In September 2000, the Farthest North SPJ Pro Chapter held a general meeting to brainstorm ideas for the coming year. As a member and also the president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association-Alaska Chapter, I went with the thought that the two groups might collaborate on a project. We discussed how better to cover the people under-represented in our market, and I knew this was the place where SPJ and NLGJA could naturally come together. The city editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Rod Boyce, and I continued to mull the idea. Rather than plan a workshop or meeting, we came up with a joint reporting project. (I am a producer who works both independently and with the local public radio station.) We chose a part of town that none of the media do a particularly thorough job of covering. South Fairbanks is largely minority, partly low-income and perceived as being the “dangerous” part of the city. Rod assigned a reporter to go there with me and find a story that we could report for print and radio. It seemed a logical and practical approach. In the end, what we found and what we learned suggest other methods could be better. We began with the idea that the reason South Fairbanks is under-covered is that reporters are not there looking for stories and residents aren’t pushing their interests with press releases or calls to the newsrooms. With a concerted effort, surely we could find one story to report and a few others to pass on to colleagues or save for later. We did find a story, about the effort to revitalize an under-used community center. Our reporting took some interesting turns and at times even became exciting. But other deadlines and projects always took priority and this one kept getting pushed back. We began reporting in March, and my story aired in August. I hadn’t anticipated that kind of commitment for a single piece. But the bigger surprise came when I sat down to produce. Rather than writing a straightforward news feature, I ended up with a commentary. The story I ultimately told talked about how flawed our approach was and why it wasn’t as effective as it could have been. We didn’t interview many of the neighborhood residents, and the story we reported relied largely on civic leaders and non-profit managers – folks who traditionally get into the news. I liken our tactic to a war correspondent who parachutes into a totally unfamiliar country and must begin filing stories immediately. South Fairbanks wasn’t quite that unknown to us, but it may as well have been. We knew almost no one who lived in the area. We’d spent little time in the neighborhood before and only got a crash-course in its history. And, unlike the war correspondent, we didn’t have any assistants back in the newsroom doing research for us. We had few traits in common with the sources we were seeking. Both of us are white, we’re not originally from Fairbanks, neither of us has lived in South Fairbanks and we’re both under 30. At first blush, these differences seem largely to explain why we didn’t develop strong sources. But the knee-jerk diversity response – we need to recruit and maintain more minority journalists – is only part of the answer. Yes, recruitment and retention are key; they’re not the point. Let’s say several African American or Native American journalists moved up here. If they’ve come from Chicago or Tucson or rural Montana, we can’t reasonably assume they’ll improve coverage of our Alaska Native politics or black churches. We certainly couldn’t expect them to live in one particular part of town. The need to diversify newsrooms is indisputable, but that alone will not resolve our coverage problems. When we convene a panel with our SPJ chapter to discuss improving coverage, we will begin with a look at this experiment. Starting from a completed project, regardless of its success, means opening a dialogue based on experience rather than rhetoric. It shifts the analysis from theoretical to practical. The diversity conversations I’ve participated in recently have begun with the problem, not an attempted solution. I do believe Fairbanks journalism has benefited from our project. Most of the News-Miner staff and all the news staff at the radio station know about this project. A handful of our colleagues in the television newsrooms do, too. The fact that two of us have been pursuing a Southside story helps keep the area on people’s minds. Our talk about the community center and its troubles means many of our ears perk up if we hear something is happening there, so we’re more likely to look into it. A story I killed this spring may be revisited by a colleague next year. Despite our project’s shortcomings, any effort is better than ongoing complaining and self-scrutiny with no action. In the future, I think only our urgency and narrow focus ought to be changed. Rather than sending a reporter out to find a story, an editor should consider allowing a reporter one hour a week (more, of course, is even better) to “hang-out” in a particular area or with a certain group of people. At first, these blocks of time would be a sort of reconnaissance mission, simple observations and casual conversations with no notebooks or tape recorders and no expectation to come back with story ideas. Once the reporter starts to feel comfortable at the coffee shop or civic center or Laundromat, other regulars are likely to strike up conversation. I’m not suggesting the reporter be undercover or fail to identify him or herself as a journalist, only that the person not be on assignment. Let a little trust build up, and eventually when a story idea presents itself and the reporter gets newsroom interest, he or she can go back with a notebook and take it from there. This approach transfers our normal, subconscious source-cultivation, which happens on the soccer field, at the kids’ school programs, in the gym, etc. into a new context. We were too focused on getting the story to relax and let those relationships develop. It’s not practical for every reporter to spend an hour a week “hanging out” with each sub-population that’s underrepresented. But what may seem like indulgent time at first is almost guaranteed to pay off. We know this is true from beat reporting – the reporters with good relationships get the detectives to describe the crime scene or the politicians to reveal their re-election plans. It’s worth giving it a try with the “regular” people we want to better serve. Certainly local neighborhoods, gay teens and minority religions deserve better from their hometown press than parachuting reporters.
Amy Mayer is a producer at KUAC-FM in Fairbanks and a free-lance journalist.
Tagged under: diversity