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From AJR,   May 1999  issue

The Crucible   

Reporting on their own ethnic groups can be an excruciating challenge for minority journalists. Does it bring about better coverage?

Related reading:   "Hymietown" Revisited
  Safety First
  Covering a City With No Majority

By Gigi Anders
Gigi Anders is a freelance writer and the author of the upcoming memoir "JUBANA! Confessions of a Jewish Cubana Goddess."     


TRUE OR FALSE: A bilingual Hispanic reporter from Washington, D.C., knows more about how Mexican Americans prepare for Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) supper than a Jewish reporter from San Antonio, Texas.
You make the call.
Let's suppose you choose true. You're an assigning editor, somewhat new to your paper, and you send out Latina Reporter to do a quick holiday day hit. After she's filed her story, you discover that she's Pentecostal and her father is a black Baptist from New Orleans and her Honduran-born mother is currently married to a Vietnamese guy who prefers speaking French at home. During the Yuletide, the family members, all of whom hate cooking, go to an Italian place in Arlington, Virginia, that stays open late on Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile, it turns out that rejected Texan Jewish Reporter grew up in an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking, Catholic neighborhood where he learned to be fluent in Spanish by age 4--hence no accent in either Spanish or English--and whose Jewish mother, a world-class cook originally from New York City, has been married to the same Catholic Mexican, a pastry chef whose specialty is traditional Mexican Christmas cakes, for the last 35 years. During the holidays, the family's long-standing tradition is staying up all night making bu–uelos y champurrado (sweet fritters and hot chocolate), and latkes with applesauce and sour cream.
Did you just majorly blow this assignment?
Not necessarily. The story runs and the mother of the Mexican family that your Latina Reporter wrote about calls you up to complain that not only did she misspell pastel tres leches (three-milk cake)--the family's favorite dessert--but she seemed unable to grasp why the mom would "slave away for hours" in the creation of that pastel.
"I am not a slave," the mom tells you. "I put time and love into everything I do when it comes to my family. We Mexicans are like that. You Americans must have everything in a hurry. What's your reporter's problem? I thought she was one of us."
Well-intentioned editors make choices by rote sometimes, bowing to stereotypes. That isn't to say that Texas Man would have definitely aced the assignment, either; by sending Latina out, there was an ironic, unintentional advantage of not being too close to the cause.
But the point here is that the editor in this pretend scenario automatically considered Latina Reporter's appropriateness for the assignment from a superficially like-with-like ethnic perspective. Though it's by no means universal, there is an instinctive editorial urge, or at least a tendency, to assign people to stories by their race.
Should minorities cover minorities?
Outwardly, yes, it would seem ideal. After all, who's more tuned in to, say, Asian Americans than a fellow Asian American? That's the theory, anyway. (We can argue some more whether it's smart or hopelessly narrow-minded for editors to engage in race-based assigning later on--and we will.)
But what sometimes happens in real life, when a reporter of color gets into the nitty-gritty of covering ethnic situations, is a weird and often unanticipated backlash. It can come from the subject or community you covered, your ethnic colleagues, the powers that be at your news organization and your audience. Meaning, you can get it from all sides.
Usually, these racial situations--and what may have race on the surface often isn't racial at all--are flying sparks, firecrackers that flare up, make a little noise and evanesce into the ether. Journalists face those fleeting fireworks all the time, and by necessity develop survival strategies that help them weather the heat.
Sometimes, though, those sparks become flames that flare on an epic scale. They are the conspicuous exceptions to the rule that take on a dramatic life of their own and become national news that people remember and talk about for years.
That's just what happened to the Washington Post's Milton Coleman back in 1984 with Jesse Jackson and "Hymietown", an archetypal episode in which a black reporter and a black subject unwittingly created a Homeric "racial" conflict. "Reporters cover events, the facts and what happened," says Coleman, now the Post's deputy managing editor. "And sometimes groups turn on the press and say bad things about us. Reporters who've found themselves in racially awkward situations have dealt with it. We are made uncomfortable by our profession sometimes. Interviewing a police widow, that is also incredibly uncomfortable. But it's something that we do."
I experienced a similarly glaring discomfort in March of last year when I was assigned to write a lengthy profile for Raleigh's News & Observer of Julio Granados, a young, undocumented Mexican immigrant. My story, "Heart Without a Home," became controversial and provoked a debate on immigration coverage (see "Too Much Information?" June). Because the piece included the subject's name and place of employment, and all the accompanying photographs clearly showed his face, the INS easily arrested and eventually deported him.
By choice, I've covered Latin immigrants and their lives for many years. I've had sources get mad at me before, but nothing could have prepared me for the vitriol in the case of Julio Granados. One enraged woman sent an e-mail saying, "I'm ashamed to call myself a Latina because of what you did to your own people. How could you?!? As a human being, as a Hispanic, you owed us better. You are the UN-Latina Latina. I hope you rot in hell, you twisted bitch, you hypocritical Judas."
Being a Latin immigrant myself, of course I felt the prick of her cultural stinger. Though I'd made the ground rules explicit to my subject in our native Spanish, and he'd agreed to be named, there was nevertheless a mute assumption on his and the broader Latin community's part that I would in the end protect his anonymity (i.e., lie to my editors about his immigration status) because, wink-wink, it's us (victimized minorities) against them (the white power elite).
Everybody every reporter writes about wants a flattering spin, of course. The difference with minorities is that being one yourself, you tend to feel like the outsider, too. It's that natural empathy that creates rapport with your source, which usually creates more openness during interviews and, you hope, a much better story than anyone else could get. What you have to watch out for and accept is the inevitable resentment and fallout when tacit expectations are unmet.
"I think there are certain portions of any community that will speak to you in different terms if they think you're of their group," says Mark Seibel, the Miami Herald's assistant managing editor/Metro. "It's natural for them to consider you a bud. If I went to a white supremacist group, for example, they might talk to me as if I were one of them, and not to a black reporter. But if they infer that just because we're both white I'm going to take it easier on them, that's their mistaken assumption."
Syndicated columnist Clarence Page, a member of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, agrees with Seibel, but on his own terms as a black journalist who sometimes writes critically about blacks. Page's position is that he's not a mouthpiece for anybody. Any group that feels itself oppressed, he says, will pull together as much as possible in an us-vs.-them motif. The goal, he believes, is to organize or to be organized into definable communities in order to become political power blocs, with absolute solidarity among the ranks. And any member who goes against the wishes of that movement is branded a traitor.
"Communities see you as their representative," Page says. "That means, you agree with me. That's what the community is. Being called `a traitor to my race' means `you are a traitor to my beliefs.' What I've learned over the past decade of writing columns is that the same letter writer or phone caller who called me an Uncle Tom this week will call me back for a column they loved next week. I figured it out: All they're looking for is somebody who agrees with them. That's what it boils down to."
"It also speaks to the expectations that black subjects have for African American reporters," says Kevin Merida, a writer for the Washington Post's Style section. "Sometimes there's an expectation that we will bring something, an extra layer of sensitivity, that may even lap over into ignoring things that we know to be true. Am I more loyal to my race than my craft? It's complicated."
It's not that complicated for Seibel, who expects all of his reporters to be journalists first, to know how to separate valid personal feelings and opinions from the primary task: to get the story.
"There are people, and I've worked with them, who've declined to ask certain questions because that would be a disservice to the Cuban cause," Seibel says. "Or that old saw about the reporters who are cops first and journalists second, and simply won't ask some things. That's not acceptable at the Herald."
Nor at the Oregonian, says Editor Sandra Mims Rowe. The responsibility of her reporters, regardless of skin tone, is to ask any question that has to be asked and to ask five more that nobody else thought of.
"That should be the editor's and the reporter's expectation," she says. "We don't expect our top reporters to be compromised by their cultural background, no matter what it is. We all have baggage and experiences. But that doesn't diminish a good reporter's skills or the professional standards that they have in doing their work. And that's true of every reporter and editor I know."
Easy--or at least easier--for Rowe to say. Clarence Page, for one, recalls that he was once asked whether he could objectively cover Richard Nixon; he doubts that similar questions are often posed to white reporters. "Whiteness is the default position in our society," Page says. "It is just presumed that Anglos are objective because white society has defined what objectivity is."
Page's mission as a columnist is to write what he thinks is good for his audience, his community, which includes readers of all ethnic backgrounds.
Now consider the relationships some communities have and have had with newspapers. Like Latinos and Asian Americans, many blacks aren't used to having reporters in their neighborhoods. Merida, who says it's best for him to be a pincushion when the people he's reporting on are venting, says some blacks he talks with feel that cops and newspapers, both "white institutions," can't be trusted.
"I think they are historically accurate, and a lot of their criticism is right. You go in there and they'll say, `We'll tell you, but we know some white editor is gonna water it down.' There's this mindset that you don't have power over your own work, even," Merida says. "Dealing with people like that, you're dealing with some deep stuff. So I try to keep that in mind while I'm listening."
"I think that what Kevin is saying," adds Coleman, "is that what you get when you send him out on a story is everything that Kevin is. He does not separate his being a journalist from his blackness, because they're one and the same. Just as no one white can separate their essence from who they are. It doesn't mean you're biased, but that you are what you are. My Africanness may have an impact on my work, but that doesn't prohibit me from sorting out the facts on a news story. And at times, it's an advantage."

The Crucible, part two