As National Association of Black Journalists convention begins this week in Tampa, a few thoughts on why group is needed
And given the way race jumps into the headlines these days -- from the fight over "wise Latina" Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- there could not be a better time to bring together the nation's black journalists.
I've been working with NABJ since my first few weeks in my first job in Pittsburgh nearly 20 years ago. I've held officer positions in Pittsburgh and New Jersey and I serve as president of the Tampa Bay area chapter. And I've given that much service because I think the group's goals boil down to two concepts: accuracy and fairness.
Put simply, mainstream media often struggles to cover stories centered on race. And as the highest level of government and society grow more diverse, those stories only increase in frequency and influence. Having a newsroom with a diversity of staffers increases the probability that coverage will take more viewpoints into account. And that also helps make stories fairer.
The NABJ convention begins on Wednesday, continuing through to Sunday. Celebrities ranging from Chris Rock and LeBron James to the Rev. Al Sharpton and Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts are scheduled, with training workshops, a jobs fair, golf tournament and more. St. Petersburg Times columnist Peggy Peterman will be posthumously inducted into the group's Hall of Fame, and the local chapter I lead has organized a scholarship fundraiser at the Florida Aquarium on Friday featuring radio jock Tom Joyner and DJ Kid Capri.
Nowadays, NABJ focuses as much on helping members keep the jobs they have as they might spend helping them find new ones. (At left: then-candidate Barack Obama at NABJ's 2008 convention in Chicago.)
Those are journalism values any professional can support. I wrote about the unique vibe at NABJ conferences for the Poynter Institute Web site three years ago -- read that here.
And here's a Q&A I pulled together about NABJ featuring the typical questions I get asked about the group:
Why isn’t there a National Association of White Journalists?
My quippy answer would list mainstream journalism groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of News Editors, which are dominated by white people.
But the serious reply notes that NABJ’s name can be misleading. What we’re really about is two values that remain important to journalists of all ethnicities: accuracy and fairness.
It helps to know a little history: NABJ was born in the aftermath of a rushed desegregation of many TV and newspaper newsrooms amid the upheavals of the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War. As race-focused riots roiled American ghettos, news outlets realized they needed reporters of color to go places white journalists often couldn’t. These newly minted journalists realized they needed to join together in facing the peculiar office politics and limitations of the industry.
The idea is simple: Increasing diversity in newsrooms increases the accuracy of your reporting and analysis, especially when you’re reporting on cultures and issues outside white America’s comfort zone. The reality is that achieving real diversity is difficult, requiring a wide array of scholarship programs, training, networking and efforts to write a new history.
That’s why there’s an NABJ, along with a National Association of Hispanic Journalists, an Asian American Journalists Association and a Native American Journalists Association.
Why aren’t white people allowed to join NABJ?
That’s another misnomer: there are white members of NABJ, just as there are white members of the NAACP. Like the NAACP, NABJ’s name describes its mission more than its membership.
Can NABJ members really be fair in covering race-tinged issues, such as Barack Obama’s election?
That feels a little like asking a member of SPJ, a group which often takes stands on open government and transparency issues, if they can be fair in covering First Amendment controversies.
But to be fair, I think some NABJ members have struggled to balance the advocacy of the group with their own sense of fairness in journalism and perceptions of bias. The issue can emerge in something simple as crowd reaction to a convention speaker, where Obama might get a more enthusiastic reception that George W. Bush. And some of the harshest critics of leaders ranging from Barack Obama to Louis Farrakhan have been black journalists.
The real answer is that each journalist has to be judged on his or her work, not their membership in a professional organization.
Do groups like NABJ help foster a dialogue across race or worsen it?
I think we’re in a historic moment, where decades of work by groups such as NABJ have borne fruit.
People of color now hold powerful positions in institutions previously closed to them, and considering their perspectives — sometimes fair, sometimes not — will test the bounds of public discourse and media coverage.
It’s important to have journalists of color covering these issues, especially people who have thought about these concepts already in workshops and training sessions.
For journalists committed to the craft, there may be no better way to elevate our discourse on such a divisive subject.