Sep 14, 2004 in UNITY 2004

What Are We Still Not Getting Right?

by Cristina Azocar

What are we still not getting right?

This was the question 14 well-respected journalists attempted to answer last month at the Reporting on Race, Ethnicity and Demographics in the Media Panel at Unity í04.

Elizabeth Llorente, a reporter at the Bergen Record and recipient of the 2004 Career Achievement Award from the Let's Do It Better Workshop on Race and Ethnicity at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, said coverage and hiring have improved in last 20 years, "but I thought things would have changed a lot more." Llorente co-moderated the interactive discussion with George Benge, who also organized the panel. More than 200 people attended the workshop, which had among the highest attendance of the convention.

"People think when you have diversity in the newsroom it's on the people who look like us [people of color] to keep it going, but, it's everyone's responsibility" said Wanda Lloyd, executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser .

Benge's goal for the session was to "feature a diverse and distinguished cast of participants" to provide the audience with tips to take back to their newsrooms on how reporting on race, ethnicity and demographics affects both newsroom politics and the communities covered. Benge, a nws executive with Gannett Co. and a columnist for the Gannett News Service, provided audience members tips sheets from each of the panelists. The tips and interviews from the panelists are included in this multimedia package produced by the staff of News Watch, a project of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism.

Panelist Daniel Vasquez, editorial writer for the San Jose Mercury News, reminded participants that diversifying coverage requires constant advocacy. "The fight to get stories [on race] told must be renewed everyday," he said.

"Diversity is not making one decision and then we're done," said Keith Woods elaborating on Vasquez's tips. Woods is the Reporting, Writing and Editing group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Each panelist offered personal insights into how they have dealt with coverage issues and newsroom politics in the 10 years since the first Unity convention in Atlanta in 1994. But some panelists wanted to address less overarching and focus on specific communities.

Native Americans journalists still work to advance people's basic knowledge of their issues. "Donít use squaw or redskins. Indians are trying to obtain very specific rights," said Indian Country Today columnist, Suzanne Shown Harjo. Harjo is a board member of the Native American Journalists Association.

When Oregoinan reporter Maya Blackmun inadvertently cut Harjo off while she was answering a question, Harjo brought up another issue that generally affects Native Americans and Asian Americans: communication style. She alerted audience members to this problem. "Donít jump in on people's silences. Different cultures have different styles of communication.

Native Americans and Asian Americans generally wait until people have completed their statements, while Hispanics and African Americans talk over each other. Harjo said that either way is fine, as long as people realize this, in both the newsroom and in reporting.

The conversation also touched on the skills behind reporting on race. Although Unity organizations have pushed the industry to promote diversity as a core value, rookie reporters often come into the newsroom without any awareness

"Reporters need to learn to figure out when is race an issue, what are loaded racial terms, and are the people Iím reporting on like me or not like me," said Richard Prince, columnist for Richard Prince's Journal-isms. He urged people to ask the question: "Would I play it (the story) like this if people were like me?"

The panel, stocked with journalists known for reporting on race and as leaders in the push for diversity, did not have all the answers. Many panelists said was most newsrooms fail to engage in ongoingin conversations on race with diverse groups of journalists. News Watch's multimedia package continues our tradition of holding those conversations.