Fall 2003

Introduction

By Melissa Ludtke, Editor

Black and white journalists, at times working as colleagues, at other times separately, have produced the first draft of our nation’s difficult history of race relations. In this issue of Nieman Reports, journalists examine reporting at the intersection of black and white America and look at the racial conditions, climate and conversations in newsrooms.

Our series of stories begins with journalists’ remembrances of covering the emergence of the civil rights movement and subsequent calls for “Black Power.” Jack Nelson, who covered the civil rights struggle from 1965 to 1970 as the Los Angeles Times’s Atlanta bureau chief, observes that “… many journalists, no matter what else they might have covered, look back on that period as the highlight of their careers—a time when the press had a profound impact on the most dramatic and important domestic revolution of the 20th century.” Jack Bass, the coauthor with Jack Nelson of “The Orangeburg Massacre,” reminds us of the national news media’s reluctance to report on the February 1968 shooting deaths by state police of three students at Orangeburg’s almost all-black South Carolina State College. “In the aftermath of major urban riots, the national media’s interest in civil rights faded, and what happened on the campus of Orangeburg, where the victims were black, was out of tune with the times and not considered ‘news,’” writes Bass.

The Maynard Institute History Project preserves the unique contributions of African-American journalists, including the journals of Earl Caldwell, a former New York Times reporter and Daily News columnist. In writing about Caldwell’s experiences, Dori J. Maynard, the institute’s president, notes that reporting on the Black Power revolution was “the only time that mainstream media put an important story entirely in the hands of black reporters.” Larry Muhammad, a reporter with The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, writes about the 176-year-old black press, its past and present and its impact on ethnic progress. Today, he writes, “… black papers must attract younger readers.”

When documentary directors and producers Whitney Dow and Marco Williams went to Jasper, Texas to tell the story of the brutal dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., they divided their reporting by race. Whitney, who is white, relied on a white crew to interview white residents of Jasper. Marco, who is black, worked with a black crew to hear from black citizens. Dow and Williams edited their stories together to make “Two Towns of Jasper,” and here discuss their technique and the challenges they confronted. Jack E. White, who wrote the “Dividing Line” column for Time, explains why he writes about race no longer. “The debate has gotten so fractious I can’t hear myself think.” White urges coverage of critical issues such as the “yawning academic achievement gap between African Americans and every other ethnic group in the nation.” That challenge is being met by Tim Simmons, a reporter for The (Raleigh) News & Observer, whose minority education beat provides the platform to examine such issues in-depth in projects such as “Worlds Apart: The Racial Achievement Gap” and “The New Segregation.” As Simmons writes, coverage such as this might never have happened if the paper “didn’t have a reporter specifically assigned to a minority education issues beat.”

The Jayson Blair situation at The New York Times awakened interest in issues revolving around the work environment of minority journalists. Neil Henry, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley, heard from many former students who are black and working in newsrooms. Henry writes, “… because Blair was young and black and the product of a training program aimed at increasing the racial diversity of the news staff, the scandal and its national news coverage became freighted with an added dimension of race, provoking pain and fury that was especially keen to blacks and other minorities in the industry.” Errin Haines, entering her second year of the Tribune Company’s two-year Minority Editorial Training Program, reflects on her experiences and on possible impacts of Blair’s actions. “… for anyone to conclude—or even speculate—that the Blair incident was proof positive that young or minority journalists rise too far, too fast, made me nervous for my colleagues and myself.”

Bryan Monroe, assistant vice president for news at Knight Ridder and a vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), explores why racial diversity in newsrooms matters and how a few news organizations are meeting diversity goals while so many others are not. Monroe writes, “… It will take 10 times this activity level to even come close to hitting the parity goals for staffing and coverage that our industry has pledged.” William McGowan, author of “Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism,” tells how his arguments were received by members of the journalism community. “Traveling through the intersection of journalism and our nation’s racial tensions requires a hard head, if not a helmet,” he writes. Dori J. Maynard describes finding “a conversation fraught with frustration and mistrust” when she visited newsrooms to talk about diversity, training and the conversations around diversity. Recent NABJ president Condace L. Pressley, program director at WSB radio in Atlanta, Georgia, connects the failure to reach diversity goals with how uncomfortable journalists are in speaking about race. NABJ can help, she says, to “create the safe place so desperately needed by journalists to have necessary, difficult and rare conversations about race in the newsroom—and have them across race.” Craig Franklin, a news producer at KRON, explains how the TV station’s “About Race” project and race committee—appointed to examine KRON’s coverage of race as well as racial attitudes inside the newsroom—“began to slowly change our company’s culture, exposing hidden fault lines and reducing tensions.”

Gannett measures its newspapers’ commitment to staffing diversity and the “appropriate use of minority experts in reporting stories.” Tom Witosky, sports project writer for The Des Moines Register, asks whether the policies “amount to cynical political correctness” or if they “uphold journalism’s primary responsibility to mirror accurately individual and community accomplishment and failure.” Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, reviews findings from a report on race reporting, “Delving into the Divide: A Study of Race Reporting in Forty-Five U.S. Newsrooms,” that shows why such stories are difficult to cover and provides reporters useful tools for doing so. From a small East Texas town, The Marshall News Messenger editor Phil Latham describes how both Bill Moyers and his newspaper explored the roots of his community’s racism. In his paper’s series, “12 Questions On Race,” Latham posed the same questions to six white and six black ministers and published their responses. For a time after the series was published, a Racial Reconciliation Committee was convened in the community “to try to improve the racial climate.”


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