[This article originally appeared in the September 1971 issue of Nieman Reports.]
Can white reporters accurately report events that involve blacks and other minority groups? This question—and the related topic of whether reporting can or should be “objective”— was the focus of a two-day symposium held at the University of Washington, Seattle. This symposium, “The Newsman and the Race Story,” involved 30 white editors and reporters (all men) and 27 black men who were active in civil rights and grassroots community activities.
Lawrence Schneider, Assistant Professor of Communications at the university, details some of the conversation between these two groups, the white newsmen and their black critics. To elicit their differing views about news coverage, the participants were shown an 11-minute news film of a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building early in 1968. The film, shot by an NBC crew, had no narration, so the actual sound and actions were the record of what happened.
On the film, Reverend Ralph Abernathy speaks about the demonstration that has been organized to protest a Supreme Court decision denying fishing rights to Indians in Washington state. Abernathy notes that windows at the Supreme Court had been smashed but denies that anyone affiliated with the nonviolent movement was involved. There is also an interview with an old Indian woman who blames white people for taking away the Indians’ food, and there are pictures of youths jumping into a fountain’s pool. Police wearing helmets remove some demonstrators into buses and a flag that had been lowered to half-staff is raised again by a security guard. At the end of the 11-minute segment, Abernathy is heard describing white America’s treatment of the Indians as “genocide.”
After viewing this film, participants were asked to decide how they would make decisions about turning the events seen on this film into a story for a newscast. Their dialogue follows, with concluding observations by Professor Schneider.
[September 1971] –
Moderator [Lawrence Schneider, Assistant Professor of Communications, University of Washington]: What did you see? Let’s get right to it.
Black Activist: I saw that newsmen have no perspective. They film without understanding. They show the sensational with no understanding orsympathy. How can whites be coldly objective and separate themselves from the black problems they are reporting? There is a lack of empathy.
White Newsman: How would you approach the problem of “empathy”? Black: I would approach all groups fairly.
White Newsman: Please remember that this film is only a rough product. Black: What would TV use in the finished product? The pond scene and the window breaking because these tell suburbia that the demonstrators are hoods.
Moderator: How should this be reported? What would you highlight?
Black: Some articulate, positive statement made by those involved. When Abernathy said, “Today we have made history because we have presented our grievances,” he was both articulate and positive.
White Newsman: That’s a reason. Presenting the demonstration without the reasons is as bad as presenting the reasons and not reporting the demonstration. Reporting needs balance. Violence makes news. It’s too bad, but that’s how it is.
Moderator: But what should be emphasized? Different newspapers report the same event differently. If you were in charge of your respective medium, what would you run?
White TV: It would be great to be able to do a special on this sort of thing. That part that showed the doors closing could be a great thing about the deaf ears of the Supreme Court. If I just had the evening news, I’d begin with the marchers, mark the size of the crowd, and tell why the march was held and what the grievances were. For human interest, I’d use the old lady and reinforce her with Abernathy. I’d most likely mention “minor disturbances”—the pool incident—and tell the exact number of arrests.
Moderator: What about the flag incident?
White TV: I’d use it if there was an explanation.
White Radio: I have to be careful to avoid boredom, so I’d try to start out with a hard hit at background—about 15 seconds—then use the leader with Abernathy and the two arrests at the end. The background here is important so I’d use it as a lead, and I’d use the voices of the Indian leader and Abernathy.
White Newsman: As city editor I’d ask within the context: How many people? Who were they? Under our policy, I’d say “white” in the arrests. Our paper doesn’t identify race unless it is pertinent to the situation.
White TV: I might possibly use Abernathy and his reply about the windows.
Black: Why even mention it?
White TV: The windows were important because they were part of the Supreme Court Building.
Black: They were trying to show an unruly mob. The difference in wording was important. They did not use the word “broken”—but “smashed.”
Black: I agree on the unwise use of the word “smashed.” When college kids do it, the media call it a demonstration. When the blacks enter the picture, it becomes a riot.
Moderator: If I’m not mistaken, the use of the word “smashed” was by Abernathy, not the media.
White: Let me ask two questions: 1) Would you have used Abernathy’s sound on film? [There is a general consensus of “Yes.”] 2) Would you have used his statement on genocide? [Blacks all answer “Yes.”]
White: No. “Genocide” is too loaded a word and is misleading. It would turn off the white audience.
White: Yes. Whether or not the word is used correctly I always ask myself if the speaker actually believes what he says, whether it is true or not. I must use his words, although I would leave out the parts about the fishing because Abernathy doesn’t know why they were fishing.
Black: Aren’t you dealing with manifestations rather than causes? The poor people are attempting to help themselves, but it doesn’t work. So the netgain of Resurrection City is negative. I ask, what is the story behind this? We are beginning to learn that we had better merge together as a group to press for relief—that we must transform the struggle between us into the troubles of those common to all. And I say that this should have been the story.
Black: Yes. Didn’t you see togetherness? The poor people, no matter what color, are forming an alliance and working together. There was a togetherness never seen before. Why couldn’t you see this rather than what one black man or one Indian said?
Black: Why don’t you really write some good stories about us? What is the real story about the Black Panthers? About the concentration camps they want in the South? About the tortures some of us go through?
White Newsman: We don’t know about it.
Black: A white reporter can’t give you that story. When you say “black” say “black man.” When you say “Negro” you don’t say “man,” but when you say “black” you have to say “man.” That’s why we like “black man.”
White: One of the things we’ve been saying today is that no one is really telling it like it is. You [meaning the black man] tell it differently than we do.
White [same one as above]: But I’d hope to be more objective. [Several blacks protest this statement. They say there has been too much objectivity. Everyone begins talking at once.]
Black: Maybe it is true that newsmen are objective, but everyone sees everything from his own point of view. Objectivity has failed. One reporter may strive to be objective yet still slant it because of his own failure to recognize more subtle biases in himself. If we get a right-wing reporter who sees this film he lays it out. But take a nice white, well scrubbed reporter, and he wants to be objective. You’re hanging us with your damned “objectivity.”
White: What you’re saying is that we have to be objective and partisan?
Black: Yes. Newsmen have got to take a side and tell their audiences they are taking a side on the news story. The newsmen must challenge the audience. We’ve been sunk by “objectivity.” This type of film cannot just deal with the facts. It must take a point of view and show how changes can be made. This type of approach doesn’t “tell it like it is.” The people involved have got to tell their own story. You’ve still got a picture and commentary, but even if it is good, you still don’t see it as if the guy was out telling it like it is.
Black: [Agrees.] Tell it like it is.
Black: Here is one thing that I would like to know. Why is “alleged” used on TV?
White TV: We don’t use it.
White Newsman: We don’t use it anymore. We cut it out.
Moderator: What is your objection to the word?
Black: It is always used in connection with colored situations. It implies that what is said is a damn lie! They probably would have said that Abernathy was alleged to have said….
White: I am here to learn. My religion is the Truth. I came here to try to learn more on how to do a better job. But I have only heard the same things over and over. You only tell me that I have a prejudice. Give us a chance. How do we stop it?
Black: If you want to know how, come off your high horse! You are so educated that you don’t know how to talk to us…learn how to talk to us…learn how to talk to us! Be conscious of who you are talking to. Come in with plain cars. Get some editors who are real reporters, not worried aboutthe budget. If you are going to tell a lie—tell it on both sides.
White: I think we should understand that we have limitations on the media. The media can’t tell everything and some of the stuff has to be left for more in-depth reports.
Black: But many people watch only news. They don’t come back later to see the in-depth report.
Black: Who decides which news story is the top in terms of priority?
White: That’s a professional judgment. I don’t think anyone can be objective, but I would hope they can be fair and present the story on its merits and within the time restrictions.
White: I feel as though I started all this earlier when I mentioned objectivity and was called to task for it, I think, because my remarks were taken in the wrong way. I didn’t really say I was objective and you [indicating a black man] weren’t—only that I would be more objective than you. And I decide what stories are going to be covered. No one else makes that decision for me, and no one else better try. That’s my choice, and only mine.
Black: [To above white] What system of values are you using to set news priorities? I come from a culture where I use an equally valid set of values and make equally valid value judgments for me, but we can often end up making opposite decisions on the same issues. So how do I then get equal time?
White: The news media should offer equal time, but the news is geared to large numbers of people, and the largest group of people in this country is WASP. There is a need to let non-white people speak through the media.
Black: I’m concerned that people are changing faster than the media can keep up with. So the media must move now and take a position of leadership. Social injustice cannot be treated as a collection of facts, such as who broke what window where and was arrested when.
The media often mislead because they don’t search out the “why” of the story. Most blacks agreed that Abernathy said the United States was committing genocide against the Indians, but most newsmen felt this was overstated and that they wouldn’t use it. News media have completely separated themselves from the community and have worked so hard to become objective that they have become subjective in becoming objective.
News is aimed at white middle class America, which is the most isolated and least progressive class in the world. If they only get to read and see what they want to read and see, then they are going to become even more isolated and egocentric, since the vast majority of the world is nonwhite and poor.
White Newsman: I hope, if nothing else, that we can realize that there are some newsmen who don’t fit into this bag. Maybe there are only a few, but at least their existence must be realized.[Following the end of the workshops, many people stayed on for a few minutes and engaged in heated conversations.] ***
Clearly, despite the occasional attempts at reconciliation, there existed considerable disagreement between white newsmen and black critics during the workshop discussions. Equally clear, however, should be the recognition that among the participants there were no villains, but instead two groups of individuals whose conclusions regarding the roles of journalists and the pressures of the times differed to the point that their “reports” of the identical event bear little relationship to one another.
Newsmen, if they are going to communicate well with individuals in the black community who believe that blacks are being “hung” by journalistic objectivity, are going to have to meet and respond to the charge of the black participant that news media “have worked so hard to become objective that they have become subjective in becoming objective.”
This suggestion that white newsmen have become victims of serious faults as they innocently go about attempting to do their jobs in an honorable manner has been made still more strongly by Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, black psychiatrist who was formerly the Southern Field Director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Jackson, Mississippi.
Dr. Poussaint has written that the media are directed primarily at a white audience which “ranges from avowed racial bigots to white liberals, many of whom are plagued with unconscious, latent racism.”
White newsmen, charges Dr. Poussaint, “with these same interests, often unconsciously slant and deliver news in such a way as to appeal to the sentiments of their readers….
“If America is to change the hearts of men and undo racial prejudice in white citizens, then white reporters (including newspaper publishers and editors) of news about black people and racial problems have to take a deep and honest look into themselves. They must investigate their own feelings of white superiority and unconscious racism.”
And there we have it. No amount of speeches, arguments, reports or articles detailing the merits of objectivity in American journalism, no amount of historical or contemporary reasoning, will convince many blacks that objectivity is a journalistic virtue, and not instead a manifestation of conscious or unconscious white racism—of avoidance of the very problem of fighting racial injustice.
The very instrument—objective reporting— through which many newsmen seek to convince blacks of their honest intentions is instead seen as a distortion of the “tell it like it is” goal.
For the blacks will keep insisting that an incident such as the march to the Supreme Court building must be seen from the perspective of a people struggling to overcome inequities and injustices, and that any other kind of reporting is inaccurate at best and racism at its worst.
A newsman who will argue to blacks that “presenting the demonstrations without reasons is as bad as presenting the reasons and not reporting the demonstration” may be correct (the author believes so), but he will not convince black critics of his honest intentions until the main thrust of his article is responsive to the overriding concern of the black who is seeking to overcome the problem of being black in America today.
It is unlikely that black critics and white newsmen will perceive events similarly, that blacks will trust the media, until the media respond to the existence and effects of racism with the same bold, crusading reporting which in the past marked their coverage of the existence and effects of corruption in government.
Lawrence Schneider is Assistant Professor of Communications, School of Communications, University of Washington. He specializes in urban and minority reporting.