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Minority news often isn't seen as real news

Published Oct. 12, 2005

A journalist friend called the other day, nearly in tears.

She said a story she had written had been butchered by editors "to be fair" to the officials her story criticized. Her story wound up defending rather than criticizing the officials, and she was convinced the reason editors bent over backward to present the officials' case was because they questioned the credibility of the people making the accusations.

She thought the doubts raised by her editors were more than the healthy skepticism with which journalists should approach each source, and she was convinced the doubts were amplified because her sources were black.

When she called me, she was in an awkward and stressful situation: Should she take a stand and let her editors know that the changed story did not reflect the truth as she perceived it _ and in the process, risk stepping on her supervisor's ego and ending up confined to the journalism junkyard branded a troublemaker, someone who is not a team player? Or should she accept the changes, be grateful that the story ran at all, and try to sleep at night feeling as though she had played a part in perpetrating a lie?

Hers was not an unusual predicament for minority journalists in the nation's newsrooms, an irony since newspapers have for years preached multiculturalism. It was her newspaper's failure to practice multiculturalism that was at the heart of her distress. "It burns out a lot of minority journalists. I talk to those journalists every day," said Karen F. Brown, an associate at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. Hundreds of working journalists and graduate students pass through the institute each year to take advantage of its research and training.

The problem, put simply, is this: Minority journalists constantly have to filter their view of the world through a white guy from suburbia.

Now, if news were an absolute, there would be no problem. All journalists would go out and talk to the same people, ask them the same questions, see the same issues, come back and write the same stories, and the guy from the 'burbs _ the figurative Middle America editor _ would be happy.

And in a general way, that's what happens. Two comparably sized newspapers in the same city, except for a few differences in design and quality, will be almost identical in what they cover and where they put emphasis.

But the world is not the same place to all people. The further the individual journalist's perspective is removed from that of his editors, the more difficult it becomes to reconcile the two. It is that process that Brown is hearing about, that is burning out minority journalists. "They just get tired of fighting the same battle every day," she said.

One way the different perspective might play itself out: Journalists rely heavily on government records. Black people, on the other hand, are not far removed from a time when the government and its agents enforced this country's apartheid. They concocted courthouses full of documents in doing so.

Black journalists, or their parents, lived during that time, so it should come as no surprise that public records don't carry as much credibility with them.

Some newspaper people, who would swear they are committed to making their papers multicultural, simply don't see the scope of change they are pledging to. Many news organizations, such as the one my journalist caller was with, see multiculturalism as just a few more black and Asian faces in the newsroom and newspaper.

"The people in the newsroom think they know news, they know what news is, and anything different is not news," Brown said. But "we are a nation redefining ourselves and that extends to redefining what we consider news."

Further stalling the move toward newspapers that accommodate a variety of cultures is an attitude Brown has seen pervading the country in recent years: "Understanding changed to correctness. People stopped wanting to understand; they just wanted to know what's the right word."

I couldn't give my reporter friend a lot of encouragement or tell her she wouldn't run into the same problem again and again.

We seem to be waiting in a lake for the tide of change.

And right now, the water is very still.