September 23, 2005

Journalism, Race and Katrina: Connecting the Dots

Here's my post from the IJJ-Poynter blog on reporting about race:

That the U.S. news media was under-reporting the extent of poverty in America before Hurricane Katrina brought it into everyone’s living-room is known.

That the news media attention span is about the length of a sweeps period is known, meaning the sudden appearance of the permanent underclass on the daily news menu will be temporary.

That the racial divide in this country, narrowed in the last half-century, exists still in subtle but insidious forms, many fostered by the stereotyping of the news media, is known.

Given that, two sets of panelists at the Institute for Justice and Journalism’s gathering at Harvard for its 2005 racial justice fellows attempted to make sense of the pre- and post-Katrina news coverage.

The lessons of Katrina for journalists extend far beyond New Orleans and Biloxi and Pascagoula. They are applicable to the full breadth of journalism done daily everywhere in the country and go to the heart of the journalistic mindset – what Jay Rosen calls pressthink – that molds our values, decisions and definitions about what is or isn’t news.

Here’s Ellis Cose, an author and contributing editor at Newsweek:

“As news institutions, we don’t generally drive the agenda. We tend to hop on somebody else’s agenda. … Katrina justified stories to be done on something that was there all the time. … It was the same with No Child Left Behind. (It) produced more stories on education.”

Good point. Newspapers, for example, rarely have strong editorial priorities, areas defined as points of focus for their journalistic muscle. Yes, they often say, when asked, we think education or traffic or growth is important, but can they truly say they are know for, identified in the community, that coverage. Usually not. More typically, these priorities become more seasoning in a daily news stew rather than a signature dish.

Here’s Erna Smith, a journalism professor at San Francisco State University and USC:

Journalists, she says, operate in news frame, a set of norms and practices that help us shortcut and simplify complex issues. When covering race, for example, we find reduce race to an institution because most of journalism is based on institutional actions – meetings, reports, processes, trials – and for that institution we find an official, a “race spokesperson,” say Jesse Jackson. In fact, says Smith, “there isn’t a generic race person that speaks for everybody.”

This framing is another way of saying what Andrew Cline, a reporter turn rhetorician, calls “narrative bias,” the definition of a “story” that has antagonists, protagonists and clear-cut beginning and end even though, as Cline says, “much of what happens in our world … is ambiguous.” And once we have a story line, says Cline, we’re reluctant to let it go. He says:

“… it is very difficult to get journalists to see that their narrative is simply one way, and not necessarily the correct or best way, of viewing people and events.”

The result: The reduction of complexity to simplicity and the over-reliance on a Rolodex of stale sources with set-piece ideas.

Here’s Lani Guinier, the Harvard law professor and activist, commenting on what she saw as the shortcomings of the New York Times series about class in America:

The reporters didn’t make connection between race and class as if “class was a discrete phenomena. … What is missing from too much of what I read is analysis, a willingness to go deep.” The stories didn’t address “why some people get to live in the suburbs of Atlanta and have an enormous set of options and others don’t.”

Finally, here’s Kevin Weston, a journalist with New California Media, who went into an evacuation center in Baton Rouge and found young black men who rapped about the hurricane:

“We wanted to focus on how people are helping each other” and that led to connecting the hip hop “as an emerging institution in the community” … and the “black church, which has been marginalized in my generation … The black church is our red cross” and we “wanted to deal with it on a real personal level.”

These comments address some of the common ailments of modern journalism, some identified with newspapers, some with TV, some shared: Covering institutions rather than issues; relying on official sources; disconnection from the community around us; a hesitancy to tackle complexity; lack of long-term attention to long-term issues (as Jon Funabiki of the Ford Foundation said, we think “once we’ve published, our work is done.”)

Some truly great journalism was done post-Katrina, much of through immense effort and personal sacrifice. The question is how to continue, how, as Erna Smith says “do we bring this sensibility to health, education” and the other social complexities that reward some in our society but punish or exclude others?

For me, much of the answer lies in leadership.

Newspapers – journalists – need a sense of mission, a return to purpose and passion. As Smith says, “I’m not sure if it’s about ownership or the diversity of the people in the room, but they need someone charge of the place who sees there’s a fundamentally different mission to doing journalism than selling Coca Cola.”

Posted by Tim Porter at September 23, 2005 06:37 AM