Let Us Now Praise Good Reporting on Race

By Morgan, Arlene Notoro | Nieman Reports, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Let Us Now Praise Good Reporting on Race


Morgan, Arlene Notoro, Nieman Reports


A journalism program spotlights and studies the exemplary ingredients of coverage.

"When journalists fail to handle sensitive issues of race and ethnicity effectively, or fail to integrate sources that reflect gender and ethnic diversity into their stories, the community pays a serious price, both in the short and long run."

This premise, championed by former Milwaukee Journal Editor Sig Gissler, led to the creation of the first Let's Do It Better workshop on race and ethnicity for professional journalists in 1999 at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Gissler, who joined the Columbia faculty in 1994, was weary of the criticism--often justifiable--that the news industry encountered on the coverage of race. He reasoned that a workshop built around discussion of well reported stories would create a comfort zone to help journalists teach others how to improve their coverage of racial and ethnic issues. To Gissler's knowledge, no other journalism school was tackling this professional shortcoming. And what editor, he mused, would turn down a free trip to New York City, a city that illustrates the importance of covering a multicultural society?

Supported by a sizable grant from the Ford Foundation, Gissler began a competitive process to find "the best" stories documenting how race is lived in America. In its third year, the project is on its way to becoming a national showcase for the print and broadcast pieces that pass the test for insight, authority and courage. Most important, the honored journalists share their work--as evocative case studies--with a carefully chosen group of media "gatekeepers," influential editors and broadcasters who set newsroom agendas and can implement change. "By showcasing excellent examples of racial and ethnic coverage in America, we aim to spur better performance," Gissler explained.

In launching Let's Do It Better, Gissler had to overcome a sizable share of challenges. There was the entrenched perception, voiced on a variety of fronts by communities of color and frustrated journalists, that the news industry is almost as conflicted today about including people of color as part of the total community as it was in 1968, when the Kerner Commission rebuked the media for their lack of inclusiveness. And there were questions, the answers to which were not easy to come by. Would journalists bother to respond to the school's annual call for "the best"? Should a newsroom that ignored race, except for the random prize-generating project, be honored on the same level as a Newsday, the Long Island newspaper that has made diversity in hiring and content part of its everyday mission? Do the TV weekend shows, regarded by many journalists as "the ghetto" for segments dealing with issues such as Hispanic business, qualify for the same honors as the nightly news or primetime magazines? Would the smaller newsrooms, where resources are limited, produce competitive work?

What we discovered, once the entries began to come in, was that race and ethnicity are topics of great interest and intensive reporting at many media outlets. Dozens of entries from publications like The State in Columbia, South Carolina and the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska soon indicated that the search for new readers and viewers in emergent immigrant communities finally might be changing the picture.

The selection process posed additional problems. Picking a cross section of judges to represent a variety of colors, genders, experiences and backgrounds to screen entries meant looking for people who could suspend their own emotions on race and judge the entries based on objective standards. Also, what role, if any, would the community play in the selection of honorees? An idea that initially sounded so simple grew to become a project filled with enormous challenges.

"African Americans often charge that journalists cover only the negative news within the black community," Gissler explained. …

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