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Monday, October 11, 2010
Education Toolbox

Seeking better diversity reporting

By Rebecca J. Tallent and Virginia Whitehouse

If experienced journalists have a collective fault, it is that we are always in a hurry. How often do friends and family hear: “If it weren’t for deadline, I’d never get anything done?”

That may be OK for some things, but not for covering issues involving diverse populations. When dealing with groups outside the majority norm, journalists need to take the “your patience will be rewarded” approach.

Why? Because dealing with minority populations takes time, and reporters need to learn about the groups before they jump in and start reporting. Plus, ethnic minority populations often take a different attitude about time, relationships and the trust needed to share information. Majority people tend to approach each new encounter as a blank slate. Historically oppressed people bring all the negative experiences that have occurred across generations.

For example, when working with a Native American tribe, reporters, both students and veterans alike, need to earn a bit of trust first; remember, tribal members are dealing with generations of mistrust toward majority people that is not all historical. In 2002, Time magazine ran an article about tribal gaming that misrepresented the way Indian gaming was established. Native journalists took issue and scolded the Time reporters. Few, if any, tribes now will talk with Time, and overall distrust of national media is high.

The same can be said for other racial and ethnic minorities. When reporters walk into a Latino or Arab community, they should not expect to be immediately accepted. Fears about immigration and terrorism have made many distrustful. Minority people may feel their community has been unfairly painted, and reporters must first take the time to get acquainted with the real community, not the stereotyped one.

The best way to get started in a community is to visit it, not just once but many times. Pay attention to the daily life; build a reputation for fairness and understanding that goes beyond the stereotypes. Cultural communities generally do not trust reporters who helicopter in to cover something flashy and then leave.

All of this is also true of other diverse groups, including GLBTQ, economically disadvantaged, religious minorities and people with disabilities.

The key is to do research, really delve into a community and get to know it.

Look at it from a very rational point of view: This is not about political correctness, and it’s more than increasing market share. It is something all journalists — from students to professionals — should consider as part of their ethical obligation outlined in the SPJ Code of Ethics to serve their readers, viewers, listeners and tweeters. Here are a few steps that can work well in both the classroom and the newsroom to help meet those goals:

Create a cultural brief: Write an old-fashioned research paper on the cultural groups in your area. What is the history of this group? What values tend to be held as the most important, and how are they lived out? What laws, present and past, seem to disproportionately affect this group? What is the diversity within the group? Where are the different houses of worship? Gather as much information as you can from the group itself and its own self-perceptions, rather than relying on stereotypes of others. Keep this background available and update it regularly.

Conduct a cultural audit:Have an independent person hold a focus group with ethnic minorities about coverage. The Guardian in London surveyed its readers and found that more than 73 percent believed the paper did a good job of covering multicultural concerns.

However, a focus group with minority people revealed that they believed the coverage was sorely lacking, and a content analysis backed up their perceptions. Auditors must ask: What has the recent media coverage looked like — mostly holiday festivals or crime reports? How do the story choices affect the group’s perception in the community? Have there been any stories where people from this group are prominent players, other than those stories tied to their race? Make sure to share the audit with the public.

Review alternative media: Listen to Native America Calling, a public radio program, and find out what Indian peoples are thinking about fishing rights, spirituality and military service. Read Black Enterprise and find out about minority marketing and social networking. Go online to New America Media to see what Filipinos, Afghans and Cubans from multiple immigrant generations think about net neutrality, racial profiling and fusion food. Go online to goqnotes.com, Gay Chicago Magazine or other regional GLBTQ sites to find out about family medical leave challenges and youth support centers. All these sources can help you find out about the issues important to your community, and they can be great places for story ideas and finding new expert sources.

Rebecca J. Tallent, Ed.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Idaho where she teaches (among other things) cultural diversity and the media. Reach her at rtallent@uidaho.edu.

Ginny Whitehouse is an associate professor at Whitworth University, where she teaches intercultural communication and media ethics. She is former chairwoman of the SPJ Journalism Education Committee and the Media Ethics Division of AEJMC. Reach her at gwhitehouse@whitworth.edu.

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