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Home > Publications > Quill > How to report on race in the most ethical ways


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Friday, April 3, 2009
How to report on race in the most ethical ways

George Daniels

When a white supremacist group posted fliers suggesting minorities in the community would lead to “drugs, crime, graffiti, trash-covered streets” and two teens were accused of defacing a local synagogue with defamatory language and a swastika, young journalists got a first-hand lesson in diversity.

I was fortunate to be a part of a team of facilitators from SPJ to help the Northeast Pennsylvania students develop strategies for covering such stories in their middle school and high school media.

Diversity might be more difficult to sell in Luzerne County, Pa., with a population that census data show was 95.6 percent white, than in a place like Pinellas County, Fla., where one in five people is either black, Hispanic or Asian.

Pinellas County is home to Melrose Elementary School, which houses the Center for Journalism and Multimedia and produces what has been judged the nation’s best elementary school.

At Melrose Elementary School, journalism is introduced with diversity as a critical component of the right way to write and report news and information.

In both Luzerne County, Pa., and Pinellas County, Fla., young people are learning the right and the wrong way to do journalism. The racial makeup of the community is not the only way to describe the readers of the student publication.

For example, within that 95.6 percent white population in Luzerne County, nearly a quarter of the residents are of Polish descent, 15 percent are Italian and 12 percent are German. Sensitivity and celebration of the differences these cultural backgrounds bring is also a big part of being a journalist.

SPJ has also identified diversity and ethics as two of its core missions. And even though they get played separately, ethics and diversity are inextricably linked.

That is the message I delivered recently as one of the speakers to more than 200 attendees at the Tom Bigler Journalism Conference, a daylong gathering on the campus of Wilkes University, which focused on “Reporting on Race.” Wilkes University is in Wilkes-Barre, the Luzerne County seat.

Ethical journalism reflects a diversity of viewpoints, just as an ethical journalist is sensitive to the concerns of all races, cultures and creeds.

My five lessons for the Bigler Conference student attendees are worth reviewing with any journalist covering the stories described above in communities that might appear to be mono-racial when, in fact, they are multicultural:

Offensive remarks about racial groups usually reflect a level of ignorance and an opportunity for you, the journalist, to expose and educate.

A good journalist looks beyond the obvious to uncover the story that hasn’t been reported, especially in cases of race, ethnicity and culture.

Aiming to minimize harm, a good journalist can give the target of a racial slur or offensive remark a voice that potentially can make things better.

Diversity is about more than black and white.

A journalist, through his or her reporting, can create an environment for celebrating and embracing difference in a community, no matter the size.

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