July 28, 2003

The watermelons seemed like a good idea at the time. Rain had dampened the celebration at Campbell Park, and the photojournalist, trying to salvage a story, searched for a picture that would say, “rained out.” She found the watermelons, stacked two-high and dripping in the drizzle, symbols of all the fun that had been washed away that day.

She didn’t see the controversy coming.

The photographer was part of a four-person team of reporters and visual journalists who’d earned spots with 30 others in Poynter’s summer fellowship program for recent college graduates. The six-week internship in St. Petersburg combines neighborhood beat reporting and seminar workshops. The deadline for their second story was looming when the summer thunderstorms rumbled in.

The team’s photo spread would cover the story’s natural arc, from the lighting of a candle at the start of the two-day event, to the picture of people bracing against the storm, to the tell-tale image of a man walking off, beach umbrella in tow, having conceded the weekend to the weather. The package would also include the 11 wet watermelons, which might not have raised an eyebrow but for the nature of the event: It was Juneteenth, the annual remembrance of the day the last of America’s enslaved black people learned of their freedom.

The journalistic juxtaposition of watermelons and black people was, to say the least, provocative.

The lead reporter on the story certainly thought so. She’d raised a caution flag as the story worked its way through the editing process. A Poynter staffer handling editing of the program’s website, Points South, wondered aloud whether the photo was dancing too closely to racial stereotypes.

The conversation, though, wasn’t fully explored until the weekly “check-in,” when the 34 aspiring journalists gathered to talk over the issues that had come up on their beats that week. It was a sometimes-tense, sometimes-funny discussion as some in the group explored the taboos of race and ethnicity for the first time.

Some of the Fellows said they’d never heard about any stereotypes associated with watermelons. Maybe that means the stereotype is fading away, one Fellow suggested, so why sacrifice a good photo for a has-been stigma? Another said she recognized an insult immediately and cringed at the thought of publishing the picture. Follow one instinct and the photo, already on the website, would stay. Follow the other, and it would be deleted. The options, at first, seemed fairly stark.

There was a time when the best decision would have been clear: Spike the picture.

Since the earliest days of plantation slavery, the caricature of the dark-skinned black child, his too-red lips stretched to grotesque extremes as they opened to chomp down on watermelon, was a staple of racism’s diet. Over time, the watermelon became a symbol of the broader denigration of black people. It became part of the image perpetuated by a white culture bent upon bolstering the myth of superiority by depicting the inferior race as lazy, simple-minded pickaninnies interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon.

Like all racial and ethnic stereotypes, this one’s destructive properties have, through the decades, stretched far beyond mere insult. It has helped poison self-esteem, pushing some people to avoid doing anything that seemed too “black,” lest they be lumped into the company of Uncle Remus, Aunt Jemima, or some other relative of racism.

As we talked, I told the group how my own life had been poisoned by the stereotype. Just a few days earlier, I told them, I’d found myself in a familiar internal debate over whether to take a slice of watermelon from a luncheon fruit tray. In the pause before my fork stabbed a couple of slices, I worried anew that white people looking on would follow the crooked path of bigoted logic that says if one stereotype is validated, all the others must be true.

We wrestled with the issue a little longer. It was the sort of conversation we’d envisioned when the faculty leading the program put the check-ins on the schedule. It was the sort of conversation that should happen in all newsrooms whenever journalism reaches the ethical intersection where truth meets racial stereotype. There are rarely clear-cut answers to such dilemmas. But our discussion suggested some guidelines for getting there:

Know the stereotype. There’s no reason today, with information just a mouse-click away, why anyone should tromp blindly into the briar patch of racial stigma. Anticipate the existence of stereotypes each time you delve into a culture different from your own. Read up on them.
Listen to trusted voices. Bring into the conversation those who know history and can articulate why something might be insulting. Then ask, “Who feels differently?” Listen to that point of view, too. Remember that you’re not looking for someone to whom you’ll cede decision-making power. Your independence, a cornerstone of ethical journalism, is heightened by knowledge, and that’s what you’re after.
Consider context. How central to the story or package is the stereotypical image? If the watermelon picture were the only photo or the primary image from the Juneteenth event, it would take on greater significance. In this case, it was part of a multi-photo essay, and the other images might signal to readers that the journalists were telling a full story, not seizing upon a familiar stereotype.

I imagine that the closer the image gets to its racist ancestor, the redder the red flag. A photo of a dark-skinned black child sitting cross-legged, smiling broadly and holding a piece of watermelon with two hands –- the prototype for somebody’s Sambo -– would be hard to take no matter how true it was to the story.

Then, journalists would need to figure out whether readers would get so hung up on figuring out the journalists’ intent (Were they trying to insult black people?) that they’d lose sight of what the story was all about. That question puts journalism, not the often-superficial fear of offending or a rote defense of independence, at the center of the discussion.

Debby Coleman’s photo stayed on the Points South site. It tells a story all its own and contributes to a larger tale. Yet, it’s more than that. It’s a simple picture: Eleven variegated watermelons on wet cement. And it’s proof that good conversations on matters of race can bear fruit.

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The Dean of Faculty, Keith teaches reporting on race relations, editing, persuasive writing, ethics and diversity. He's a former reporter, city editor, editorial writer and…
Keith Woods

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