “New Americans/Still feeling a chill.” In the Desseret News of Utah, readers got “La Vida Utah.” The Washington Post published “La Nueva Vida: Latinos in America.”
Amanda Scioscia of the Phoenix New Times freshened the increasingly familiar frame of displaced Mexican men who work in the U.S. and send money home to waiting wives and mothers. For her story, Scioscia found a group of Mexican women who’d crossed the border illegally to join their husbands or strike out on their own and found comfort and kinship in a support group at a Phoenix elementary school.
Using the group as a staging area for the story’s many paths, Scioscia was able to explore things universal to the immigrant experience and those things peculiar to being a Mexican woman in a foreign city. Of the support group, Scioscia wrote:
It is the only place they have found where they can discuss everything from the INS to pap smears to abusive husbands. Their conversations are marked with a sense of loss. There are echoes of fear and frustration and disillusionment. They are waking up to the American compromise.
“We came here for a better life,” Gloria Herrera says. “He’s better. I’m worse.”
The Des Moines Register’s Jeff Zeleny showed that he understood the complexity that is at the core of “Changing Face” stories in a story about an Iowa community called Storm Lake:
Storm Lake, which calls itself “The City Beautiful,” is no longer a singular city. This is a place of converging stories and converging lives in Iowa’s northwest corner.
The Storm Lake where Francisco Castro lives is an oasis of opportunities, a place where enduring vacuous work by day and uncomfortable stares by night is worth the payoff of mastering a new language.
The Storm Lake where Barb Pytel lives is a place that is losing its once-beautiful luster, where most of today’s immigrants have little interest in learning American culture.
The Storm Lake where Sherise Gibson lives is a place where people are too quick to gloss over the problems of the city and afraid to honestly express their thoughts.
The Storm Lake where Tony Talamantes lives offers a new, safe home for his young family, where a factory worker can become a Main Street businessman.
Their stories capture a glimpse of the prism that is Storm Lake.
The best of the “Changing face” stories went beyond the common themes of hardship in a new land, using clever storytelling styles and fresh angles to inform, educate, enlighten and even entertain.
‘Walking’ Toward Excellence
Honoree Barry Yeoman, a former senior writer for the Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C., chose a small Evangelical Christian church in the tiny town of Siler City to tell the story of the state’s huge influx of Latinos – principally Mexicans.
“Walking Home” follows the congregation of the Love’s Creek Hispanic Baptist Mission as souls are saved, relationships built and lives reconstructed miles away from homes in Mexico, El Salvador and the rest of Latin America. Like so many stories of new immigration, this one tells about 30-fold increase in the Latino population in 10 years, nearly doubling the population of Siler City.
Folded as they are into the fabric of a narrative, the demographic facts are not what drive the story. Instead, “Walking Home” draws its fuel from the universal themes at its core: faith, family, love, and redemption. It is strong on description, details, dialogue and character development. Yeoman’s writing is filled with the language of the church and the language of the people. He uses “Hispanics” only when talking in the most general sense. Otherwise, he refers to the individual countries, towns and villages of the people. Their voices are strong and genuine. The story, as a result, rings with authenticity.
Wilfredo Hernandez, a 36-year-old refugee from El Salvador’s civil war, is lugging around a video camera, pointing it at a succession of church members sitting on park benches. A Buddha-like man with a perpetual smile, he’s calling out a litany of Latin American place names as he pans from one face to another. “Un saludo para Chirilagua,” a greeting for Chirilagua, he says, facing a parishioner from that Salvadoran town. “Un saludo para Veracruz. Un saludo para Transito. Un saludo para Aguascalientes.”
Yeoman accomplishes an important feat throughout the story by linking the actions and motivations of the Love’s Creek congregation to the larger black and white communities around them. The effect is to add context, meaning, and explanation so that their behavior seems less like an anomaly, more like part of a bigger, more complex whole.
• The new residents have brought values that mirror those of their new community. They are agrarian, hard-working, religious, family-oriented.
• His sermon is reminiscent of Pat Robertson’s claim that his prayers, and those of staff, diverted Hurricane Gloria from the Virginia coast in 1985.
Good stories inform, and good cultural diversity stories inform people about one another. In this story, readers learn about the things that bring people to Siler City, the spiritual and cultural reasons for a Latino exodus from Catholicism. You learn about a number of disasters that have befallen Latin America, informing how the Love’s Creek congregation responds to a hurricane, a disaster across the sea, or a fire-and-brimstone sermon.
One of the story’s most distinguishing qualities is description. Yeoman goes beyond the simple, common descriptions of hair, eyes and skin – which only separate Latinos from Anglos – and describes what made them different from one another. He makes them normal individuals as he explores their difference. He describes their difference in the language of sameness.
• Israel Tapia is a 38-year-old Mexican immigrant whose sheer physical presence dwarfs everything that comes near his body. Keyboards and guitars turn into children’s instruments at his fingertips. Neckties reach the middle of his torso. In a Hispanic congregation, where both men and women tend to be small, he is a giant, like the shepherd must appear when the sheep look up.
• Byron Berrera stands 5-feet-2 and weighs 115 pounds. He has high cheekbones and stick-out ears, a carefully trimmed chevron of a mustache, and a smile that says bienvenidos, welcome.
• Slender and fuzzy-haired, (José Franco) was a staunch Catholic with a father who dreamed his son would someday become a priest. But Franco wasn’t exactly priestly. … And when he opens his mouth, out comes a voice so complex that it’s bitonal. The high and low notes wrap around one another, as if he’s singing harmony with himself.
• (Eusebio Alfaro) He’s a small man with combed-back hair and a pencil-thin mustache, and as he shouts the Word, his face turns red and his voice echoes through the sanctuary.
The story tells difficult and complex truths – about a relationship between 25-year-old Byron Berrera and 16-year-old Wendy Benitez; about a church that gives the Latino congregation a home but still treats them like strangers. It is in this world of contradictions and values conflicts that readers will find a resonance in their own lives.
If the “New American” frame represents the first chapter in the story being told about immigrants in U.S. cities, then the second would be the “Fitting in/selling out” frame. The stories explore the clashes and triumphs of people trying to make their way through differences that often touch upon the core of identity: language, family, lifestyle, faith.
The theme of fitting in is universal and does not require that the story originate in a foreign culture. It’s the story of rural meets urban, north meets south, east coast meets west coast, black meets white.
The most oft-realized danger of these stories is that the journalist will frame the issue so that surrendering one’s culture is determined to be the only correct answer. In those stories, the so-called American culture is the standard against which the others are measured. The problem with that is two-fold:
• The “American” culture is itself so diverse – changing with geography, race, ethnicity and class – that it is nearly impossible to use it as an accurate point of reference.
• The frame wrongly assumes a zero-sum proposition when immigrants assimilate: the person’s culture must vanish in order for them to fit in. In truth, the U.S. experience suggests that the larger culture often changes to reflect the cultures it absorbs.
Better that the journalists stay out of the judgment business and give the audience something to think about. That’s what the Arizona Republic did with this story of two Mexican-American friends who defined themselves in radically different ways:
So in many ways, this is not simply a story about two friends. Because at the heart of this friendship lies the deeper question of assimilation. Whose terms? Your own, or someone else’s?
It is a question as old as the United States, and older. One still being answered. And one that runs to varying degrees through the hearts of every Mexican-American and every one of the 32.1 million Latinos who make up the fastest-growing minority group in America.
By their nature, “Assimilation” stories must in some way define the culture into which people are assimilating. But the best stories eschew sweeping definitions in favor of more specific points of comparison. They help readers, listeners and viewers see the sometimes-thin lines that separate one culture from another while underscoring the places where the human experience is universal.
Tug of War
Honoree Allie Shah of the Minneapolis Star Tribune renders for readers the complex story of two Somali girls growing into their Islamic faith while growing up in a society sometimes directly at odds with that faith. Like the Arizona story, Shah tells a tale of difference within difference. She compares and contrasts two teenagers at Roosevelt High: one who embraces the new, free-wheeling, limits-testing culture of American pubescence, the other who honors ancient traditions slowly fading, awash as they are in blue jeans and T-shirts.
The story is the universal experience of immigrants and outsiders, complete with children torn between family and friends, and parents who worry that their values will be overwhelmed by the less-desirable culture around them. Shah’s story, though, rises above simplistic dichotomies and available clichés. Her central characters, Fartun and Nimco, are three-dimensional.
It’s in the details of the story that Shah distinguishes the Somali experience from others. She uses the tell-then-show style in one lyrical passage to bring the differences to life.
The décor of the third-floor apartment across the street from Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis breathes Somali culture. Large Persian rugs on the floor. Rich maroon curtains from floor to ceiling. The sweet, musky smell of spices and incense. Bunches of silk flowers hanging high on the wall.
Even so, American culture infiltrates. The children sit in the living room, crowded around the TV set. They are captivated by “Passions,” a daytime soap opera offering the typical fare of sex and violence. But when a Victoria’s Secret commercial comes on showing leggy lingerie models, Fartun immediately changes the channel. With one eye on the TV, she plops on the couch, cradling her cousin. “We call her Maggie, like Maggie Simpson” of “The Simpsons” TV show, she says, grinning at the pacifier-sucking infant.
Using such interesting, offbeat examples, Shah shows the reader the many dimensions of the two girls’ lives. Fartun, who embraces the old ways, quotes an irreverent cartoon. Nimco, who seizes her adopted culture with gusto, feels the pull of history.
Like a turtle, Nimco has learned how to live both in water and on land. At home and at Roosevelt. In her mother’s clothing and perfume store in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, she speaks rapid-fire Somali, laughing and joking with her relatives. “Galab Wanaagsan. Seetahay?” (Good afternoon. How are you?) At school, she expertly shouts, “Whassup?” to friends from all nations. “I’m kinda international,” she explains. …
These days, she wears the hijaab, when she feels like it. She does it to let everyone know she’s Somali, and so she can get used to the feel of the fabric tugging at her hairline, reminding her who she is, what she is. Somali. Muslim. Woman.
Readers learn something about Somalis and Muslims and about the quiet, often-unseen battles being waged each day over culture and tradition. More importantly, though, Shah helps the reader see those places where values common among most cultures take on particular significance for Nimco and Fartun. In that way, she avoids the trap of treating each facet of Somali culture as peculiar.
Somali culture, she writes, emphasizes clear roles for men and women “and an identity based on family, not self.” Alone, those traditions are hardly the cultural property of Somalia or Muslims. It’s later in the story that the reader sees the true cultural differences. Shah shows how Somali boys and girls are forbidden to touch, let alone date; how Somali boys can hang out on the basketball court while Nimco worries about the scandal that will emerge if she’s spotted by her elders wearing shorts for track practice.
Shah draws the distinction between one culture and another with a simple piece of description from a mother-daughter moment.
In many ways, Hashi resembles Nimco. She has the same high cheekbones and cheerful smile. They both wear sandals that reveal lacquered toenails. Hashi’s are ebony, the color traditionally worn by Somali women; Nimco’s are a metallic pink, the shade worn by many American women.
Hate crimes. Violent reactions to police actions. Acts of faith. Those events and more have led journalists to do stories about the public’s efforts to find greater peace across racial and ethnic lines.
The best stories in this genre move beyond hand-holding and professed unity to explore the finer victories and challenges to be found in those moments. Kevin Sack of The New York Times took the quintessential “Common Ground” frame – black and white people gathering in an integrated church – and showed readers the compound truths that belie the unity outsiders might see. His story was the first in the 16-part New York Times series, “How Race is Lived in America,” which won a 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Sack wrote:
Yet for all the utopian imagery, for all the hope and faith that the congregation has moved beyond race, the life of the church is still driven by race in countless ways.
“How Race is Lived in America” provided more than 16 such stories as examples of how to go beyond the surface on the “Common Ground” story. Columbia honored two of the stories.
By design, the stories probed friendships, coalitions, simple working relationships – assuming in each case that there was a deeper, more instructive story to be found beneath the calm, harmonious surface.
Honoree Charlie LeDuff didn’t have to scratch much to find that complexity in his story about the workers in a North Carolina pork processing plant, where people who were white, American Indian, black and Latino worked to disassemble hogs. Honoree Mirta Ojito had to wait patiently and listen deeply to understand the racial distance between two Cuban friends, one white, the other black.
Processing pork, dissecting race
Charlie LeDuff’s story peers beneath the veneer of people working side-by-side to unveil the twisted bigotry that thrives amid skewed power, estrangement and ignorance. The voice in his story is seething, delivered in spare but raw quotes.
• “Who that cracker think he is?” the black man wanted to know. There were enough hogs, he said, “not to worry about no fleck of meat being left on the bone. Keep treating me like a Mexican and I’ll beat him.”
• As for blacks, she avoided them. She was scared of them. “Blacks don’t want to work,” Mrs. Fernandez said when the new batch of prisoners came to work on the line. “They’re lazy.”
• He fumbled with a cigarette outside the shelter. He wanted to quit the plant. The work stinks, he said, “but at least I ain’t a nigger. I’ll find other work soon. I’m a white man.”
The story succeeds in probing the complexity of race relations by abandoning the saints-sinners dichotomy that defines a lot of race relations coverage. As he follows the people over weeks in the pork plant, they move on and off the moral high ground. Black people express prejudices about Mexicans, who speak poorly of black people and white people. It’s not so easy to declare some saints and other sinners. It is a more authentic reflection of human nature. The “Common Ground” frame is recast.
LeDuff achieves that complexity while employing a number of the fundamentals of good writing. His details are vivid, minute, meaningful. History and context are slipped into the fabric of the narrative without causing wrinkles in the story’s pace. So readers learn about the pork industry, the demographics of Robeson County, N.C., and Mexican immigration patterns, all the while following the human drama unfolding along the plant’s conveyor belt.
Most striking, though, is LeDuff’s use of active verbs, words that not only make the story move, but carry with them the unvarnished, sometimes brutal tone of the race relations tale he tells. One passage:
The carcass is run through a scalding bath, trolleyed over the factory floor and then dumped onto a table with all the force of a quarter-ton water balloon. In the misty-red room, men slit along its hind tendons and skewer the beast with hooks. It is again lifted and shot across the room on a pulley and bar, where it hangs with hundreds of others as if in some kind of horrific dry-cleaning shop. It is then pulled through a wall of flames and met on the other side by more black men who, stripped to the waist beneath their smocks, scrape away any straggling bristles.”
Like all of the stories in the Times series, LeDuff’s piece does not seek an artificial happy ending. People in the story move along the continuum from ignorance toward knowledge, from prejudice toward understanding, but true to life, the movement is incremental and the epiphanies few and unpredictable.
Mrs. Fernandez was disappointed by her first experience with a white person. After a week she tried to avoid standing by Billy Harwood. She decided it wasn’t just the blacks who were lazy, she said.
The story of the Smithfield Packing Co. pork plant could easily have found a place in other frames. It was a natural vehicle for the “Changing Face of America” frame, rich as it is in stories of migration, immigration, employment trends and the resulting economic impact. It could have been a window into illegal immigration or what might be called the “Distant Homes” frame, the oft-told story about the many Mexicans who work in the U.S. and send money home.
In the end, it was all of those things told through the compelling frame of human relationships.
Gaining a race, losing a friend
In “Best of Friends, Worlds Apart,” Mirta Ojito wrestles with the idea that, in this country, at least, racial identity inexorably bores under the skin of people who arrive here from other lands. Two Cuban friends who floated across the sea in rafts then drifted apart in Miami provide ready material for a “Common Ground” frame.
At the outset, there is the widely shared notion that race is not such a big deal in Cuba and that racial obsession is a decidedly U.S. problem. As Ojito probes deeper and deeper into the opinions of friends Joel Ruiz and Achmed Valdes, the reader discovers a more complex truth. She foreshadowed that development early in the story.
It is not that, growing up in Cuba’s mix of black and white, they were unaware of their differences in color. Fidel Castro may have decreed an end to racism in Cuba, but that does not mean racism has simply gone away. Still, color was not what defined them. Nationality, they had been taught, meant far more than race. They felt, above all, Cuban.
The strength of Ojito’s story is the assemblage of anecdotes that show how the literal and philosophical paths of the two men diverged nearly from the moment they were allowed to leave Guantanamo Bay to begin new lives in the United States.
The “details” of Ojito’s story, not easily observed or quantified, emerge in those anecdotes. They are carried in the stories the men tell, and Ojito makes liberal use of direct quotes to flesh the anecdotes out. For example, readers see Joel Ruiz’s view of the world changing as he recalls a night in Miami when he was inexplicably stopped and searched by a white Cuban-American police officer.
“Up until that day, I thought all Cubans were the same,” he says. “It took a while to sink in, but that incident made me start thinking in a different way.”
It would be easy in such a story to fall into some familiar traps in writing about race relations. The story could make the black man the victim and the white man the villain, with no in-between. It could accept the premise that a white man avoiding black neighborhoods, as Achmed Valdes does, is simply racist. It could buy into the claim that Cuba is a race-neutral country. It could foist responsibility for the dissolution of a friendship completely upon the shoulders of prejudice.
But time and time again Ojito’s story goes against the grain, turning the “Common Ground” frame around for a new perspective. She sees to it that the reader knows enough to judge independently whether Joel Ruiz’s less-than-successful life or Valdes’s middle-class existence are largely the work of racism. She declares that some of Miami’s black neighborhoods are too violent for many black people, Ruiz included. She establishes that the Cuban-dominated power structure in Miami is also overwhelmingly white. She ends the story with an anecdote that shows Joel’s prejudices. And throughout, she proves anew that truth in stories about race is best delivered in the murky gray that lies, in this case, between black and white.
Mr. Valdes and Mr. Ruiz have never talked about race. When told of his friend’s opinion of blacks, Mr. Ruiz shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
“He said that?” Mr. Ruiz asks, lifting his eyebrows. “I don’t know why he would think that blacks are delinquents. I know he doesn’t think that of me, and I’m black. I’ve always been black.” A pause. He thinks some more. “He grew up with blacks,” he says. “I don’t understand it. Maybe something bad happened to him. I am sure he is talking about American blacks.”
The coverage of incidents in which racism is revealed or alleged forms the bulk of journalism’s effort to report on race relations. It is often the most volatile subject a reporter will handle – frequently on deadline – and it calls for the most vigilant pursuit of excellence. Accuracy and precision may make the difference between inflaming and informing the public. Clarity, in the words of the reporter or the voices of her sources, will help people understand one another in the midst of deep misunderstanding.
Context can help readers, listeners and viewers make sense of events, just as its absence can make complaints seem frivolous and complainants seem irrational and paranoid. A reporter who understands the meaning of complexity can help the public grasp the multiple realities that often reside within a single conflict.
The best stories help the public understand what it is about an act, a remark, a law, a policy or a plan that makes it – or makes it seem – racist. Those stories break away from polarized models of reporting to seek the input of people across the racial and ethnic spectrum. They avoid euphemisms and codes and don’t accept such evasions from sources.
Running the racial gamut
There is never a shortage of opportunities to strive for excellence on the subject. In 2000, journalists across the country had to tackle major stories with race relations at the center.
The Hartford Courant, honored for its stories about the death of a black teenager shot by a white police officer, took the story beyond race by painting a three-dimensional picture of a community. The Courant’s year-long coverage of Aguan Salmon’s life and death did not accept a simplistic, saints vs. sinners racial dichotomy, where the only question is whether the officer who shot Aguan was or was not a racist.
Instead, the Courant tapped into the voices along the street that defined Aguan’s life, showing readers a side of the city that rarely makes it to newsprint. Along with the protesters and activists – staples in the typical diet of racial discord coverage, reporters took readers to the doorsteps and street corners of the neighborhoods. And what they heard, from protective mothers to drug dealers, was a truth so interesting, so deep, that the community had a chance to learn something about itself.
In Melbourne, FL, the Florida Today newspaper covered the fallout from a city councilwoman’s bumbling remarks about the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as one part of the community accused her of racism while others applauded her for saying what they felt.
The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. handled the complex story of an American Indian who was dumped – intoxicated and unconscious – by white men who discovered the next day that he died there during the night. The Washington Post took on the tricky topic of intracultural discrimination with a story about the paucity of dark-skinned Latinos on Spanish-language television. In an August 3, 2000 story, reporter Michael A. Fletcher wrote what many viewers had been thinking:
Few darker-skinned personalities deliver the networks’ domestically produced news shows. On the wildly popular telenovelas, the soap operas that are a programming staple of both networks, the starring roles are almost always filled by white Latino actors who typically play members of the upper class. Darker-skinned people, meanwhile, most often portray maids, gardeners, chauffeurs or dabblers in witchcraft.
Stories out of Racine County, Wis., Louisville, Atlanta, Sioux Falls and Detroit wrestled with so-called “racial profiling,” an issue confounding communities across the country. In a June 1, 2000 story in the Detroit Free Press, reporter Amber Arellano described the conundrum this way:
Even on close inspection, it’s difficult to prove whether a department is profiling by race. It is a murky issue made even more complex when considering the schisms of race, class, fear and misperceptions that have divided metro Detroiters for generations.
The News Tribune in Tacoma, WA sent seven reporters and seven photojournalists into five area high schools to gauge the racial climate among the young after a series of racist and racially charged incidents rocked the community.
Honored for the range of voices it brought to the story, the newspaper shed light on the racial stereotypes haunting two schools and gave readers a glimpse of how truly diverse the schools are.
Among the biggest challenges facing journalists writing the “Discrimination detected” stories is making some sense out of the elusive line between perceived prejudice and the real thing. The Register in Des Moines, Iowa, stepped into the layered debate about fashion and race in the spring of 2000.
The newspaper followed up on the death of a black club patron who was suffocated by a white bouncer when a dispute over the club’s dress code got physical. As reporters peeled away the layers of reasons club owners gave for forbidding certain clothing, race showed up. This, from Register reporter Kyle Munson:
When clubs single out clothing styles favored by African-Americans, or even specific brands (FUBU, Phat Farm) that can cost as much as Ralph Lauren Polo, critics say exclusion begins.
Access denied, excellence achieved
Elusive though the line may be between perception and reality, strong reporting can help people see the subtle and not-so-subtle differences. Honoree WCCO-TV in Minneapolis did that for its viewers in February 2000. With their interest piqued by a problem identical to the one in Des Moines – this one brought to light by a lawsuit – the station’s investigative team used persistent reporting, attention to detail and a strong emphasis on fairness to push their story, “Access Denied,” across the threshold of excellence.
The hidden-camera report, using a reporting technique made famous by ABC’s 20-20, sent “testers” to a club accused of discriminating against black patrons. The black testers – a local musician, a stockbroker, a customer service representative and a graphic artist – were sent in with white men who were about the same size and dressed alike. Four of the five times the men tried to enter the club, “Daddy Rocks,” the black men were treated differently. Twice, they were turned away completely. Reporter David Schechter, summed up the story’s findings with a simple example, standing before two mannequins, one darker than the other, both draped with identical sweaters:
Is there a difference between discriminating and discrimination? The answer is yes. Say they’re picky. They don’t like the color of your sweater. Under the law, the bouncer can give you the boot. But, they can’t kick you out based on the color of your skin. Trouble is, discrimination can hide behind a discriminating dress code. And keeping you out for that reason is illegal.
Two things made the story rise above average – both fundamental journalism techniques, both often overlooked in “Discrimination detected” stories. First, Schechter and producer Paula Engelking made good use of rebuttal reporting, following up the claims of the dance club’s spokeswoman with additional reporting that would either substantiate her defense or contradict her.
When the spokeswoman said the problem was with just one bouncer and that the club was unaware that there was a problem, the rebuttal reporting proved otherwise. The station demonstrated that the discrimination not only extended to another bouncer, but included a manager as well. An intern sent in to the club to chat up the bouncer, heard him make the connection that turned an elusive, invisible line between perception and reality into a clear racial roadblock.
Asked to explain what he meant when he repeatedly used the word “nigger” to describe people who patronized a nearby club, the bouncer said: “They wear FUBU, they wear their pants out like this. And they look at you all funny all the time.” Witnessed by the cameras, the problem was undeniable.
A records check proved that the club had received at least one formal complaint of racial discrimination, a revelation set up well in the story by Schechter:
Schechter: Obviously you say you’ll do something now, but shouldn’t you have done something a long time ago?
Spokeswoman: But this has never been brought to our attention until now.
Schechter: But people have complained before.
The station then produced a previous complaint filed with the local equal employment office that found no evidence of a problem.
Rebuttal reporting is more than just a clever way to expose inaccuracies and deceit. It’s also a tool of fairness. In cases where the story contains an implicit or explicit charge of racism, it is sometimes not enough to simply allow people to defend themselves. What if the spokeswoman had been correct? Unverified, her responses might come across to the viewer as insincere defensiveness. Her claims, if true, would have greater credibility and provide greater balance if the reporter tells viewers that her story checked out. When lives and businesses can easily be ruined by having the label “racist” affixed to them, journalists owe it to the public to strive for the heights of excellence.
The WCCO team struck another chord for fairness when they took their testers to other clubs in the area on the chance that “Daddy Rocks” was being unfairly singled out for what others also practiced. The testers, in those cases, were treated equally each time. Including that fact in the story helps viewers better understand the scope of the problem and frees the other clubs from unfair guilt by association.
There were questions the public needed answered in Wildwood, FL when a popular white high school football coach, furious when a frustrated black player slammed his gear to the ground, pointed a finger at him and scolded him for acting like a “street nigger.”
A good deal of the media coverage, though, fell into the saint-sinner trap, and the pursuit of understanding was overrun by a referendum on whether coach Gary Hughes was or was not a racist. But ESPN, led by producer Jonathan Ebinger and correspondent Jeremy Schaap, went deeper with the story. They spent considerably less time trying to prove or disprove Hughes’ racial guilt and more time giving viewers the sort of insight, perspective and simple information that made it possible for viewers to come away with a deeper understanding of race relations.
At issue was what the coach meant when he uttered one of American society’s foulest words. Far from a Freudian slip or an act of garden-variety racism, the coach said, the word was used with the player’s best interest at heart. It was a compelling notion, to say the least, and Schaap’s questions – designed to give the coach the fullest chance to have his voice heard – pushed the story beyond ordinary.
Schapp: “Well let me ask you now. Will you ever use that word again.
Hughes: No. No. … If saying that would save his life, would you say it again? Then I say yes, I would say it again to save his life; to say that and wreak shame on me. Practically how does that work out? Would you say it again? No.
Schapp: Are you suggesting you used that slur directed it at him in the locker room that day to help him?
Hughes: Exactly. Exactly.
Schaap: How can that help him?
Hughes: A guy told me, who’s a minister. He said choosing the exact words of a sermon is absolutely critical to the sermon. If you don’t speak to the audience in their own level, they miss the message. He told me that. He said, “That’s what you’ve done.”
The sequence ends with the blunt rebuttal of local NAACP President T.H. Poole who deadpans: “You can’t help a black man by calling him a nigger.”
Viewers hear other voices: The player, who thought the coach’s apology was weak and insincere; the player’s mother, who said the coach wouldn’t promise that he’d never say the word again; black coaches, some of whom supported and forgave the coach, one of whom quit the team but insisted the coach wasn’t a racist.
When Schaap put that question to the coach, at the end of the interview, it was an open-ended question that invited insight, not polarization.
Schapp: Why should people in this community believe you are not a racist?
Hughes: I think my life as a whole can somewhat attest to the fact that I do not favor one person or another based on skin color. I try to look at the heart and try to look at the things that are inside of you, not the things that are exterior. Not the talk. The walk. And that’s the way I’ve done for 18 years.
Schapp: So you’re saying your actions have never been racist, but in this one instance you used a racist term.
Hughes: That is correct. That is absolutely correct.
The story does not exonerate the coach, nor should it. What it demonstrates at every turn is that truth in stories about race relations is hardly ever as simple or accessible as the prevailing public discourse or media frames would suggest. Residing in the rich, muddled middle between the extremes, though, are the authentic stories of how people get along with one another across race.
Web of Hate
Tom Brokaw and NBC’s Dateline found a unique angle from which to approach the Discrimination Detected frame. They worked with Northwestern University students to examine hate sites on the Internet. Brokaw and producer Rebecca Haggerty combined context and voice to carry viewers through cyberspace and into the world of hate groups.
With students weaving the pieces of the story together through the web sites they find, Brokaw is able to connect the dots between white supremacist murderer Benjamin Smith and the easily accessible web pages of such racists as Matt Hale. He is able to expose the hate groups that use the Internet to inflate their size, and he wrestles, along with the students, with the question of whether the story itself might aid the hate groups in spreading their messages.
The stories greatest strength, though, comes from the voices of the students. Powerful sound bytes used to add depth to the story lend passion and insight. As students reflect on the sites they find, a student comments on the recruiting tactics of the people in a supremacist chat room:
“They act very helpful and very willing to educate people. They act very kind and gentlemanly and very willing to help you learn about what this white supremacy cause is, so that they can sort of rope you in and get you to start hating other people that aren’t white too.”
Another student grapples with the sting of feeling that the hate is directed at him:
“It’s a little bit of an out-of-body experience for me just because, I mean, I’m Jewish, and these people are telling me that not only am I not white, but I’m not human.”
Three of the projects honored by Columbia looked at race outside of typical frames. Each is a strong argument for the power of context.
• The News Hour’s Spencer Michaels tells the story of two women working to keep alive the memory of Angel Island, which occupies an infamous place in the history of many a Chinese-American family. The historical information alone makes the piece valuable. But the insight viewers get from hearing the legacy of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act from descendents of those affected by it might give viewers a way to better understand contemporary issues.
• John Donvan of ABC’s Nightline uses a two-part package to show how prejudice can show up as twisted xenophobia, since the “foreigners” people fear aren’t foreigners at all, but Americans. The series, “Asian Americans,” tracks back in time from the Wen Ho Lee story, back to the Democratic Party’s campaign contributions scandal involving the Chinese government, and winds up at the Chinese Exclusion Act. Thus placed in context, viewers can better understand what some Asian Americans mean when they say they are made to feel, as one man described it, like “less than truly American.”
• As part of KRON-TV’s award-winning series “About Race,” Pam Moore examines a controversial study at the University of Southern California that investigates the roots of prejudice in the brain. Moore’s stories offer viewers a new way of looking at racial prejudice. It’s not merely malevolence, the study suggests, but it’s also an unconscious reflex reaction to difference.
“So it’s not just bad people with bad attitudes, but it’s everyone in society who has knowledge of race,” Moore says, placing the study’s findings in a larger context. “That knowledge can affect how you respond. That knowledge can affect how you behave. That knowledge can affect how you perceive the world.”
Whenever someone inserts an “I” into the story of race relations or cultural diversity, the potential is there for the writer to bring two of the four pillars of excellence – voice and authenticity – to bear on the topic. Not everyone succeeds.
Authenticity in personal writing comes with the willingness to metaphorically walk naked before readers, listeners and viewers.
The reporter stands ready to expose flaws, weaknesses, doubts, anger, fear, passion, love. The more of those things the reporter surrenders, the more authentic the story, because those emotions define the human experience.
Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts writes passionately on the subject of race relations each year. Honored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors as the best columnist of 2001, Pitts said that great writing “costs you something emotionally, requires you to give up something. The more you are willing to give up, the greater the rewards.”
Wil Haygood of The Boston Globe seemed to do that as he took a drive through small towns in the country’s mid-section to answer a nagging curiosity in “A Black Writer’s Journey Into Poor White America.” In that piece, a finalist in the Columbia judging, Haygood uses simple description, movement and voices to give the story a powerful sense of place, characters and atmosphere.
There are many anecdotes, but one exchange captures the voices of the writer and his subjects. Haygood gives glimpses of his inner thoughts, just enough to lend an authentic air to the experience. He introduces the reader to Barb Simmons, her buddy Laurie Merrifield, and Laurie’s brother, Bo.
Barb, a white woman, had recently been kicked out of her parents’ home because they objected to her dating a black man.
“My mom’s a racist,” Laurie says, her tone matter-of-fact. “Kind of like Barb’s family. It’s not like they still think blacks should be slaves, but …”
She doesn’t finish the sentence.
I nod my head. …
“I never thought my dad would do this to me,” Barb goes on. “I never thought he would go to this extreme.”
Laurie says she knows it’s because of Barb’s father’s view of blacks. “I think his definition of ‘nigger’ was ‘trash.’”
“We have white trash,” Barb says.
“Black trash equals ‘nigger,’ ” says Laurie.
My head is turning back and forth. The words are falling from the air into my notebook and then into me. I’m starting to sweat.
Haygood struggles quietly throughout the piece against the worry that the word ‘nigger’ would “come slicing across my ears like a razor blade.” He withers some under the nonchalant bigotry of Quentin Householder as the reporter stands amid the family’s three children. The admission that listening is hard is as powerful as the bigotry that provoked him.
I believe I’ve heard enough.
I believe I’d like to get some play time in with the little Householder children.
“I had my own feelings hurt a little bit,” Quentin goes on. His voice suddenly jumped a notch, like a disc jockey turning up the music.
“I had four black guys jump me in an alley once. The one who saved me was a colored man. He was driving by and seen them doing it. He took me to the hospital. This happened in Doniphan, Missouri.”
I wonder if this changed Quentin’s view of blacks. But he’s already answering. “I even hated the man who took me to the emergency room, ‘cause he was black.”
The taboos that stick stubbornly to the subject of race/ethnic relations make that kind of candor all the more difficult. When a first-person story with focus, direction, rhythm and the traits of excellent storytelling is infused with authenticity and the voice of a writer willing to “give something up,” it rises to a level well above the usual.
In a hybrid piece that is equal parts personal essay and feature story, honoree Audra D. S. Burch of the Miami Herald brings her voice and the voices of Rap insiders together for a razor-sharp look at the controversy-saturated music genre. The writing is confident, strong, provocative, rhythmic:
Unfolding most every day in America: Four cars meet at an intersection. Rap blares out of one, its throbbing ba-boom-ba-boom bass bullying the space, bumrushing its way into the other cars, the other heads. One driver wants to get jiggy in the street, another rhyme out loud, another run the light, another toss a hand grenade. One hears the rhythm, another the rhyme. One hates, another feels hated.
There, in the subtext of a story about music and American culture, Burch launches her expedition into race relations. The story is rich in complexity and background. She added context. She positioned herself in the community and wrote from there. From that perch, she could write about the misogyny, the obscenities, the violence and vacuous materialism without sounding narrow or simply judgmental.
She told of rap’s genealogy. She dissected the DNA. Rap had parents. Cousins. An address. She traced it back to Muhammad Ali, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, the islands; back to the griots of West Africa. Rap had roots.
If Rap had a birth certificate, it would read: “Date of birth: mid-’70s (well before the release of Rapper’s Delight). Parents: Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash and two dozen other restless souls. Birthplace: 1500 block of Sedgewick Avenue, South Bronx. Siblings: deejay, breakdance, graffiti.”
Grounding Rap in something other than chaos and vulgarity shows simple respect for others and gives the author the credibility to talk about the underside. Compared to the political and sexual messages of great artists past, Burch wrote, rappers “spare us the subtlety.”
They sputter gutter, spewing about “bitches and ho’s,” and it was Notorious B.I.G. who announced, “I am #!*@ You Tonight.” The chorus, if you can imagine, was even bolder.
Strong, purposeful quotes move the story forward. Burch quotes the music. She quotes the musicians. She doesn’t just talk about them; she talks with them, through them.
• “The hallmark of rap is that it is so unabashedly, undeniably black. It’s not the whole of who we are, but you can’t talk about being black in this day and time and rap not come up,” says Kevin Powell, poet, journalist, lecturer and author of Keepin’ It Real: Post-MTV Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics.
• “There have been times I’ve loved (hip hop) more than any woman. There have been times that I hated it with the viciousness usually reserved for a cheating lover,” cultural critic Nelson George writes in his book, Hip Hop America, a survey of the genre.
In the critical twist of the story, as Burch explored Rap’s resiliency and the appeal of the “unabashedly, undeniably black” music to young white people, she embraced the complexity of race relations. She took those seemingly irreconcilable ideas and brought them together under a universal experience: rebellion.
Suddenly, the iconography of the ghetto – slanging and banging and hanging – was a rather normal way of living. The lyrics, the living, grew howls from Middle America, politicians and religious groups, black and white. If you can imagine, civil rights soldier C. Delores Tucker ended up on the same anti-gangsta rap team with conservative cultural critic William Bennett.
Mama’s Santos: An Arizona Life
Writer Carmen Duarte of the Arizona Star gave readers a trip through the history of Mexico and the southwestern United States with a 36-part serial narrative that told the story of her 83-year-old mother’s life. The story employs well the elements of good storytelling: Showing before telling, fine details, the tension-and-release of strong narrative writing. She launches with a dramatic flair: “Mama is preparing to die,” then signals – with an inventory of her mama’s favorite Santos (saints) – the funny, lyrical and to-the-bone personal story she has to tell about culture, family and faith.
I will let my mother tell this story, as much as possible, and in order to understand it you will have to get rid of some of your preconceptions.
In the literature of Spanish-speaking people, there is a tradition called magical realism. It recognizes that what is real is often quite different from what is true in a literal sense.
This is the real story of my mother and my family. If, at times, it does not ring true to you, you must remember how it begins, in a field along the Gila River, in a place with no physical boundaries, to a family that recognizes no lines between cultures, no lines between past and present, no lines between the natural and the supernatural.
It begins with a bolt of lightening.
Freed to use the language by a Spanish-English glossary published at the beginning of the series, Duarte mixes English and Spanish liberally so that her Mama is able to speak in her own tongue. That bolsters the story’s authenticity and strengthens its voice.
The story is a study in the power of context, grounding Mama’s life in history. Readers who went the distance in this series learned about the Apaches who lived on the Arizona-New Mexico border, the Mormons who fled Pancho Villa’s revolution in Mexico and moved to el norte, Mexican-Americans who fought in two World Wars and Vietnam. Duarte helped readers understand not just the place Catholicism plays in the lives of Mexican-Americans, but the role racism has played in defining life in the U.S.
The story attacks common stereotypes about Mexicans – that they’re lazy, illiterate, shifty – with facts and subtleties that celebrate her hard-working mother and high-achieving relatives but do not gloss over the thief-uncle or the drug-addict cousin. But there are times to show, and there are times to tell. Duarte is also direct – she’s willing to “give something up” – and when she speaks to the reader about prejudice, not even her newspaper escapes criticism.
My own newspaper offends me with its choice of words. It doesn’t like to use the terms ‘undocumented people,’ or ‘undocumented immigrants,’ or ‘people who entered the country illegally.’
It uses ‘illegal entrants,’ and despite attempts to stop it, ‘illegal aliens’ to save space in headlines. Damn space. …
It’s almost as if some Americans believe all Latinos were born in one foreign country. And all the Spanish-named folks working low-paying jobs must be ‘wetbacks.’
No. No. No.
Some, like my Mama, are hard-working Americans.
Searching for Lavinia, finding herself
One of the dominant themes of journey stories such as honoree Lisa Richardson’s essay, “Going Back to Find Lavinia” in The Los Angeles Times is self-discovery in pursuit of something else. Richardson’s search for the truth about her great-great-great grandmother becomes a parallel journey to the roots of her racial understanding.
The story rises and falls with creative tension, heaving at times as Richardson gets closer to the truth about Lavinia and bumps, inadvertently at times, into truths about herself. She surrenders much, revealing the anger, misgivings, prejudice and ambivalence hidden beneath the familial pride that launched this excursion.
She is my family’s Eve, our beginning and the person to whom we can furthest trace our roots. As generations of her children from that union now seek the details of her life, back she leads us. To find her – and our own origin – we must look in places we have avoided for more than a century and see our family as never before: in black and white.
It is the exploration of the white side of her family’s heritage, the side peopled with slaveholders and their descendants, that gives Richardson the greatest worry and gives the story it’s most unique twist. That’s the place where the more complex and, perhaps, more interesting stories of race relations can be told. If, that is, the writer is willing to give that up. Richardson is:
We do not seek to add white branches to our family tree. I wondered: How could we ever unite with people whose kinship exists only because of Lavinia’s pain?
The story of Lavinia is a study in research and the wonderful serendipity that so often happens when you plunge fully into a story and let your enthusiasm provide the fuel. The reporter uses slave narratives, legal documents, family records, the Internet. To the research, Richardson adds wit (“It is a total Alex Haley moment”) and introspection.
The strength of this story, though, is the willingness of the writer to struggle publicly with one of the world’s touchiest subjects and the range of emotions it elicits.
• Bitterness. As she combs the genealogy of white slaveholder Jerry H. Dial, her great-great-great-great-grandfather, she counts one collateral victim of her anger.
I ponder Dial liquid soap; behind its cleansing suds could there lie the sticky secret of a plantation past? I don’t know. I switch brands anyway.
• Anger. The reader sees Richardson rehearsing her virulence as she searches Internet family sites for clues that might lead to Lavinia. She writes an email she never intends to send.
I write on my computer screen: “Jerry H. Dial fathered a daughter with my great-great-great-grandmother Lavinia when she was helpless and in his power. Can any of you misbegotten descendants of a slaveholding rapist help me find her birth or sale records?”
• Confusion. Forced to decide whether she wants to attend a homecoming of her newly discovered white relatives, Richardson is brought to the brink of self-discovery.
She adds that once a year they hold a service at the chapel, a homecoming for family. ‘We’d love it if your family could come.’
‘Won’t that be controversial?’ I ask.
‘I can’t imagine why,’ she says and smiles at me. ‘Lisa, we’ve come a long way.’
It is too much. Silently I wonder; has she come a long way while I have not?
The Secret About Family
Lynn Sherr shares the stage of “Family Secret” with Jillian Atkin Sims, who followed the faint trail of her grandmother’s hints to discover that her white family had black ancestors. The subject matter was fertile ground for helping viewers understand a significant slice of race relations, and Sherr, with producer Alice Pifer, made good use of the opportunity.
To understand the place shame plays in a white family’s discovery of black heritage, viewers needed historical context, and if the story was to achieve a measure of authenticity, it needed Sims’ voice.
Sims, intrigued by her paternal grandmother’s vague answers to questions about her heritage, learned that her great-great grandfather was a black man, that his daughter was forced to visit her daughter’s family through the back doors of their New York home because Jillian’s great grandmother, Anita Hemmings, the first black graduate of Vassar College, was “passing” as a white woman. Sherr takes the viewer through Sims’ emotions as she considered the impact of racism.
Sherr was effective at moving the interview away from the technical questions of lineage and into the interesting, revealing arena of identity, discrimination and family. She asks if Sims, with pale skin, red hair and blue eyes, questioned her racial pedigree. She asked what Sims thought about the people at Vassar who considered expelling Sims’ great grandmother when she was “outed” as a black woman. She asked how Sims felt about attending the joint reunion of the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings families.
The questions produced strong sound bytes that moved the story along, exposed the pain and discomfort of talking about race and gave viewers a unique angle for looking at what ethnographer and author Studs Terkel called the American Dilemma.
• “I used to look in the mirror and I looked at my blue eyes and red hair, white skin, and I started wondering what is blackness and what is whiteness.”
• “I did not realize how many forms racism took in this country until I started looking into my own family. I really started looking at the world in a new way.”
• “I hated her roommate. I hated white people. I hated the ugliness that people are capable of when it comes to race.”
About the Jefferson-Hemmings family reunion and the group photo taken there:
Sherr: “Was it a better feeling than being in a family photo at home when you were a little kid growing up”
Sims: “They weren’t holding anything back. Whereas in a family gathering there’s still the family secrets.”
Viewers hear these things in the context of a history that Sherr explains. She describes the one-drop rule of slavery days and the way that “passing,” a path some black people took to escape racism, destroyed families. That context helps viewers see the “shame” of having black relatives as another expression of prejudice, not as a problem with being black.
When journalists deliver on the ingredients of good journalism – complexity, context, voice, authenticity – the stories are invariably better. Complexity makes stories more interesting. Context makes them deeper. Voice makes them more human. Authenticity makes them more real. That would hold true no matter what the subject.
When journalists operate in the delicate and sometimes volatile arena of diversity and race relations, though, the stakes are even higher. Get it wrong, and your story can sew discord, perpetuate prejudice, foster confusion. Get it right with these stories, though, and journalism can come closer to realizing its greatest potential.
Complexity breeds understanding. Context adds knowledge. Voice translates to dialogue. And when you add authenticity, the result is truth.
The work of a number of excellent journalists, trainers and educators helped inform this report. They are:
Arlene Morgan, Columbia University, Aly Colón, Lillian Dunlap and Victor Merina, The Poynter Institute, David Carrillo, the Newspaper Association of America, Sharon Rosenhause, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Walterine Swanston, Radio & Television News Directors Foundation, Callie Crossley, ABC News, Andra Digre, The Maynard Institute, Elizabeth Llorente, The (Bergen) Record, Phillip Martin, National Public Radio, Carolyn Mungo, KHOU-TV, Mizanur Rahman, The Virginian-Pilot, Jodi Rave Lee, the Lincoln Journal Star, Patricia Ryan, the Tampa Tribune, Ruth Seymour, Wayne State University, and Barry Yeoman, Glamour Magazine.