Diversity Advocates Dissect Shooting Coverage

Kathleen Graham, execcutive director of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, right, joins a team reporting on best practices at the 3rd annual Unity Diversity Caucus Friday in Washington. (Credit: Richard Prince)

Amy Eisman, director of media entrepreneurship and special programs at American University, left, and Kathleen Graham, executive director of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, join a team reporting on best practices at the 3rd annual Unity Diversity Caucus Friday in Washington. (Credit: Richard Prince)


Diversity Advocates Dissect Shooting Coverage

It was probably the first time journalists from a variety of news organizations collectively discussed last weekend’s mass shooting in Orlando that left 49 victims dead. The 70 people present for the third Unity Diversity Caucus Friday in Washington picked up a word new to most, “straightwashing.”

“Straightwashing” means erasing gay identity. Some news organizations engaged in it in early reports by failing to call the scene of the crime a gay nightclub, according to Ken Miguel, a board member of Unity: Journalists for Diversity from the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. Unity includes the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association and NLGJA.

When Keith Woods, NPR vice president for diversity in news and operations, suggested that adjectives denoting race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity are used only when the subject is outside a straight white male context — such as “female pilot” for women but simply “pilot” for men — Miguel begged to differ from that line of thought.

“Calling it anything other than a gay nightclub is offensive to the gay community,” Miguel said. When Neal Justin of the Asian American Journalists Association, another Unity board member, said that perhaps those from more conservative places such as Utah or Kansas might not want the public to know they were in a gay club, Miguel replied, “I’m fed up with the sensitivity. It is what it is.” Miguel also noted that for years, gay partners of long standing were omitted from the list of survivors in many obituaries: “straightwashing.”

Ken Miguel

Ken Miguel

The identification issue was only one aspect of a nuanced conversation among diversity advocates from news organizations, associations and colleges that also touched on language, race and ethnicity in coverage of Orlando and other tragedies.

Sharif Durhams, a Unity board member from NLGJA who is also a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, noted that the Orlando story broke in the wee hours of Sunday morning and left little time for editors and writers to consult with gay journalists on such issues as terminology.

He and others urged greater use of and familiarity with style guides prepared by NLGJA and the journalist associations of color. Durhams also said the mainstream media are doing a poor job in coverage of transgender issues.

Mary C. Curtis, a columnist for Roll Call, cited a radio discussion in which she participated Thursday with Malcolm Graham, a former North Carolina state senator whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd was a victim of the shooting a year ago Friday at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

Unlike others touched by the tragedy, Graham was not so forgiving. Curtis wondered whether the media narrative of black forgiveness by the Charleston churchgoers was “compatible with black righteous anger.”

Joe Grimm, a visiting editor in residence at Michigan State University whose students have produced a series of explanatory question-and-answer books about various ethnic groups, said that after identification of the slain gunman, Omar Mateen, who is Muslim and voiced support for the Islamic State, Detroit media inappropriately asked local Muslims whether they wanted to apologize.

Amanda Barrett, enterprise planning and administration manager at the Associated Press, asked whether Charleston gunman Dylann Roof, who is white, was identified as a terrorist as was Mateen. “When it is a white shooter, we immediately jump to ‘this person is mentally disturbed,’ ” Barrett said.

Jill Geisler, who holds the Bill Plante chair in leadership and media integrity at Loyola University and moderated the discussion, noted that no one was present to speak on behalf of the mentally ill.

The conversation even moved to coverage of the small boy who got away from his mother and fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo last month. That was compared with coverage of the 2-year-old snatched last week by an alligator at Walt Disney World in Orlando. In Cincinnati, officials decided to shoot the gorilla dead before he could kill or seriously harm the child. Some people excoriated the family, which is black, for the child’s predicament. There was no similar excoriation of the white family whose child went to Walt Disney World.

Geisler noted that Peter Bhatia, editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, held off on reporting the Cincinnati mother’s name but, as Bhatia wrote, “less responsible” media did.

The discussion did not touch much on what the coverage said about how Latinos in general and Puerto Ricans in particular — more than half the 49 shooting victims,  as Spencer Kornhaber noted in the Atlantic — are viewed by mainstream media, a subject that has been broached elsewhere.

Woods did say, however, that “the real question” is about the country’s attitudes, especially as expressed by social media. “That is a story that we have not told. There is a story about America to be told,” he said of a tragedy that nearly a week later continues to dominate headlines.

In other comments at the all-day conference:

  • Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of ESPN’s the Undefeated, the recently launched site on the intersection of race, sports and culture, said that “hiring is the hardest thing to do as a manager” and that he had found that “talent gets hidden.” Merida has a staff of 40, but “I could have filled 10 [Undefeateds] with all journalists of color. So many people who have written and are not working anyplace” though “everybody’s who’s great doesn’t want to work for an institution.”
  • Newspaper photo editors are being “kicked out the door” to the detriment of the visual quality of the product as well as its diversity, Akili-Casundria Ramsess, recently named executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, told the group. The result has been a lack of “visual literacy,” mistaken identities and, she told Journal-isms, a lack of oversight to ensure that people of color are portrayed in a balanced way. Whereas 90 percent of NPAA members once worked for news organizations, fewer than half do now, she said. The Orlando Sentinel and Atlanta  Journal-Constitution have eliminated their photo editor positions, she said.
  • Tracy Grant, deputy managing editor of the Washington Post, noted the hunger of the rank-and-file for advancement. A recent Post hiring spree created a bulge in the pipeline to management, so Grant said she created a six-week “So You Think You Might Want to Be an Editor” program. Grant said she thought she might get 25 applicants but heard from 125. They are now rotating through the program, she said.
  • The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team is succeeding in part because it is supported by the top brass at the AP; it goes beyond a focus on pathology; “reporters are now attached to race-knowledgeable editors” and “story ideas brush up against the personal comfort level of the editors,” Sonya Ross, the team’s editor, told the group. The team’s stories have a dedicated page on the AP website
  • Mizell Stewart III, vice president of the American Society of News Editors, said he wants to address the low numbers of people of color in leadership ranks as he becomes ASNE president in September. Newly named vice president of news operations of the Gannett Co.’s USA Today Network, Stewart said there “has been an acknowledgement that diversity is off the front burner” at the company and now will be addressed.
  • The National Association of Broadcasters, which lobbies on behalf of the broadcast industry, plans an initiative on “coverage of race in media,” Marcellus Alexander, NAB executive vice president, television, and president of the NAB Education Foundation, announced at an NAB-sponsored reception for attendees. Alexander said he wanted to develop a set of best practices that would include staffing and coverage that would be ready before the end of the year. Journalists of color would participate in its creation, he told Journal-isms.

In addition, American University, site of the conference, is beginning a pilot program for first-year students on race and identity called American University Experience, Angie Chuang, associate professor of journalism at AU’s School of Communication, said.

Angie Chuang

Angie Chuang

She added via email, “I was asked to develop the second semester of the program (first semester will be focused on college transition) as an exploration of identity issues, with an emphasis on race and ethnicity.

“We’re piloting the program with a diverse group of 68 first-year students, split into four small-group seminars, with the intent of eventually making the two-part three-credit sequence (1.5 credits each semester) mandatory for all entering students.

“The semester on race issues will be more a structured platform for exploring in small groups the historical, social, and personal aspects of race and ethnicity, rather than a ‘People of Color 101′ primer. The course was created by the AU administration after student protests spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and racist incidents affecting the campus community demanded a course on race issues.”

In evaluating the conference, Geisler told Journal-isms that “Unity found its footing” after recovering from the pullout of the National Association of Black Journalists in 2011 and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in 2013. “A new iteration of Unity is on full display. They’re not trying to be what they used to be.

“They know what they are” and what they can do: be an organizer and convener, deep dive into important issues and not “step on each others’ toes.

“Our assumption was that there were pretty smart people in the room. Our job is to connect the dots.”


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