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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Can Minority Journalists Be Trusted?

That's the buzz around the internet after the Obama election and inauguration.

Specifically an article in the Los Angeles Times questions whether Jeff Johnson
of BET can find the "balance between emotionality and objectivity."

"There's been so much talk about the black journalist, about is this something that a black journalist can cover with a level of integrity, or are all black journalists just drinking the Kool-Aid, celebrating Barack Obama before he won," said Johnson, according to the Times.

Aside from the implicit racism in the question (and who posed it, by the way?), there remains, after all this time, a sense that some stories are so emotionally charged, that assignments are best meted out to those reporters who are "mature enough" to handle them.

This was SOP for most news organization. One of the worst offenders in this attitude was the New York Times which until relatively recently, would not assign Jewish reporters to the Middle East. Tom Friedman broke that barrier when he was assigned first to Beirut then Jerusalem in the 1980s.

This concern about minority journalists' perceived cultural biases still infects many newsrooms. It also confirms that in many places, the news culture is still insufficiently diverse.

Yet there is an legitimate issue about managing bias. Newsroom managers need to know how to distinguish between a bias which is partisanship and a bias which can help inform the story. An African-American reporter may have a better appreciation of some cultural issues which can deepen the audience's understanding. A Jewish reporter can convey the anxieties of a community better than some others. A Muslim reporter can do likewise. But minority journalists also have legitimate concerns that they will only get the big assignments when called upon to "explain what those people are thinking."

And it's important for an editor and a manager to get a sense of when a reporter may be getting too close to a source or buying into the spin. That's when management needs to take a bold step and reassign the reporter. A hard but necessary decision.

If the ethical and professional standards of a news operation are clear and consistently applied, then a news organization can assign as it sees fit without fear of being accused of discrimination or insensitivity. Readers, listeners and viewers who have strong feelings about a story may suspect the integrity of a news organization just because of who is assigned.

Having a prominently displayed ethics guide and/or the services of an ombudsman can often help allay these fears.

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