Covering Race:
Interview with a Young Journalist

Producing “A Look Inside the Race Debate” involved a series of thoughtful conversations with the student journalists who led the reporting. From discussions about news judgement, editing and story structure (see Step by Step) to frank discussion about the challenges we encounter in reporting on race, we painstakingly teased out the content of this section. Notably, the discussion revealed gaps in our ability to talk about this topic. We hesitated. We stammered. We disagreed. We also jumped in to talk over each other with new-found insights about notions of objectivity, fairness and what balanced reporting means. Finally, one afternoon at the editing lab in the midst of this ongoing dialogue we realized: This conversation needs to be part of the package. We concluded that a glimpse at some of the behind-the-scenes conversation could provide a starting point for creating a greater dialogue with others – working journalists, journalism educators and their students, and, most importantly, with the people whose stories we tell.

Following is a Q&A session with student Justin Weaver that reveals just one of the conversations that took place between professor and student in producing this section.

— Dana Coester, Assistant Professor

Q&A with Student Journalist Justin Weaver

Q
As a young journalist, this may be the first time youíve encountered issues of race and class in your reporting. Do you feel like you have been adequately prepared to address the issue of race in reporting?

A
No, I do not believe that my education fully prepared me to deal with race related issues. However I do not think that is the fault of my school. I donít believe that anyone can be completely prepared or trained to deal with race issues. I think it is something that you learn how to cover by viewing it for yourself firsthand.
Q
Does growing up in West Virginia, and your exposure to issues surrounding class and poverty help prepare you to address touchy subjects like race?

A
I have lived in West Virginia my entire life, and although West Virginia is not the most diverse place, I was raised to respect everyone regardless of background. For the most part I grew up around people that cared more about how hard of a worker you were than your racial background. My father is a coal miner and so was my great grandfather. Growing up I learned how coal miners of the past banded together in unions to gain fair working conditions. It did not matter what color you were, everyone wanted to be safe and have fair wages. I used the knowledge gained from my own history to help me enter situations like the one at Pointe Coupee parish with a fresh pair of eyes. I look for the commonalities among people, and then I try to analyze the causes for the differences.
Q
Did working on this piece challenge your own preconceptions about race and race relations? What personal and professional stumbling blocks did you encounter?

A
The meeting was nothing new for the people of that area, but it was new for me. I have never covered a meeting before where people were so open about the subject of race. I watched people essentially call each other racist; but then following the heated discussion, I saw these same people hug one another. They disagreed on whether racism was occurring, yet at the same time they cared for one another as members of the same community. Was racism a factor in the decision about the FEMA trailers? I believe only the people of that community know for sure. Would the decision have been different if the majority of the evacuees were white and middle class? Maybe, Maybe not. However, I think the real story here lies not in the answer to those questions, but in the discussion.
Q
Tell me a little bit about the editing process for these pieces. You came back from New Orleans with a large amount of raw content from this meeting. It was up to you to fashion a story out of this.

A
As a journalist I constantly worry about presenting a story in the most truthful and complete manner possible. There were a few different ways that we could have put this content together. One way would have been to create a standard television package that lasted about two minutes. The problem with this format is that it is difficult to explain the depth of the story with such time constraints. We finally decided to break the content into the sections you see on the site. I believe it allows the audience to see more points of view surrounding this complex and emotional story.
Q
Ultimately you chose to go with a more transparent format that gives the viewer access to the material in a raw form. How does this enhance your storytelling?

A
I think transparency helps to gain the audienceís trust in the stories we report. Race relations is a complex topic to address because it strikes a raw nerve for many people. As a journalist you want to convey those deep feelings and illuminate the reasons people feel the way that they do. I believe that using transparency and providing content in a less ďproducedĒ format on our site does just that. Itís meaningful for the community affected and for a broader audience as well.
Q
How is nonlinear reporting for the internet useful to you as a journalist for addressing a complex story.

A
I am grateful to be a part of this convergence project. I canít think of a better training ground for nonlinear reporting. The appeal of nonlinear reporting is that there is a place for everything. I know many reporters including myself become disappointed when certain parts of a story do not make it to air or print. However with nonlinear reporting all those pieces of the story have a place.
Q
What techniques have your learned that you can you recommend for other journalists?

A
If I could offer any advice to newcomers to nonlinear reporting, it is the following: Go into it with an open mind, and donít get caught up in the traditional ways of reporting. Just think of the best way to present your story, and make it happen.