The Dilemma of Race
A Lesson in Covering Issues of Race
in Katrina’s Aftermath


BY DANA COESTER

Reporters, editors, and journalism professors alike are understandably cautious when it comes to mentioning race in news coverage. Constrained by a fierce commitment to fair reporting and the notion of objectivity, journalists and journalists-in-the-making lack practical models for how to address controversial social issues with a racial dimension. For all our training in diversity and cross-cultural reporting, when it’s time to tackle a sensitive issue that lies outside of our own comfort zone, we can’t help but hesitate.

Frank discussions are difficult to initiate for a host of reasons. Some are practical — perhaps there’s not enough page space or airtime to delve into a complex topic with appropriate nuance and depth. Some are intellectual — without a specialization in covering questions of race within a particular community, journalists may lack the vocabulary and insight to address the issue with acuity. And some are based in fear: No reporter wants to position race at the forefront of a story and subsequently be accused of racial bias or agenda setting from his or her editor, publisher, or audience.

The questions are tough: If you are a reporter of color, do you have special dispensation to cover race relations with ease? Or, in fact, is the bar of objectivity set higher? If you are a white reporter, should you feel entitled to broach the topic at all? Some might scoff at these questions. After all, if we lived in a color-blind society, such discussion would be irrelevant. But the truth is, we do ask these questions. And answers are still hard to come by.

How then do journalists address a story when it clearly encompasses issues about race? For some Katrina stories, such as Hell Bent for Home, race is just one of several facets that brings meaning to the story. In this multimedia piece, a white eighty-four-year-old retired trucking company manager struggles to rebuild his flooded home with the support of a group of African American evacuees who befriended him at Camp Dawson. In this instance, the issue of race is an element, but not central to the story. However, other complex social issues concerning cultural and social diversity are raised: the economics of aging in America, the vulnerability of the elderly in disaster and the role disability plays in recovery.

In A Look Inside the Race Debate, race is clearly central to the coverage. Race relations topped the agenda at the December 13th Pointe Coupee Parish Police Jury meeting in Louisiana [background]. Our students followed the discussion as it unfolded in the public meeting and spilled over into the hallways outside. In this section we invite the viewers along to experience for themselves the challenges of addressing this sensitive topic from two young journalists’ perspectives. In an effort to bring transparency to the reporting and production process, we reveal the substance of how news choices were made in the reporting of A Look Inside the Race Debate. From initial reporting decisions to editing choices at the post-production stage, we also take you through the process of producing this coverage in Step by Step.

Journalism Professor Joel Beeson shares his teaching strategies for taking this dialogue beyond the color line. In The Learning Curve, Beeson pushes students to report outside of their comfort zone in assignments that bridge class, age, gender, physical ability, and other dimensions of diversity. It is our challenge as educators to equip students with the tools to recognize and tell the complex stories that emerge from the communities they cover. This includes race. But it also includes the unique social, cultural and economic dynamics that shape our communities. In that respect, the stories are always bigger than what can be captured in a sound bite or snappy quote — and often bigger than what can be captured in an article. We know that. But as media makers and educators, we may not agree about how to give complex stories their due.

Inevitably, discussions of race in journalistic storytelling must transcend simplistic constructions at the roots of notions about race. This is not merely a historical concern, but a contemporary one as well —

US Census forms contain the categories “Asian and Pacific Islander” and “Hispanic.” In these social constructions, does an urban, middle-class Chinese professional have anything in common with an indigenous subsistence farmer from the Phillipines? What does “Hispanic” mean when it encompasses a diversity of people and cultures from Latin America?

Complex understandings of “the other” — both in commonality as well as in diversity of experience — will best serve our audiences and our craft. But we must acknowledge that for each of us the concept of “the other" may take different forms. So while we may not agree about how to broach the topic, we agree the conversation needs to happen. We invite you to join this conversation.