Delving Into Diversity: Race Reporting in U.S. Newsrooms

Panelist Remarks by:

Jan Schaffer
Executive Director
Pew Center for Civic Journalism

August 7, 2002, Miami, FL

Journalists are good at covering black and white issues. You're either a good guy or a bad guy. The schools are good or bad. Adelphia Communications is either a good company or a bad one.

The problem with covering things like race relations is that it's not about covering black and white, it's about covering the gray areas.

It's usually not about covering the noise-except where there is overt and public police misconduct or hate crimes. It is much more about covering the silences. Those uncomfortable silences in a community that make people squirm.

It's less about covering news that "breaks" and more about covering stories that "seep and ooze." Documenting those stories is much more difficult. And I would suggest they require a very different set of skills.

  • More open-ended listening.

  • An ability to spot patterns.

  • A knack for hearing code words or buzz words and burrowing in to unpack what people really mean by them.

Covering race relations in the '90s is much different than covering it during the great Civil Rights decade of the '60s. Then, journalists, to some degree, were among the crusaders, acting to right wrongs and ensure equality.

Today, journalists are more among the clueless than the crusaders.

  • They may be framing stories from a white lens, if they are white.

  • If they are minority, they may fail to win validation of how they frame the "news" from their bosses.

  • They may not have the patience to report on difficult stories, filled with ambivalence and, frankly, kind of messy to write.

  • And they may not begin to have the sources they need to report the stories-their Rolodexes packed with "quote commandos", people whom journalists have elevated to spokespeople for their communities-yet whom the communities don't see as leaders.

  • They may not carry credibility within the community

  • And in some cases, they just may not speak the language.

But some people are trying to break out of outdated journalistic conventions and try new things. That's what we tried to give a megaphone to in our publication, Delving into the Divide: A Study of Race Reporting in Forty-Five U.S. Newsrooms. More on this in a second.

To the Pew Center, it became very clear toward the end of the decade that there were two stories that nearly every regional news organization was dealing with. We saw it again and again, in proposals for funding, in Batten Award applications, in independent initiatives.

Those two stories were: failing schools and race relations. And often the failing schools story was a race relations story, too, because the schools that performed the worst were often in urban areas or had large minority student populations, or they had high minority drop-out rates or less money than schools in more affluent neighborhoods or quantifiable performance gaps in black and white student test scores.

Interestingly, toward the end of the decade, we began seeing the undoing of much of what journalists in my age group covered as some of the Great Answers: We are seeing communities that want an end to busing. A return to neighborhood schools. An interest in charter schools or home schools, where the focus is less on test scores and more on different ingredients for what makes a good education. I'd love to see some probing of how Baby Boomer journalists are dealing with these trends. For some, I'd hypothesize that it's very difficult. Things that we reported as the "right" answers may have been wrong.

At the same time, around the middle of the decade, I saw editors having some epiphanies. I call them their "holy shit" moments. And the realization went something like this: We don't have enough diversity in our newsrooms. Worse, we can't find enough minorities to hire. When we can hire, they get wooed away overnight by a bigger paper or TV station.

Moreover, the composition of our community has changed dramatically. Somalis in the turkey-processing plants in Lincoln, NE. Mexicans migrant workers in Yakima, WA. Muslims in Detroit. We'd like to do a civic journalism project, but forget about convening a town hall meeting.

For one thing, we don't know how to get to these folks to invite them. And second, frankly, we don't speak their language, much less have a clue about their concerns.

So, civic journalists, who were training early in the decade to build in a lot of interaction with the community to help inform the reporting and build some civic capacity, needed some new tools in the toolbox.

Enter civic mapping.

Civic mapping is one of civic journalism's great contributions to race relations reporting. It gave journalists a structure for going out in the community, finding not the Rolodex "quote commandos", but the catalysts and connectors, the go-to people, the civic bumblebees who pollinate a lot of different groups. Finding the third places, where people gather and trade information informally.

It helped them ask not about problems, but about aspirations. It lead to open-ended questions like: What do you make of that?

Out of that mapping came 1) new stories, 2) new sources and 3) new relationships with the community.

In the Delving into the Divide book we see many tools for reporting on race. Some are conventional journalism; some are very unconventional.

Some of the ones that we see cloned, to great effect, are:

1) Giving space to different perceptions. Journalists tend to want to validate a right or wrong. But truth is in the eyes of the beholder. Those journalists who report truth as a plural word, not a singular word, tend to hear more from community members who feel they have some access.

2) Polling-only if it's done right. Because people in race polls will respond with politically correct answers, drafting the questionnaire is the most important thing you can do. Perceptions are always different, aspirations are often the same-as are choices.

3) Pure legwork, walking the streets, talking to people-before you frame your story-has paid off big time. People will talk if they think you don't have a pre-set point of view.

4) Creating venues for people to talk-focus groups, task forces, video-conferencing like in St. Paul-has brought forth poignant stories and built new bridges.

5) Debunking myths-addressing them straight on has created some "a-ha" moments for readers.

6) Lately, we've seen several news organizations "fessing up", acknowledging past coverage that was biased or totally excluded big pieces of history. The Jackson Sun simply ignored the civil rights movement in its backyard. The Savannah Morning News once supported lynchings.

7) Inviting action: Letting people get involved and take ownership of the problem has paid big dividends.

The trick to all these reporting tools is to help people build some capacity for dealing with the problem and not fan the flames of controversy or divisiveness.

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