Communication Studies

Department Spotlight

As published in the December 2002 issue of Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists

Investing in Undercovered Communities:
Changing reporting is the only way to improve coverage of ethnic minorities

By Virginia Whitehouse

It's more than skin color. But skin color is important.

It's more than finding kids early and recruiting them to the profession. But that's essential, too.

It's more than think tanks and journalism reviews. But they are valuable.

Diversification of newsrooms, creative recruitment programs, and in-depth media criticism must take place as the hard-working and committed people of journalism strive to cover the whole of their communities, the entirety of their audience.

But diversity -- real diversity in coverage -- has only happened when fundamental changes have been made in the way news is gathered. Doing that is the best means to improve retention and market share because both the journalists and the consumers get to see their own lives reflected in the news.

"The biggest challenge is changing the definition of news so that diverse staff members can bring their life experiences to bear on their journalism. Otherwise, all you are doing is repeating the mistakes of the 70s when we brought a lot of women into journalism and made them act like white men," said David Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News. "All of the studies on people of color in media show that the primary reason for not staying is that they feel that can't bring all of themselves to work."

Here are some reporting changes untaken by journalists across the nation and advocated by journalism scholars. But there's a problem: They don't come cheap.

Reporter Lourdes Medrano Leslie spent nearly a month just listening to people as she prepared for her part of the Minneapolis Star Tribune's nine-part series, "Faces of Islam."

She went to mosques around Minneapolis and St. Paul and sat with women before they prayed, as they prayed and after they prayed. While colleague Jeremy Iggers developed stories in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Syria, and Iran, Leslie visited the city's Islamic schools and listened to principals and teachers. She eventually won the trust of the father of two young students, Aminah and Aisha Ahmed.

And then Leslie spent time at the Ahmeds' home in nearby Blaine, where she listened as they cooked dinner, did homework and prayed some more.

"I spent close to a month just talking to people and those chats would lead to other people," Leslie said. "That's how I found people to be profiled. I spent a lot more time on that part of the job than doing the actual interviews -- just making the connections to do the stories."

Arizona State Intercultural Communication Professor Judith Martin warns against over-generalizing characteristics of any group but says it is important to recognize that not all people perceive time in the same way.

Western media culture tends to emphasize deadlines and to perceive time, including time spent to develop stories, as money. Traditionally, journalists build relationships with sources while getting information. The relationship itself may be seen as a byproduct of good reporting.

In contrast, those from ethnic minority cultures may require building the relationship first before sharing information. Without trust fully established, the information is not forthcoming.

Martin says she hears phrases such as "Black time" or "Mexican time," implying that somehow a person operates outside a prescribed "normal time."

"I've heard it used disparagingly when people say 'they have no concept of time.' The end result is treating people as though they're not doing what's appropriate, not sticking to the rules, not meeting the expectations," Martin said.

Meanwhile, those in ethnic minority communities may perceive the journalists' deadline/quick story emphasis as: "You don't really care about my community. You don't care enough to get to know me and my community, and that's more important."

University of Texas Broadcast Journalism Professor Don Heider calls the Western perception of time a cultural bias. In researching his book "White News: Why News Programs Don't Cover Communities of Color," Heider talked with numerous tribal elders around Albuquerque, New Mexico, as well as community leaders in Honolulu.

"If reporters are going to cover a tribe without understanding what time means to them, they're going to be in trouble. They need to know that it isn't linear. Time isn't money," said Heider. "None of the tribal leaders I talked with could remember when a reporter drove to the pueblo just to pay a courtesy call."

Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, also a University of Texas professor, requires her journalism students to spend extensive time in the communities they cover. They must eat at local restaurants, dance at festivals, attend church services, and shop at neighborhood groceries.

"Some listening is just passive listening and can be useful," de Uriarte said. "While having a cup of coffee, you hear that somebody doesn't like their kid's third grade teacher. Hear why."

Leslie said she is grateful to the Star Tribune managers who gave her the time needed to get to know Minneapolis' Muslim community. Her stories never would have happened otherwise.

Edwin Garcia, who covers Latino Affairs and Politics for the San Jose Mercury News, says building trust means spending time -- and that's not spending time on the phone. "I call someone to do an interview. They don't say, 'OK, let's do it now.' They say, 'OK, when do you want to come down here?' That means I can't always be writing on deadline. If I do have to do a phone interview, I go back and meet them in person to reassure them and affirm their trust."

Expensive Recommendation: Spend time in the community without a notebook or camera and with no expectations of producing a specific story. Just listen and learn. The experts agree this kind of basic listening isn't being done enough in coverage of ethnic minority communities because time spent without immediate results is perceived as unnecessarily expensive.

De Uriarte said her observation of U.S. media coverage has led her to a simple conclusion: Ethnic minority communities are only interesting to the media when they are in crisis.

"You need context before you have crisis," de Uriarte said.

Heider said the tribal elders he talked with outside Albuquerque only saw journalists arriving at the pueblos when conflicts erupted. "Any community in crisis closes ranks," he said. That means community leaders are not willing then to explain the complexities that led to the crisis. The result is stories that oversimplify the crisis itself and perpetuate stereotypes of the community.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Leslie said many of the Muslim families she talked with complained: "You guys don't come out until something bad happens and then you forget about us."

She believes she was successful in seeking the heart of the Muslim community because she came back again and again. "You can't just show up when there is a big story," Leslie said.

Niraj Warikoo of the Detriot Free Press said the time he spent developing relationships within his region's Muslim community before the terrorist attacks ultimately saved him time once the crisis did occur.

"I was able to do crisis coverage because I already know them," Warikoo said. He was worried on Sept. 11 that his Muslim contacts would be insulted that he called, because at first it was not clear who had hijacked the airplanes.

"But they didn't mind my calling -- they were eager to talk. People weren't offended at all," Warikoo said. "If you only reach out in moments of crisis, then they will think you are not trustworthy and not interested in portraying them accurately."

Expensive Recommendation: Increase coverage of ethnic minorities outside crisis events. This may be expensive because of perceptions that such stories will not favorably impact circulation or ratings.

Makah Tribal Council President Gordon Smith said some news coverage of his tribe's efforts to hunt whales in Neah Bay, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula seemed to be designed to escalate conflict. (The Makah have successfully captured only one whale since the gray whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1994. Court appeals to federal whaling allowances are ongoing.)

Some journalists, Smith said, seemed to want to pit the comments of predominantly white anti-whalers in and around Seattle and the Makah against each other, perpetuating the conflict between them.

The most virulent voices on both sides seemed to be the primary sources for sound bites and visual images, said Shelley Means, from the Oglala Lakota and Ojibwe tribes and an environmental justice associate with the Washington Association of Churches.

Means said she was surprised to discover that there were anti-whalers who actually understood the complexities of treaties and the cultural history of the Makah. But she did not see this in news stories. During a Compassionate Listening project meeting sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), she and other community leaders spent an evening deliberately listening to the unfiltered arguments of anti-whalers.

Before that night, Means said she "believed anti-whalers were irrational, that they would say anything and do anything to protect a whale, even if that meant endangering the life of people that I care about in Neah Bay." She had envisioned that the racism of some protestors reflected the sentiments of all.

"I got those images from the media in the protests -- the focus was on the most vulgar of the demonstrators. I imagined that that translated across the movement, that that was whom I would encounter when drove to Port Angeles and stopped at the local grocery store. I was afraid for the people in my community."

Jeff Smith, a Makah and AFSC's Indian Program Director in Seattle, said he found himself for the first time in his life being afraid of people he never imagined he might be afraid of -- long-haired, blond environmentalists.

As the polarization of sides escalated, Smith assisted in the organization of the AFSC Compassionate Listening project, a process that had been successful in reducing tensions over hunting and fishing rights in Alaska.

Both pro- and anti-whalers from Washington's Olympic peninsula were surprised to discover that both sides believed the media generally favored the other and that both sides believed their own positions had been significantly misrepresented. One whaling opponent described media portrayal of the dispute as "Cowboys and Indians on the water."

Chuck Owens, a founder of the Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales, said he believes journalists downplayed that not all Makah supported whaling.

Journalists do tend to seek out one or two individuals to speak for a group, under the assumption that every community has a leader that can speak for the whole, said Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. Journalists, who value independence and autonomy, rarely ask whether this leader truly speaks for the whole group or if there are a plurality of opinions.

Heider said oversimplification of conflicts, particularly in broadcast reporting, is the result of high turnover and the absence of homegrown journalists. Just being relatively new in a community creates a certain bias in stories, Heider said. The history of Makah whaling didn't start the day that a new reporter was hired. Nonetheless, reporters without knowledge of community history tend to view their arrival in a given city as the starting point for any story.

"If all news is written in the here and now perspective, that discounts what's happened in the last ten years, the last hundred years," Heider said. "If you don't understand fishing rights or how many times treaties have been broken, then how can you report that story?"

Expensive Recommendation: Seek out sources who can help explain the complexities of the crisis. This may be expensive because explaining complexities does not make pretty pictures, clean sound bites or easy headlines, and is rarely sexy.

Warikoo believes the best way to show the Detroit-area readership what the Muslim community there really is about is through features. Through his stories, readers learned about 21-year-old Ramsey Saab's pilgrimage to Mecca and his quest to have more young people make the trek, an Arab-American voter registration drive, and the American-Arab Chamber of Commerce's efforts to increase international trade in Detroit.

One regret more than a year after the terrorist attacks: That he didn't write more features to better show the complexities of the Muslim community.

"If you write about the institutional perspective, you don't get the full flavor of the people," Warikoo said. "At the one-year anniversary [of Sept. 11], I didn't want to do the clichéd 'they are oppressed victims' story about Arab Americans. It's more complex -- they are a thriving community. I can show that better in a feature. It gets closer to the truth."

De Uriarte believes news stories by definition are current and immediate, and deadline pressures reduce the opportunity to develop context needed to understand complexities. "The reporter doesn't have time to think and sometimes not even to spell. A feature story by its nature provides the writer with more time to think and more time to listen."

Feature stories also create the opportunity to humanize statistics that may merely offer stereotypes of communities. De Uriarte points to straight news stories on federal and state statistics that show increases in the number of African American men in prison populations.

"You don't get a good understanding of why or the ways in which there are various limitations on those men's experience, including class and gender. You might hear about public defenders and budget constraints. But you don't talk about literacy," de Uriarte said. "You don't have the context of the problem, just a lot of statistics and an easy formula. It's not very complex. You don't know if you have other options than just hiring more lawyers."

Normal space restrictions sometimes limit what Warikoo says he can offer, even in features. He wrote an in-depth story on the Shi'a Muslim remembrance of Ashura, a day of mourning. "I wanted to put it in the context of Sept. 11. I managed to stay away from the 'here's a holiday story' but I ended up just giving a dictionary definition."

Jeanne Mariani-Belding, senior editor and head of the race and demographics department at the San Jose Mercury News, said she warns her reporters of the dangers of writing what she calls "fishbowl stories" -- covering a community as though it exists in isolation.

"When we write about communities, we shouldn't look at them in isolation, as though they're fish in a fishbowl. Given our demographics we need to more accurately reflect and report on them with context and depth -- as part of the fabric of the changing ethnic landscape," said Mariani-Belding, who is spending a year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.

Fishbowl stories report in a way that seems to say: "aren't those people quaint." For example, a Mercury News story on the Yuba City Sikh community included a sidebar explaining the mechanics of turbans. Mariani-Belding said differences should be pointed out, "but that's not everything." More sophisticated stories would consider the reasons for immigration and choices in assimilation, which would include decisions to continue wearing turbans.

Expensive Recommendation: Feature stories take time, particularly for news reporters who are expected to produce straight leads on most days. Features take space and airtime to be effective. Space and time are money.

Part of building relationships is awareness that being a journalist holds a certain amount of power. That power may be intimidating and even misinterpreted by potential sources; some may want the journalist to be an advocate, while some recent immigrants from oppressive regimes may believe all journalists are spies for the government.

Newday's Tom Maier spent weeks "literally working street corners" as he developed a series on workplace deaths for what government statistics describe as "foreign-born workers." New York leads the nation with the highest rate of immigrant on-the-job fatalities compared to the state population. He talked with a wide range of people: garbage separators from El Salvador; construction workers from Poland; garment workers from mainland China; holiday decoration makers from the Dominican Republic.

"Some days the photographer (Moises Saman) and I went out and had almost nothing to show for it," Maier said. "We had to gain people's trust. I spent a lot of time convincing them that I was not an agent for the INS. It's very important to establish trust and spend the time, particularly in communities that feel under siege. Immigrants are at the lowest rung of society ... . Essentially, you have a captive nation who doesn't have rights, can't vote, finds it difficult to get basic health care. They exist on the sweat of their brow and are vulnerable to being exploited."

The key to making connections, Warikoo says, is to become a real person and remove the mystique of being a journalist. "They shouldn't see you as abstract 'Mr. Reporter for big newspaper,'" he said. He believes reporters approaching any community of color in a task-oriented way and without building relationships will not get the story they desire. Those reporters also will perpetuate stereotypes of the opportunistic and all-powerful media.

Being white should not preclude any journalist from covering a community of color, any more than being a woman should preclude any journalist from covering a male-dominated culture. However, being white carries certain power and privilege.

"You don't wake up and say 'I'm powerful. I'm white and middle class,'" Martin explained. On the other hand, ethnic minorities are much more aware of what it means to have power and to be without it.

Garcia of the San Jose Mercury News says he sees part of his job as educating white and non-white readers about each other. When the city's urban renewal agency attempted to redevelop a dilapidated shopping center, officials encountered an East Side Latino community that distrusted all governmental proposals -- not just the one on the table at the time -- because of a long history of negative experiences.

Cross-cultural studies have shown whites tend to believe that they are being culturally competent when they appear polite and smile. "White people tend to believe every interaction is a blank slate," Martin said.

"If they are just nice, then others will be nice back. People from historically oppressed groups tend to come into interactions feeling more skeptical and guarded. They know nice doesn't always work. They know 'nice' people who have still been racist, discriminating and patronizing or dismissive or ignoring."

White Americans make the mistake of attempting to create false sympathy when hearing the stories of ethnic minorities, Martin said. "White people say, 'I was overweight in high school and I feel your isolation.' An African American hears that and says, 'You don't have a clue.'"

Rather than trying to superimpose your own experience when hearing someone else's story, Martin recommends a radical process called "Empathic Listening" developed by intercultural scholar Milton Bennett. That process is often counter-intuitive to standard journalism interviewing techniques.

Step One: Assume differences. Know that this person's experience is not equal or comparable to your own.

Step Two: Know yourself. Understand your own cultural biases.

Step Three: Suspend self. Move outside your own experiences. Do not try to judge or interpret the other person's story. Just understand it.

Step Four: Allow Guided Imagination. Really listen to the story. Do not interrupt. Do not ask questions. Allow yourself to be captured in their imagination.

Step Five: Allow Empathic Experience. Live inside their head.

Step Six: Re-establish yourself. Move back into your own head. Now you can ask questions and ask for clarification.

This process gives power to the source. By interrupting and asking questions during the interview, the journalist maintains control and possibly even efficiency -- but at a price. Interruptions mean the journalist shapes the source's story before ever hearing the story that is important to the source.

If you need information quickly, empathic listening is not an option. If you need the whole story, empathic listening may be a radical option that works.

Expensive Recommendation: Attempt the empathic listening process. This may be expensive because it will take time: more time to listen, more time to translate into a news or feature story, more time to retell. Time is money.

Virginia Whitehouse, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Communication Studies and head of the journalism program at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. She recently chaired the Media Ethics Division for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the National Journalism Education Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Related Links

Communication Studies Home Page > Department Spotlight >