The University Record, February 11, 1998

Journalists discuss their changing role in society

By Rebecca A. Doyle

"I can tell from remarks that I heard this morning that I will truly be a minority voice in the deliberations that we have this afternoon," Peter Bell told an audience that packed the Michigan League Ballroom to the point of overflowing.

Bell, who is executive vice president for corporate community relations at TCF Financial Corp., joined a prestigious panel of journalists in the first afternoon session of "Diversity and the News." The forum, the third in a series of 15 to be held around the country this year to address the changing role of journalism and journalists in society, was held Feb. 2 at the U-M.

"The goal of the series is to begin a national discussion on the quality and direction of American journalism," said Charles Eisendrath, associate professor of communication studies and director of the Michigan Journalism Fellows program. "I thought that diversity had to be a part of that debate and so suggested that we do a whole conference on the topic."

Bell said that the press use diversity to bring balance and fairness to stories, but, he said, the question is when does it become advocacy journalism.

"The press, until quite recently, has been reluctant to address legitimate concerns raised by many who are critical of current civil rights leaders," Bell said. He noted that there is a strong tendency to "over-racialize virtually every issue affecting people of color," minimizing other causes.

"Many African Americans," Bell said, "myself included, feel enraged when we are told any success we may have achieved has resulted primarily from affirmative action.

"I want to be clear--any success I have had is due to the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Bell," he said.

He also noted that the press has often agreed to make immune from criticism any behavior labeled cultural. Teachers often asked him if there should be a different code of conduct for Black students than white students, because they feared any criticism they made would make them appear insensitive or racist.

That fear, Bell notes, is what puts socially unacceptable behavior on the fast track to acceptance. He attributes the increase in out-of-wedlock births, acceptance of rap music and incorporation of Ebonics to the eagerness to explain once unacceptable behavior as culture-based, quickly accepted and proliferated because of "our national fixation with being non-judgmental."

Chicago Tribune columnist and editorial board member Clarence Page told the audience that journalists "have an obligation to broaden the minds of our readers, our viewers, our listeners, but first we need to broaden our own." In his overview, he noted that it was not until after the 1965 riots in Watts that Blacks were considered qualified to report news. "At first, everyone had to have their one Black reporter or photographer. Then came hiring goals and timetables," Page said. "Diversity was in vogue."

But, Page noted, his own experience in Chicago showed him that news media was not interested in reporting on what happened in African American or Latino sections of the city and regularly limited the coverage or ran nothing.

"Thirty years later," he said, "America's media has become more enlightened about race and gender, but we still have a ways to go.

"We in the media," he concluded, "cannot be all things to all people. But we must never stop trying."

Bell and Page were joined by David Aeschenfelter, standing in for David Anderson of the Religion News Service; Tom Bray, editorial page editor at The Detroit News; Donna Britt, columnist for The Washington Post and a U-M alumna; Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild/CWA; and John Hockenberry, correspondent for NBC News.

Aschenfelter asked why the media is so hard on Christians, and noted that there is an obligation for the media to do more than report on Karla Faye Tucker's conversion to Christianity from a prison cell on death row or television evangelists' fraudulent reporting of income.

Bray, who occasionally had difficulty making himself heard above the diversion of several striking newspaper workers, said that trying to solve issues of balance in stories through hiring practices is dubious. "It is now very difficult under the law to fire anybody," Bray said. "The problem is that that makes us reluctant to hire anybody.

"There is no substitute," he concluded, "for editors who have enough world experience to see things whole and insist that there are two sides to each story."

Britt, who admitted that the five-minute time limit on a panel made her "crazy" because of the lack of time to deeply explore the issues, noted that media does pay attention to the loudest voice.

"Sometimes the Black communities are the loudest voice, but that voice is not always the one that represents me or my neighbors or my children."

Foley talked about the corporate culture that she says is invading the newsrooms and "keeping us from covering what really is important to the people." Newspaper and television station owners must make a commitment to invest in good journalism by backing up their reporters and newscasters" or the credibility of the media will be lost.

Hockenberry, who was a reporter for National Public Radio for more than 10 years and has to his credit an Emmy and two Peabody Awards, noted that the media has been market-driven since its inception, and that it is nothing new. "All entities in the United States are market-driven in this era," he asserted. He told listeners that knowing and being truly interested in your audience is more important in ensuring diversity in the stories that are produced by media.

"Media is part of the agent for change in diversity," he concluded, "but it can't be the whole thing."

The U-M forum was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to the Project for Excellence in Journalism and sponsored by the Michigan Journalism Fellows program and the Committee of Concerned Journalists.