Newsrooms are searching for new ways to cover racial and ethnic minorities. Do you need to be a specialist to do it right?
Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review.
GIVEN ATLANTA’S PLACE in modern American history, it made sense for its hometown newspaper, the Journal-Constitution, to assign a reporter to cover civil rights full-time. Until recently, that job belonged to Hollis Towns. An eleven-year veteran of the paper, Towns reported on church burnings, black voting patterns, and the legacy of the Million Man March. He traveled to Alabama to talk with the men and women who had participated in the Montgomery bus boycott forty years earlier. And he wrote an intimate profile of Coretta Scott King, the product of her first in-depth interview in several years.
Towns was pleased with his work, and so were his bosses. He considered nothing sacred, writing articles critical of revered groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Center for Democratic Renewal. But as he cranked out stories, the Journal-Constitution‘s editors wondered whether the paper was taking the right approach to race. Was it focusing too much on political organizations and not enough on the day-in, day-out struggles of black and white Atlantans? Was it vesting too much responsibility in a single reporter, rather than inculcating a racial consciousness throughout the entire staff? Convinced there was a better way to cover Atlanta’s most ubiquitous issue, in 1997 the paper abolished the civil rights beat and reassigned Towns to cover housing. For a while, it maintained a more general race-relations beat, but it disbanded that too, deciding that every reporter should be required to cover the racial angles of their own stories.
“Race is a factor in virtually everything we write in this community,” says metro editor Mike King. “It’s in the air we breathe. It’s almost impossible to miss.” Yet assigning a single reporter to cover racial issues, he contends, gave others license to ignore the subject. “Once race was identified as the core of a story, whether it was in courts or police, it became an easy and convenient reason to say, ‘Well, we can turn that over to the civil rights reporter.'”
The disbanding of the race beat had its intended effect, according to King. Journal-Constitution staffers took up the slack, exploring the role of race in college admissions, prison sentencing, and gubernatorial politics.
Still, without a writer whose primary expertise was race relations, important stories have fallen through the cracks. During SCLC’s fortieth-anniversary convention in Atlanta, for example, 800 people attended a panel discussion featuring Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Harvard professor Cornel West, and SCLC president Joseph Lowery on the future of the civil rights movement. “There were any number of stories that could have been developed from the people in that room—a room that was packed to the rafters, filled with debate,” says Towns, now an assistant city editor. But the news was relegated to the bottom three paragraphs of a 300-word inside-local story speculating on SCLC’s next president, written by a summer intern who had spent the earlier part of the month covering animal diseases and the weather. “I thought it was a little strange to be given that assignment,” says the former intern, Mike Householder, who now works for The Associated Press.
Still uncertain that it has found the magic formula, the Journal-Constitution is continuing its internal discussions. It’s not alone. As the national dialogue on race grows louder, as diversity becomes a buzzword within the industry, as the media recognize their potential audiences among blacks, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, newspapers and broadcast organizations are grappling with how best to cover ethnic minorities and the issues they face.
For some, the answer is obvious: race should be covered like any other complex issue, such as education or military affairs, with specialized journalists who have developed expertise and sources. Jonathan Tilove, the race reporter for Newhouse News Service, says his depth of knowledge means he can cover race with self-assurance, something most journalists can’t do.
“At some point you become familiar with the terrain and different schools of thought, and you can make connections that you might not otherwise feel confident to make,” says Tilove. “A lot of people approach it gingerly and might worry about how they write about it. If you know what you’re doing, you can say, ‘Okay, I’m not worried about simple-minded criticisms, because I can explain it in a more complex way.'”
Tilove has produced lengthy and nuanced features on the growing number of Americans who hold citizenship in two countries; the current-day implications of Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his slave, Sally Hemings; and the source of President Clinton’s support among black voters. The richness of his stories argues strongly for the need for reporters who are steeped in racial issues. Writing about Clinton and African Americans, for example, he explains “the abiding cultural affinity and comfort level, rooted in a struggling Southern Baptist upbringing.” He also discusses the “almost necessarily vast capacity for forgiveness” among descendants of slaves, and the “keen sensitivity to distinguishing private from public morality.”
But some critics downplay the amount of expertise required to cover race. “A military reporter needs to know a lot about weapons and planes and tanks and ships. Many of the people on medical beats have years of science training,” observes Rod Prince, executive producer for the weekend editions of NBC Nightly News. “But the racial issues plaguing this country are things that people experience in their daily lives. Doing stories about racial issues doesn’t require that you have the race beat. It’s an awareness that should find its way into all reporting.”
EVEN WITHOUT SPECIALIZED REPORTERS, many news organizations are approaching race with more depth and sensitivity than in the past. The blockbuster “race series” has become de rigeur among dailies, and often the projects are comprehensive and well-executed. In North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Journal‘s two-month “Dividing Lines” series in 1998 looked at the racial dynamics of the area’s schools, churches, social clubs, and courts—as well as at the Journal itself, which the paper acknowledged had “one of the least integrated newsrooms in the state.”
“It’s embarrassing,” publisher John Witherspoon admitted in print. “We have the profile of a 1950s company.”
But even with the periodic series, many journalists and readers agree that day-to-day coverage still suffers. Minorities make up only 11.5 percent of newsroom staffers, and blacks constitute 5.4 percent, well below their 13 percent share of the population. The situation isn’t much better in television newsrooms, where the senior rims sometimes look as segregated as church on Sunday morning. “Internally,” says one producer at ABC News, “we refer to the opening of World News Tonight, where they show the working newsroom, as the Promise Keepers shot.”
This is about more than diversity; the absence of minorities affects journalistic quality. Many white reporters remain skittish about writing about the racial subtexts of criminal justice, education, health care, and housing stories. What’s more, they often operate out of their own Rolodexes, crammed with the names of white experts. Stories about African Americans and Hispanics are frequently simplistic studies of poverty and pathology. And reporters overlook minority sources when writing stories about non-racial topics. While much of this has been discussed for years, it’s striking how the problems persist.
“As far as the newspaper’s concerned, I’m Mexican one day a year: Cinco de Mayo,” says Luz Maria Frias, chief legal officer for Centro Legal, a nonprofit community law office in St. Paul. Frias did a thirty-day audit of her city’s paper, the Pioneer Press, and concluded that the paper tends to treat minority residents as colorful outsiders. “When they have people of color in their pictures, it’s normally associated with a cultural celebration. Aside from that, they’re not ordinary people who stand in line for Christmas shopping, or enjoy low prices at the gas station.”
Hit with a growing consciousness that non-Anglos are poorly represented in their news pages, some papers have hired “diversity” reporters, charged with finding stories in ethnic communities that would otherwise go unreported. One of the most ambitious efforts continues to evolve at the San Jose Mercury News, once dubbed “Sans Jose Mercury News” for the lack of ethnic faces in its news pages. In 1992 the paper created a team called a “change pod” to deal with the influx of Asian and Latino immigrants who were transforming Silicon Valley. “It was an explicit recognition by the paper that it hadn’t gotten the job done,” says Stephen Buel, who headed the team for several years.
The team started with five reporters and an editor, and the initial coverage focused largely on positive articles about previously ignored groups. “We tended to do a lot of celebratory stories, which were probably an overreaction to the criticism we had gotten in the past,” says Ken McLaughlin, who covers the valley’s Vietnamese population for the Mercury News. “It would have been hard to go into these communities that you’ve ignored all these years and cover race relations, because you get the attitude that, ‘You guys are only coming in and covering things where there’s trouble.'”
McLaughlin says those early months improved the newspaper’s standing among its Asian and Hispanic readers, who came to trust the beat reporters and knew whom to call when there were events or issues the paper wasn’t covering. The creation of the change pod also laid the groundwork for the next stage of the Mercury News ‘s campaign: a move toward coverage of the serious and often difficult issues faced by San Jose’s minorities. “It was a natural evolution,” McLaughlin says.
Indeed, it was part of an evolution among many large and mid-sized papers: once it became routine to include non-whites in daily coverage, it was time to take a bigger step, to delve into the ways people interact across racial lines. In San Jose, the “change pod” began to explore both conflict and cooperation among ethnic groups; it later changed its name to the race and demographics team to reflect that shift in philosophy. Many of the team members spoke the native languages of the groups they were covering, including Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish.
Some of the stories have been remarkable. Last August, Mercury News staff writers Edwin Garcia and Ben Stocking wrote a two-part series about a second wave of migration of Mexicans and Central Americans—this time, from California to the American Southeast and Midwest. “For these West Coast refugees, fed up with the state’s high cost of living, urban crime, and anti-immigration climate,” they wrote, “the Golden State has lost its glow.”
Garcia and Stocking fanned out across North America, from the Mexican state of Michoacán to small towns in Nebraska and North Carolina, to report on the effects of this Latino Diaspora. They described the economic upturn in Lexington, Nebraska, where immigrants are moving out of mobile homes and opening businesses. And they profiled an innovative program in Dalton, Georgia, where civic leaders recruited bilingual teachers and sent local ones to Mexico to learn Spanish and study the culture.
But they also wrote about exploitative conditions in meat and poultry plants with predominantly Latino workforces. They documented the strain on the public health system in Siler City, North Carolina. And they reported a spread in anti-immigrant hysteria to the American heartland, taking readers to a rally in Alabama where a Mexican flag was burned. “People are beginning to resist all across the country,” anti-immigrant activist Glenn Spencer warned. “It’s going to be damn ugly.”
GARCIA SAYS THE SERIES, a four-month effort, is an example of the type of journalism that comes from hiring reporters who specialize in race. Steeped in the subject matter, both reporters were able to research the series without taking out time to learn the basics of Hispanic culture. They also came into the project sensitive to cultural differences. For example, Garcia, the son of Mexican and Costa Rican parents, knew it’s often difficult to interview a Latina woman whose spouse hasn’t been consulted first. “I learned a long time ago that to get a better interview with the woman, it’s important to go to the husband first and interview him, even if I won’t use a word he says,” he explains.
And, of course, Garcia and Stocking speak Spanish. In a city like San Jose, where many minority residents speak languages other than English, it’s essential to have reporters who can communicate with their sources. But those reporters don’t have to share a common ethnic extraction. McLaughlin, who is Irish and Italian-American, speaks Vietnamese, for example. Besides, many of the best race reporters don’t cover single ethnic groups; they cover the relations between various groups. Some of the best race reporters, like Newhouse’s Tilove, are white.
At the Mercury News, the plethora of team-generated, page-one stories has encouraged other staffers, including bureau reporters and feature writers, to write about race and ethnicity. “Creation of the team here has fostered a paper-wide understanding that this was an issue the paper was concerned about,” says Buel, the former head of the change pod. “You give stories play, and other people want to do those stories.”
But some newspapers have experienced the opposite effect: the beat has given reporters an excuse to abdicate their responsibilities, particularly at newspapers that don’t share the Mercury News ‘s aggressive commitment. Says Scott Maxwell, who helped coordinate the Winston-Salem Journal series and now writes for the Orlando Sentinel: “When my colleagues here get calls, I see them pointing their sources to the race reporter. I know, because I’m guilty of it too.” As a result, some articles never get written. That abdication can happen at an institutional level as well, Maxwell adds: “You can walk around with your chest puffed out and say, ‘Here’s our dedication to race. We have a minority affairs reporter.'”
There are other problems. Buel notes that under his leadership, the Mercury News‘s race team did a good job of covering minorities, but a poorer job of covering conservative whites. “There’s a certain kind of person who’s motivated to want to be on a race-and-demographics team, especially when the team is set up with the assumption that we are going to cover people we have historically undercovered,” he says. “The impulse of those reporters is to build people up. You’re not going to attract people who like to confront the enemy and learn more about them.”
Buel says the team’s creation was an important step toward correcting the problems of the “Sans Jose” days. But he adds, “I wonder if a race-and-demographics team is kind of like the Articles of Confederation. You need to have it, but it’s not the long-term solution.”
With no consensus, many organizations have chosen to forgo the specialized beats entirely. They’re still relatively rare in the broadcast industry; one notable exception is National Public Radio, which recently hired veteran reporter Phillip Martin to cover race-relations and ethnic conflict. Some large newspapers have also chosen not to hire race reporters. And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not alone in disbanding the beat. Last year, after the St. Paul Pioneer Press reassigned its beat reporter, Pat Burson, to another job, it decided to leave her old position unfilled.
“Obviously, race is a huge topic that we have to cover well,” says Dave Peters, senior editor of the city edition. “The easiest thing to do is to hire one person and say, ‘Your job is to cover race relations in Minnesota.’ When Pat was that person, she got good stories. But race relations are such an integral part of so many other things we cover that you’re absolving the staff of having to do those stories.”
BUT IS THAT REALLY A PROBLEM inherent to race beats? Truth is, reporters who shy away from racial issues are symptoms of a greater problem: newspapers and broadcast organizations that are themselves uncomfortable with the topic. The San Jose experience has shown that, when management supports aggressive coverage of inter-ethnic relations, reporters will clamor to cover race. If they’re not clamoring, it indicates passivity on the part of the leadership—or even hostility. “If upper management says, ‘This is frosting on the cake, but we still want it to be a vanilla cake, that sends a strong message,” says Frias, the St. Paul attorney.
The real solution is to devote more energy to the issue—by hiring additional race reporters and creating a sense of collective responsibility in the newsroom. As reporters like Tilove demonstrate, to cover a complex issue like race—and to cover it right—requires journalists with expertise in the current trends and theories. In that way, it’s no different from education or the environment, issues where beat coverage is universally accepted. On the other hand, general assignment reporters who know nothing about air pollution or schools—or race relations—and who avoid the issue in their daily coverage will consistently produce inadequate journalism.
A growing national awareness of the complexities of race gives newspapers, television, and radio outlets an opportunity to sharpen their journalism, to report on the nuances of everyday life in a more accurate and penetrating way. A race beat combined with management support can open up worlds to readers and viewers. A lone reporter, sent out to cover to Cinco de Mayo and Kwanzaa under the guise of race reporting, will produce little more than embarrassment.