When I first took over a newspaper column about AIDS nine years ago, men in San Francisco were dying at an alarming rate. Most were gay, white and middle-class. I began reporting weekly on gay, white men and their struggle with the disease until we invited some readers into the newsroom. That’s when I realized I was telling only a small part of the story.
I heard how hard it was to get black churches to confront AIDS within their memberships. I listened to the challenges faced by Asian-Americans trying to create housing for people so sick they couldn’t live on their own. I learned about a woman who had assumed she was going to die within months, but gathered up her courage and went on to create an organization to help other women with HIV.
The people who came into our office that evening quickly became some of my best sources. That very year, HIV infections had begun to soar in new populations. Women and men of all ethnicities and backgrounds were getting sick, too. I had written about this in news stories, but somehow the people most affected hadn’t made it into my column.
Some journalists balk at the idea of deliberately adding underrepresented voices to the news. They think of it as pandering, or at least distortion. But in fact, what’s off the mark is most news coverage today. It overemphasizes the ideas, opinions and prominence of one particular group: usually white, upper-class males. Sometimes, studies show, other demographic slices get undue emphasis – particularly in pieces about crime or poverty. If you’re not checking with a breadth of sources on every kind of story, chances are you’re missing a lot.
“The bottom line of this as a journalist is you’re trying to be inclusive because this is the community you’re covering,” said Craig Franklin, producer of news special projects at KRON-TV in San Francisco, where about half the population is nonwhite.
Mirroring the community is not the same as highlighting ethnic food, traditions or community gatherings in the news pages. It goes further than incorporating civil rights, immigration, and race issues in ongoing coverage. It’s beyond time to throw out the white experience as the norm. “You’re trying to include people as a normal part of the community,” Franklin said. “Not as the ‘other.’ “
Indeed. The latest census contained an urgent message to journalists: “Hellloooo? U.S. demographics are changing.”
I try not to be prejudiced, but being from California I tend to think of Ohio as lily white. How provincial. Hamilton County, for example, is 23 percent African-American. I had no idea that Houston is 11 percent Asian or Minneapolis-St. Paul, 12 percent – with the largest Hmong population in the United States. I didn’t even know that Latinos make up one-fifth of the population in Nevada, the state right next door.
Having seen “The Music Man” as a child, I thought I knew who lived in Gary, Ind. Nope. That city is more than 83 percent African-American. Detroit? A full 85 percent.
Want more? Check out Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota and Nebraska and you’ll find sizable Hispanic populations.
Pointing out the skew towards whites in story sourcing, KRON’s Franklin says, “Maybe we’re not doing the best journalism. If about 75 percent of the U.S. population is white, are 95 percent of the experts white? Is that the reality? Or does my Rolodex reflect me?”
KRON has a diversity group that meets every week just to talk stories. Franklin, who is white, says that’s how producers there overcome the disabilities of a largely monochrome, middle-class newsroom. They talk about how to broaden reporting beyond their own circle of familiarity – and to look at stories about racial and ethnic minority groups from the inside. The results? A feature on Filipino veterans who had been denied government benefits. An award-winning, two-part series on racial profiling of Arab Americans. “It’s a more sophisticated approach,” Franklin said.
In the weeks following Sept. 11, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carol Ness was immensely grateful to have already collected a broad range of Muslim sources. Three years earlier, when Clinton ordered the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan, she recalls having to produce a profile of Bay Area Islam in one day. That time, she relied on one person to link her to the extensive Muslim population in the area.
We all know this technique will work in a pinch, but it can limit your vision. Ness points out that a single source may have a great network, but everyone in it is likely to have a similar perspective. It’s risky to rely on one individual – and his or her contacts – to serve as a voice for an entire community.
In a series of roundtables held by the Freedom Forum a few years ago, people around the country complained that too often, newspapers picked the wrong people to “anoint” as speakers for the whole community. In a related concern, members of minority groups wondered why inclusion seemed to occur mostly in features or in stories about race-related issues. Reporting on the Free Press/Fair Press Project, Robert J. Haiman quotes one black man’s delight that summer feature photos now commonly include black, Latino, or Asian children at play, along with white ones. But, the man asked, “Where is the story that quotes a black doctor on some medical (advance) that has nothing to do with race?”
Your journalism can only be as good as your sourcing. So why not work a little harder to make it better? With this in mind, the Society of Professional Journalists has created the Rainbow Source Book, designed to make it easy to report beyond the narrow demographic band most of us usually consult. You can search the database by topic or state and pull up a list of top-notch candidates to get you started on just about any story. Other journalists have collected these sources, so you know they’re not being plugged by a marketing department or public relations firm.
For tips and techniques on how to expand your source list further, take a look at a companion set of essays in the SPJ Diversity Tool Box. There you’ll also find a wealth of links. Check out the riches in the Rainbow Source Book and Diversity Tool Box – and skip a little legwork on the way to the best reporting you can do.
Sally Lehrman is a free-lance writer and chair of SPJ’s Diversity Committee.