June 4, 2008

The historic 2008 presidential primary season is over. Another unprecedented campaign lies ahead. Take a breath. Then make a vow to handle one of the hottest issues in the campaign — race relations –- better than ever.

Clearly we’re not done with the subject. We may be spared the clumsiness of Sen. Joe Biden’s inarticulate racial compliments over the coming months. We may never again hear Geraldine Ferraro’s simple-minded explanation of Sen. Barack Obama’s appeal. We may be spared another spooling of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s reckless damnation.

But before November 4, we will almost certainly meet once more at the scene of a racial conflagration. On calmer days we’ll debate whether we should say “black” or “African American,” “Latino” or “Hispanic.” This nation and the media covering it aren’t especially deft at talking about ethnicity or race matters. Thus, things often get twisted, contorted, overblown and distorted. Nearly every word explosive, which only adds to the journalistic muddle. If you aspire to a higher standard, use a few lessons from the primary season to prepare for the coverage ahead.

Let’s start with the first sentences of your story. Is Barack Obama really “trying to become the first black president,” as so many journalists write? That phrase or its variant has been a staple of news coverage, and it suggests that Obama is pursuing a racial, not political, achievement. You can find the language in ABC’s coverage of the final primaries: “The issue of race cropped up again and again for the man seeking to become the nation’s first black president.”

It was in the Associated Press’s story the day after Obama clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination: “Obama, battling to become the nation’s first black president and one of its youngest …”

It looked like this in a blog entry from a political editor of the Boston Globe (which makes the same logical leap about Sen. Hillary Clinton and her gender):

“The chairman of two national women’s magazines today switched his allegiance from Hillary Clinton, seeking to become the first woman elected president, to Barack Obama, trying to become the first black president.”
You can find a reference to Obama’s “quest to become the first black president” in the Shanghai Daily and any number of news outlets around the world. Here’s the problem with the phrasing: It lumps two facts together to impose upon Obama a motivation for running: 1) He wants to be president. 2) If elected, he’ll be the first black president. Splice them together and you get: “He wants to be the first black president.” Unless the candidate says the racial “first” is his goal — or you can otherwise prove that’s what motivates him — it’s an assumption masquerading as a fact.

For accuracy’s sake, separate facts from motive. It’s as simple as what the television station eitb24 in Spain wrote on its Web site: “Obama now becomes the first black man to run as the nominee of a major party in the U.S. general election. And should he win, he’ll become the first black president in the history of the United States.”

When the general election campaign is in full swing and one of the candidates, or their supporters -– or their pastor -– steps into a steaming heap of racial mess, report the fallout responsibly. Raise the level of journalism to bring light, not just heat. Remember that your mission is to inform, not judge. Answer three questions for your audience:

  • What did they say? Don’t just give the sound bite, paraphrase or partial quote. Let your readers, listeners or viewers have the benefit of the whole thought.
  • Why does it matter? Provide context, definitions, whatever your audience needs in order to understand the offense. Don’t assume we all know the same history. We don’t.
  • What did they mean? Everyone, including people who were thinking the controversial thing that someone else said, deserves to have a shot at fully answering this question. When Geraldine Ferraro said, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” the best question, the one we heard the least, was this one: What do you mean? Don’t assume you know. Don’t assume we know.

And when you get to that point again where you’re trying to help your audience understand how different groups of voters regard the candidates, ditch the euphemisms. What is the “lunch bucket democrat” I read about in Mother Jones?

What’s a “NASCAR dad,” a “Soccer Mom,” or the “blue collar worker” I keep hearing the guy on CNN talk about?

What do we mean by “working class” and how are those people different from “blue collar workers” and “NASCAR dads”? Journalism has created or parroted a dictionary’s worth of empty phrases meant to describe the voting populace. Encoded with racial and class assumptions, they are to information as cotton candy is to nutrition.

Just as this remarkable campaign now moves into a phase of higher stakes, so too should your journalism rise to the greater reaches of excellence. Especially on the issues that matter. Especially on race.

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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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