Race Matters

| April 03, 2008

In the last five years, the Times-Standard has gone from a laughable paper to a darn good one. Now when I pick it up I find some solid reporting and intelligent writing. I wanted to say that before I launch into my longest standing pet peeve with the paper. It has to do with how it presents non-local news.

Back on Dec. 14, Jared Ball, an African-American professor of communications at Morgan State University in Baltimore and a contender for the Green Party's presidential nomination, made several campaign stops in Humboldt County. They weren't your typical campaign stops; Ball mixes politics with hip-hop.

But you wouldn't know any of that because the Times-Standard only covered his visit with a photo. Not only did the caption leave out much of the information that makes Ball interesting, the paper also left out his first name, so readers wanting to learn more had little to Google on.

Newspapers can't cover every event; I think they spend too much time covering events. Ball himself is a preacher of "emancipatory journalism" which calls for, among other things, more focus on ongoing processes rather than events. Running a photo is a way to acknowledge an event without spending too much space on it. And journalists make mistakes; the omission of Ball's first name was a classic one that can slip through.

Here's the problem. The Times-Standard shows so few positive images of African-Americans on its pages that this particular omission was a shame.

But that's only part of the problem.

Consider the issue of March 9. The paper ran three photos of African-Americans in the news section. The Op-Ed page carried a photo of conservative syndicated columnist Star Parker for her regular column. Meanwhile, the national news page had two photos that accompanied wire services stories: A photo of Courtney Lockart, arrested in Alabama for the capital murder of college student Lauren Burk, and Jessie Dotson, a recently released killer charged in the deaths of six people in Memphis.

In a quick audit of photos in the news section of 54 issues from December through March, I found 55 photos of African-Americans. There are generally between five and 10 photos in the news section on any given day. So considering that black people account for just 1 percent of Humboldt County's population, one photo per issue wasn't bad. But in that count were 14 photos of Barack Obama, 14 photos of either syndicated columnists Star Parker or Rhonda Chriss Lokeman and three of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Celebrities accounted for six more. Some of those were teasers for the entertainment or sports pages. One was for the swearing in of New York Governor David Paterson, one was of Martin Luther King, Jr. and another of King's family. Two were of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, implicated in a huge scandal involving a stripper, thousands of text messages and a secret multi-million dollar hush money legal settlement.

That left 16 photos of African-American regular folk over 54 issues. Of those 10 were negative portrayals. And of the portrayals I consider positive, one was of comedian Del Van Dyke shown eating fried chicken and another was of Sharon Majors-Lewis, Schwarzenegger's Judicial Appointments Secretary, for an article about increasing numbers of minority judges.

I don't advocate that newspapers soften or bury bad news depending on skin color. But understand that when newspapers select stories from national wire services, they cull them from cities across the country. A paper like the Times-Standard has room to brief less than a dozen of the top regional stories from around the country and room for just one or two photos to accompany those stories. Story and photo selection are among the most subjective decisions newspaper editors make.

I don't question why the Times-Standard chose to report developments on investigations into the murder of a college student in Alabama or the killing of six people in Tennessee. I just question why readers in Humboldt County need to see pictures of an out-of state suspect if the suspect is black, when those readers see so few black people in the county.

What other photos did I find? One illustrated a story on how rape has become a weapon in Kenyan violence. Another accompanied a story on how a student feud ended in a shooting at a Tennessee school. There was the photo of Laurence Lovette, arrested for the murder of University of North Carolina student Eve Carson. A photo of a Haitian woman accompanied a story on how Haitians are so poor they have to literally eat dirt. And there was a front-page thumbnail size photo of a welfare child to illustrate a story on cuts to the state budget.

I wouldn't question any of the photos if they were local. But all but the photo of Van Dyke were out-of-state.

If you are Caucasian, imagine this: You live in a place where most everyone is black. You pick up the paper and see that one of the few photos of a white person is of a killer of college students or an eater of dirt.

I just wish editors would ask themselves this: Why should I run this photo?

Keith Woods, the dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute, an acclaimed school for professional journalists, noted in a column that the media historically used race identifiers to single out non-Caucasian people. I am convinced the Times-Standard does not intentionally do that. But Woods says journalists need to counteract that history by mentally flagging every racial reference and asking themselves:

• Is it relevant?

• Have I explained the relevance?

• Is it free of coded expressions?

• Are racial identifiers used evenly for both suspects and accusers?

• Should I consult someone of another race or ethnicity?

It will be a waste of time, though, for a reporter to think through those questions for a story if an editor slaps a photo onto the page. Photos scream race. I wish that society could get beyond that. We are not there yet.

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