By Gigi Anders
Gigi Anders is a freelance writer and the author of the upcoming memoir "JUBANA! Confessions of a Jewish Cubana Goddess."
STEVE JETTON, the Houston Chronicle's assistant managing editor for local news, doesn't have enough minority reporters to cover every minority story that comes along. So about two years ago, he sent a 50ish white reporter to cover a last-minute Louis Farrakhan press conference.
Because the desk got late word on the Nation of Islam leader's meeting at the Ritz-Carlton, the reporter got there late, didn't sign in and didn't have his credentials out. Not good.
"Farrakhan's security guards grabbed him, wouldn't let him in and knocked him down," Jetton recalls. "If we had sent a black reporter--and I wish we had--I doubt he would have gotten such rough treatment. They eventually did let the white reporter in. I don't know for certain, but I suspect that a black reporter would have been given a little more of a break. `Hang on, who are you?'--instead of slugging him."
Are you a coward for declining an assignment that could put you in harm's way? Of course not. It's one thing to be brave, it's another to hotdog it like a fool. Personal safety is a real and practical concern for all journalists, especially when there's civil unrest, when racial tensions are high and you want to put the people you're trying to interview at ease.
Responsible editors are mindful of that, and most reporters seem to get it. "Sometimes you wonder in some situations if it wouldn't be better, less noticeable, to send a black reporter," says the Miami Herald's Mark Seibel.
The Herald's Liz Balmaseda was glad that was the case in May 1980 during the race riots in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. "I did not want to go," says Balmaseda, who remembers watching flames engulf the town from the fifth floor of the Herald building. "Black people were rioting against white police officers and white reporters were getting stoned with rocks; their cars were battered. I felt I would be in danger where whole city blocks were burning, and that quick judgments would be made about me because of the color of my skin."
The Washington Post's Kevin Merida says that it makes sense to send out reporters who can move around the neighborhood because they're closer to and more familiar with it. But you have to break down the editors' decisions lest other tangential complications get in the way of getting the story.
"With disturbances--the L.A. riots being the biggest national one--it's more about how the minority reporters are utilized," Merida says. "Black reporters complained--and this has been a national gripe everywhere I've been--that they were all being sent out as street-gatherers who'd wind up with taglines, while others were actually writing and shaping the stories, and got the praise, glory and credit of a byline."
That timeworn part of our craft, teamwork, is a long-term concern that reaches beyond the particulars of a given disturbance; it goes to how minority journalists are used for what they bring to the table and how their race is applied by the people who run that table. By not empowering minorities to write the stories and put their own perspective on events (not to mention the ego part), pieces that often require not just eyeball observation, but mood, color and nuance--all essential elements to street reporting--lack those crucial details that can make or break a big story.
Then again, there are details and there are details. Immediate priorities such as staying alive have to take precedence. "Our policy here is, you never ask people to go into a situation that is personally endangering to them physically," says Milton Coleman, the Washington Post's deputy managing editor. "They have the right to back out of that."