Striving for relevancy in our coverage

by Jordan Green

It feels like a strange and privileged assembly with the six of us seated together facing an audience of a little more than a dozen at the Roy B. Culler Senior Center. We’ve been summoned by the city of High Point Human Relations Commission as the wind gusts and ominous clouds gather overhead for a panel discussion organized around the them of “And Equal Coverage for All!” on Sept. 28.

Strange, because in this fragmented media market we serve different communities and don’t rub shoulders all that much. Privileged because sometimes we forget that, for better or worse, people view us as an institution almost equal to the police, courts and schools in importance and capacity to do harm.

Sue Schultz, the News & Record’s High Point reporter, and I make small talk for a minute. I laugh about the antics of the Minutemen with Francisco Cámara-Riess, executive editor of Qué Pasa. Karen Koutsky, news director of Fox 8, and the opinion editor of the High Point Enterprise, whose name escapes me at the moment, settle into seats on the left side of the room. Afrique Kilimanjaro, editor of the Carolina Peacemaker, straggles in late.

The premise of the discussion seems somewhat tilted against the two daily newspapers and the television news outfit, which tend to cling to the safe middle to please their many and ideologically polarized audiences. The purpose of the forum, as stated on the flier, is to explore “how the news becomes news and why some communities feel misrepresented by the media.” Paul Siceloff, a member of the human relations commission, tells me the forum was prompted by the public grievances aired by the Guilford County Coalition Against Intolerable Racism, which has focused some of its opprobrium on the role of the news media in perpetuating racism.

Oddly enough, the subject never comes up. It turns out to be a fairly congenial if disconcerting discussion. Human Relations Director Al Heggins asks us to describe our news organizations, talk about how we got into journalism, and reflect on whether bias exists in our reporting.

All of us readily admit to bias although the representatives of the News & Record, the High Point Enterprise and Fox 8 seem more squeamish about it. Kilimanjaro and Cámara-Riess admit – shocked, shocked, shocked! – that they are biased toward their readership, respectively African Americans and Hispanics.

“Our community is isolated and overlooked,” Cámara-Riess says. “To be honest, we see ourselves as the victims.”

For my part, I provide some embarrassing details about illicit activities among family members, and mention that my editor, Brian Clarey, is the son a former Nassau County, NY assistant district attorney to make the point that life experiences shape perceptions of authority, power and responsibility. “Only God is an omniscient storyteller,” I say, later wishing I would have thought to add, “The rest of us are imperfect human instruments.” I hope I convey that we strive mightily to seek out perspectives different from our own and test our assumptions.

The questions from the audience often seem either too specific to be broadly applicable or somewhat out of the purview of journalism. Kilimanjaro takes the first stab at a question from one audience member who wants to know why the news media didn’t report on the Nation of Islam’s views of the war in Iraq given that US foreign policy often pits the American military against Islamic forces.

Kilimanjaro holds up a copy of the Peacemaker and points to an article about how the poor health of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan has prompted the leader to hand over control to the organization’s executive board. If the Nation wanted to send out a press release stating its position on the war her newspaper would probably cover it, she adds. The man in the audience appears unappeased.

A woman asks why the option of divestment from Sudan to stop the killing in Darfur (“so we can avoid putting boots on the ground”) isn’t seriously discussed in newspapers. Had she stopped there, I think, we might forget about journalism altogether and examine why there are so few voices of conviction calling attention to Darfur for us to report. But the woman continues onto other questions, eventually ending her gambit with the remark that the thriving blogging community in Greensboro might be an indicator of the relative deficiency of the town’s newspapers.

My education on news judgment continues at Liberty Steakhouse where I later meet Cámara-Riess and the voluble Hernan Mena, Que Pasa’s associate editor, for a beer. North Carolina’s Hispanic community is not exactly boiling with discourse over great issues of the day like immigration or corruption in the US Congress, they tell me. A great investigative story or a good color piece will usually take a back seat to something practical like where to get free vaccines, how to properly complete school enrollment forms or a missing child alert that might lead to a breakthrough tip to the police.

“People come to this country and they say, ‘Oh, I need a car to get to work?'” Mena says. “‘How am I going to get a loan to get the car? Who’s going to show me how to drive?'”

They bring up a recent incident mentioned by Koutsky of Fox 8 in which three Hispanics were killed in a traffic accident on Highway 421.

“You might wonder, ‘How could they not know what side of the road to drive on?'” Cámara-Riess says. “These are people who before might have only taken public transportation, or they were walking around the mountainside. We’re dealing with really basic stuff.”

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