A Sacrifice for Civic Journalism
By G. Douglas Floyd
G. Douglas Floyd is an interactive editor at the Spokesman-Review.
Karen Boone agreed to write a column, not pull the pin on a hand grenade. Call it her sacrifice for civic journalism.
A 37-year-old African American in the 92 percent white city of Spokane, Washington, Boone was convinced to voice her opinions about her community's diversity (or lack thereof) in the local paper, the Spokesman-
Review. In a February 26 column she related a poignant tale of her participation in a community leadership group, an experience that led to her painful realization that even she had become desensitized to the feelings of ethnic invisibility faced by minorities in Spokane.
The paper's editors felt her story was a perfect fit for the S-R's "Your Turn" column, a feature created during a February 1994 overhaul of the editorial pages with the intention of providing a forum for Spokane citizens who felt they were being overlooked in the paper's coverage (see "Climbing Down from the Ivory Tower," May 1995). Boone was reluctant to contribute at first, fearing her privacy would be at stake. But eventually she decided she owed it to herself and to other minorities in the community who felt, as she did, that the local paper did not accurately represent them.
In her column, Boone described the "psychological loneliness and isolation" she experienced as a teenager growing up in Spokane, and her "diligent attempt" to adapt culturally to life in the city. "I must ultimately find a way to maintain my ethnic authenticity while seeking to find my way of life in Spokane," Boone wrote.
The end result of Boone's effort to enlighten Spokane's mainstream shocked Boone and her editors alike. Her 400 words in the S-R ignited intense community debate about Spokane's racial attitudes that continues to ripple.
The backlash took the form of an incendiary letter Boone received the day after her column ran. "You niggers really piss me off. Bitch & complain is all you worthless assholes are good for," it began, going on to suggest Boone go "back to Africa & swing with the baboons."
Concerned but not frantic, Boone called the paper to tell of what her column had wrought. She faxed in a letter to the editor in response to the hate mail. A local human rights group called Unity in Action got word of what continues to be referred to in Spokane as "the Karen Boone incident," and challenged the paper to publish not only Boone's response but the hate letter itself.
On March 11, the Spokesman-Review published both letters, along with an editorial denouncing the hateful act and telling readers how to get involved in local human and civil rights activities.
"Our responsibility was to continue what we'd started," says S-R Editor Chris Peck. "We were trying to get real voices in the paper talking about what it's like to be a person of color living in Spokane, and the events that unfolded added another chapter to that story."
And another and another, it seemed to Boone. As she tried to get beyond the incident and focus her energy on her new job as head of Spokane's Institute for Neighborhood Leadership, people kept coming to her with their personal stories of wrangling with racial issues. Blacks revealed to her their daily experiences with prejudice. Whites unburdened their long-repressed consciences.
As Spokane citizens mobilized in support of Boone, keeping her story alive by flooding the S-R with letters and calls on her behalf, members of Unity in Action organized a public rally in a downtown park and enlisted Boone as a speaker.
"We wanted to let people know we're not going to take it," says Robert Lloyd, one of the rally organizers and publisher of the African American Voice, an alternative paper.
Boone still feels overwhelmed with stress, and her teenage children, one of whom opened the hate letter thinking it was addressed to her, struggle with anxiety.
But the incident galvanized the community, and provided a fitting backdrop for a much-needed public discussion about racism. Lloyd, a 23-year resident of the city, says the Spokesman-Review handled the incident well. The only criticism he's heard, he says, is the one Boone herself has expressed to the paper: Somebody should have warned her what would happen.
"I probably would have done it anyway," she now says, "but I would have liked to have been better prepared for what happened."
Peck says preparing guest writers for unpleasant replies is one of the reasons the paper has "interactive" editors — to serve as allies and mentors and to connect with readers. Another reason is to build bridges to sectors of the community, including minority populations that don't feel the newspaper reflects their
Lloyd says the Spokesman-Review has made headway, but not yet enough to be widely embraced by the city's black community. "The S-R is like a guy whose wife caught him with somebody else," he says. "It's going to take a long time to win trust."