AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   October 1995

When Should You Quote Minority Sources?   

By Valarie Basheda
Valarie Basheda, a former AJR managing editor, is an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.     

Detroit News reporter Kenneth Cole firmly believes that more people of color should be quoted in the newspapers for which he and his colleagues write.

But the African American journalist isn't always pleased at the process the News uses to get those minority voices in the paper by way of its "mainstreaming" program.

Cole, for instance, was recently asked to quote a black hunter in a story he wrote following a legislative hearing about a Michigan proposal to lift a ban on shooting mourning doves.

"It was mostly white men in the room, wearing plaid shirts and jeans," says Cole. "There was not a black face in the crowd. My guess is that it's something pretty inconsequential to black people."

Whether they believe it inconsequential or not, News reporters are asked to quote minority sources in every article they write as part of a "mainstreaming" program by parent Gannett Co., Inc.

Although most reporters agree with the program's goals, it has created newsroom tensions among some journalists who find its forced approach demeaning. But editors counter that the rigorous standards are necessary to produce a paper that better reflects their community.

Mainstreaming got its start 11 years ago when Gannett handed down the edict that someone of African American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American descent should always be quoted in everyday news coverage, such as stories about tax hikes or new school curriculums.

And so readers have seen stories in which a Hispanic small business owner talks about the impact of tax cuts, Asian teens rate alternative music and an African American landscape artist discusses gardening trends.

John Wark, an assistant features editor at the News responsible for oversight of the paper's mainstreaming program, says that "in a way, it's like the media itself is making reparations about years [of] abuse and neglect of the minority community. We tried not to force it for five years, and it became apparent that some pressure was going to have to be applied."

Each day Wark gets a list of mainstreamed stories and helps reporters find minority sources. He says that since he has been charged with overseeing mainstreaming, many reporters have balked at his efforts, particularly white men.

Many News reporters who praise mainstreaming's intentions find fault with its implementation. Some say they have cringed repeatedly when, often on deadline, they have been asked by editors to find any minority source they can.

News reporter Francis Hopkins says he was forced to quote a black Detroit public schools counselor in a story about the alleged firing of the University of Michigan's football coach. Hopkins, who is African American, had already interviewed several nationally known sports psychologists, but he did not have a minority source. Nor did he believe that he needed one.

"It disgusted me," says Hopkins. "I said, 'This is not journalism, this is tokenism.' Instead of trying to get the best sources, the Detroit News wants you to get a black source, whether they're qualified or not."

But feature writer Paula Yoo is in favor of mainstreaming. She says she would like to see it expanded to include women, gays and lesbians, and other groups that don't fit the federal definition of a minority. Stories that quote members of Detroit's Arab American community, for example, don't count because Arabs are classified as "white" under the federal definition.

"It's like looking too closely at a TV," says Yoo. "They're looking at the little dots, but they're not getting the big picture."

The program has created tensions at other Gannett papers as well. In mostly white Utica, New York, for example, the sudden appearance of black faces in the newspaper caused a community backlash. But Gannett News Executive Calvin Stovall praises the results of the program overall, pointing out that mainstreaming has evolved from merely adding minorities to the wedding announcements to quoting minority experts on topics such as personal finance and endangered species, many times in front page stories.

For now, Cole and many of his colleagues agree that even while mainstreaming as it is currently implemented is problematic, there may not yet be a better solution. "Mainstreaming is good because more than white men make up society," Cole says. "Only by opening the marketplace of ideas do you arrive at truth."