By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
Unity panelists see race playing a hand in the news p. 12
RACE HAS BEEN in the news coverage for decades, but it remains a raw nerve.
That sensitivity was explored by a Unity ’94 panel sponsored by Freedom Forum and in the latest issue of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center’s Media Studies Journal.
“What we have found, even though we’ve been reporting on race for years, is that just now we are coming to find how complex and difficult it is,” said Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose.
Particularly fascinating is not necessarily press reports themselves, Cose observed, but the agonizing process through which newsrooms come up with the stories. In some cases, he said, it has been like putting the media on a psychiatrist’s couch, and the process has been illuminating.
“We are no more objective than anyone else,” he said. “We are not practicing a science. It’s very subjective. What you’ve experienced reflects what you see and choose to report.”
Thus, Cose continued, the media need a huge diversity of people doing the reporting, otherwise the result is a skewed reality.
“Another thing we are realizing,” he said, “is that we like to think of ourselves as fearless truth tellers, but we have a difficult time discussing race in honest terms.”
If the news media cannot lead the discussion, Cose said, “we’re not doing our job.”
John Philip Santos, director of program development at public television station WNET in New York, said a lot depends “on how we bring our cultural baggage to rest in the newsroom,” because cultural differences “not only affect what we report, but how we report.”
Santos discussed the use of “diversity checklists” by newspaper reporters. While inspiring some dislike, the checklists create a set of values and measures for judgment, he said.
“A very large gap exists between the efforts in the print world and what has happened ? or has not happened ? in the television world,” Santos said, calling television “woefully neglectful” about diversity.
“It’s no longer sufficient to solve the problem by hiring,” he said. “We need to address how we are reporting.
Oakland Tribune columnist William Wong said he has found a dichotomy between visibility and invisibility in coverage of Asian-Americans.
While stories about illegal immigration and the fat content of Chinese food have received a lot of attention, much of the coverage played to stereotypes and, in the case of the immigrants, distorted the problem, he said.
Further, the Asian-American community is itself diverse, and journalists could do a better job reporting it, Wong said.
Few images of African-American men are allowed on commercial television, commented Jannette L. Dates, acting dean of the school of communications at Howard University.
“We see the stereotypes played out over and over again,” she said ? most black men portrayed on TV as either brutes or clowns. “That is a major part of the problem. These frames of reference resonate in our minds.”
James Hattori, CBS News correspondent in Tokyo, said people outside the United States see race tearing the fabric of U.S. society. The shooting of a Japanese exchange student by a frightened Baton Rouge, La., homeowner was not seen so much as racial in Japan but as part of a greater problem, he said.
“They point to that as America as a violent, crime-ridden country,” Hattori explained, adding that such incidents reinforce the stereotype, true or not.
“The world out there is watching and making judgments about how we react,” he said. “America is perhaps not the moral leader it once was.”
When Mark Trahant was publisher and owner of Navajo Nation Today, he learned that “ownership can change a lot.”
“The power of ownership goes beyond editorial decisions, it changes the equation,” said Trahant, now executive editor of the Salt Lake Tribune.
David Louie of KGO-TV in San Francisco said he is concerned about empowerment. As news staffs diversify, what is being done to rethink coverage?
“I’m concerned with the fact that in many diverse communities, they still play to white suburbia,” he said, explaining that news organizations have to deliver the demographics they want to sell “rather than stand up and say there is a problem.”
?( We like to think of ourselves as fearless truth tellers, but we have a difficult time discussing race in honest temrs”)[ Caption]
?( Ellis Cose) [Photo]