Newspapers Fail to Take Leadership Role in Improving Race Relations

Article excerpt

Newspaper coverage of African-Americans has too often lurched

from neglect to sensationalism, says one of America's most

respected journalists.

Tom Wicker, in his new book, Tragic Failure: Racial Integration

in America, proposes a new political party for

African-Americans because he says Republicans and Democrats have

abandoned integration as a national goal.

At the same time, Wicker says that the news media must bear

some responsibility for the nation's failure to integrate the

races.

Wicker has a rare perspective on race relations.

For his first 34 years, he grew up in the segregated South,

where he had his first newspaper jobs. News about

African-Americans was segregated in those days, too.

For his next 35 years, Wicker lived in the Northeast. He

retired in 1991 as a columnist for The New York Times.

He defines integration this way: "A situation in which blacks

and whites live together in amity, respecting each other's

rights and culture, in a society in which neither can or needs

to look down on faces permanently at the bottom of the well, a

society in which neither race is threatened by the other nor has

to claim preferential treatment in order to thrive

economically."

As he defines it, then, laws aren't the answer; changes in

human hearts are.

That led me to call him at his Rochester, Vt. home. I sought to

explore the role of the news media in fostering racial progress.

In his book, Wicker mentions several shortcomings of the

newspapers, many of them inter-related. Though the following

tendencies apply to all news coverage, they take on special

significance in coverage of race:

1. The tendency to simplify often distorts.

A typical example would be relying on a racial stereotype that

can't possibly be true for all members of a race.

2. Failure to cover minority communities on a routine basis.

This leaves black readers feeling separated and white readers

with an inadequate understanding of the black community. Too

often, coverage involves only crime or high-profile celebrities.

3. The press pays no attention to problems until there is a

dramatic spokesmen or a conflict.

"I always thought that newspapers ought to be more pro-active

in covering news," Wicker said.

4. Failure to hire and promote minorities.

Though strides have been made in newsrooms, they often come

painfully and slowly. …