Last month I visited an Indian Taco fund-raiser for Indian People’s Action, an advocacy group in Montana, for a story.
Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, teens and small children gathered in a church downtown. They piled their plates high with fry bread, savory hamburger filling, lettuce and cheese and sat down at long tables to enjoy the feast. The profile I was writing focused on Janet Robideau, a member of the Northern Cheyenne nation, who was organizing urban American Indians against discrimination. She had told me about the challenges of confronting racism in the community and the difficulties of cross-cultural communication with groups such as the police and the school board.
While new to the area, I thought I knew how to be culturally sensitive. So I reminded myself to be respectful and show humility. But then a man with a tan, wrinkled face and a ponytail spied my notebook and began teasing me, wondering aloud whether anyone at all could believe what he read in the newspaper. Then he stared belligerently into my eyes, so I played right back and held his gaze, joking all the while.
It was a fun evening, but later, in the middle of the night, I woke up suddenly. I knew full well that in many American Indian nations, it was disrespectful to meet an elder’s eyes steadily. And then to joke and laugh on top of it? I was mortified. How could I have been so insensitive to American Indian culture and the history of Indian oppression?
The next morning I shot off an e-mail to Robideau and apologized. Was there a way to remedy the situation, I asked? Her response was both kind and playful. Not to worry, she wrote. The man, her friend’s father, was Mexican-American, not from one of Montana’s tribes.
“The ‘rules’ are different. It’s probably a good thing that you met his eyes, or he might have thought you were shifty,” she teased me.
The lesson hit home, in so many ways. The most important thing we bring to our reporting is ourselves, for better or worse. Try as we must, it’s not easy for any of us to overcome unconscious habits. For me, eye contact is central to my trade. I’ve long relied on it as a way to build trust and improve communication. The Jewish side of my family had cultivated a taste for rowdy bantering. My defiant gaze has been honed by years of standing up for myself in a male-dominated industry. It’s likely, too, that I had fallen back on the privilege that white people generally have — to do as we please.
Reporting across cultures can be intimidating, and it’s easy to worry about making a misstep or offending someone. Robideau gently reminded me of the reporter’s best strategy, one that takes its cue straight from the SPJ ethics policy: Stay honest and avoid assumptions. My fear really was unwarranted, she added. No one expected me to know all the “rules,” anyway.
“It’s like when my grandfather told me to overlook the things people did to me when I was younger, they don’t know any better,” she said.
Her explanation highlighted the value of an essential journalist’s tool: the question. Keith Woods, dean of the Poynter Institute, emphasizes two key points when he teaches journalists how to report on race relations. They are “why” and “what do you mean?” These apply in almost any situation but are especially helpful when you’re trying to work within an unfamiliar culture. In my case, maybe a few more questions would have saved me. I was as embarrassed as relieved to find my assumptions about this person so completely wrong.
Fortunately, all that my exchange with the man cost me was a blow to my pride, but misunderstandings all too easily can distort and limit reporting. Unconscious assumptions can twist the story themes and emphasis that we rely on. We don’t just make this mistake when covering people of color, with disabilities, or from some other minority group. We do it when covering the white majority, too.
Journalists of all races, media analysts tell us, assume that white, middle-class, native-born people share an experience not worthy of mention because we assume it is the unspoken norm. Why do we cover discrimination and injustice against other groups, but so rarely attempt to understand how family wealth, social policies and U.S. history have given white people an advantage? Why do we work hard to expose disparities in education, but not the harmful effects of social dominance?
As journalists, we all can take responsibility for those missed opportunities. Wrong assumptions don’t come only from notebooks held by people of a certain skin color or background. Fortunately, the reverse also is true. Each of us has the power to change the situation. We can do a great deal to improve our work simply by addressing our own unconscious tendencies and bringing our fears into the open. If we are to cover all of America, including the various classes, races, genders and generations that make up every community, we can’t just avoid situations that confuse or challenge us. And it is often a big mistake to just run with the things we think we know.
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ board of directors and national diversity chairwoman.