“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?
“Let’s Do It Better: 2000 Honorees”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. “White Americans often feel the media blame them for all race-related problems. Similarly, Americans of Asian or Hispanic ancestry complain about flawed coverage, saying it reflects journalistic ignorance of their cultures and traditions. New immigrants, from an array of nations, often feel especially misunderstood.”
Concerns also emerged about something I will label “diversity fatigue.” While most journalists agree on the need to accurately and adequately portray the multiculturalism of their communities, experience shows that, regardless of color, most journalists head for the door when it comes to attending the usual prepackaged lectures on diversity behavior that are the staple of most training programs. Would any news executive sign up for yet another training session on diversity?
Gissler worked to keep the focus of the Let’s Do It Better program on the journalism. And therein lies the secret of the project’s success. “I have yet to meet a journalist who did not want to improve his or her performance,” said Gissler, who teaches a course on race and ethnic reporting. “This program lays it all out: tips from the honorees, obstacles to be overcome, management issues that need to be resolved.”
“Opening Windows Gives Readers Unexpected Images”
– Angelo B. HendersonThus far, Let’s Do it Better has attracted about 400 entries, representing newspapers and broadcast stations of every size and location, from Tacoma, Washington to New York. Some 80 journalists, including a few recognizable faces like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Angelo Henderson, have participated in two workshops at Columbia. A third forum, held in partnership with the 25th anniversary of the National Association of Black Journalists, attracted a mix of some 125 journalists, public health workers, and community members to Philadelphia last December to discuss the coverage of racial disparities in health care.
Transforming the winning entries into case studies for the workshop can be a daunting task. While the Let’s Do It Better entries go through the same screening process that is in place for the Pulitzer and DuPont awards, the search for unique teaching vehicles also drives the selection. “We have to ask ourselves if this work achieved any impact on moving the discussion or understanding of race in the community,” Gissler says. “We are seeking work that illuminates diversity, eliminates stereotypes, and provokes discussion. Honorees must be willing to come to the workshop to facilitate the discussion of their work. Even though they’re being honored, we have learned that they have to be prepared for a lot of tough questions.”
That certainly was evident last June. CBS Anchor Dan Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward were peppered with questions about why they assigned only white men to Jasper, Texas on the day John William King was sentenced to die for the brutal dragging death of a black man, James Byrd. The CBS Jasper coverage—honored for its quality and depth—sparked a spirited discussion about perspectives that reporters of color bring to stories, a conversation that occurred several times during the workshop. Rather conceded that CBS should consider this issue more aggressively on future stories.
What these discussions do is provide participants with new levels of awareness about the consequence of decisions that often get made in the rush of workday pressures. While most of the participants do not consider themselves insensitive to racial issues, what they learn through these exchanges is how blind they might be to things that are seen so clearly by someone who is of a different race or ethnic background.
Mixing the television and newspaper gatekeepers also led to interesting “aha” moments of understanding about how much more complex storytelling is for TV news compared to newspapers. “Whenever race comes up in a newsroom, fear comes after,” Barbara Ciara, the WVEC Norfolk (Va.) TV anchor, told workshop colleagues as she presented her award-winning segment on “The N Word.”
Newsday Managing Editor Charlotte Hall, who accepted the 2000 “Newspaper of the Year” honors, emphasized the importance of holding every newsroom manager accountable for diversity in content and hiring. Hall advised newsroom managers to remember the benefits of integrating diversity into the entire content, especially in the photographs selected to appear. “The tone of the paper is set by the visuals,” she said.
Picking the participants who comprise the workshop class is as critical to the event’s success as the presentations are. Class members are drawn from newspaper and broadcast applicants. Those selected to attend must be high-ranking newsroom managers who have the clout to improve hiring practices and the coverage of race, and the ability to remove the obstacles that often prevent the publication or airing of a controversial or sensitive story. The selection process targets editors who demonstrate a commitment to using the workshop materials and discussions to stretch the perspectives of their newsrooms.
Participants describe the impact of the program as “uplifting.” Most stay in touch with each other to exchange ideas through a Let’s Do It Better listserv that Gissler maintains. Now, thanks to a second grant from Ford, this year’s program will give gatekeepers a full day to discuss management issues, such as tips on effective hiring practices, staff development, and making race a comfortable part of the daily news meeting discussion. The grant also will support expanding the workshop’s reach through a series of regional workshops and lectures, designed in collaboration with other journalism schools and professional organizations.
“Journalists have a social responsibility to engage the nation in a fuller, more meaningful conversation about race,” Gissler said. “If the newsroom is fearful or timid about this subject, what can be expected of the audience?”
Arlene Notoro Morgan has directed the Let’s Do It Better program since August 2000, when Sig Gissler returned to full-time teaching. Morgan spent 31 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer where she was an assistant managing editor for readership, a staff development trainer, and recruiter. She has consulted on the Let’s Do It Better program since its inception.