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Talking About Race, Out Loud and Often -- Q&A/Frank Harris 3d


© 1998 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
October 11, 1998

By Stephanie Shtierman

  Whether knowingly or not, journalists deal with the subject of race all the time. They may be subconsciously avoiding it, or consciously struggling with it. So says Frank Harris 3d, an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and columnist for the New Haven Register.

  This fall, Mr. Harris is teaching a course he inaugurated last spring entitled Race and the News. The idea is to force his students to confront their feelings on and fears of racial issues and the subtleties of who they select to interview and what questions they ask. Mr. Harris wants his students to leave his class more aware of the impact their words and choices will have on the way their readers feel and think about race.

  Mr. Harris was asked about his course recently in his New Haven office.

Following are excerpts from that conversation.

  Q. How did you conceive the idea for the course?

  A. When I was taking journalism courses there was never anything that dealt with the issue of race. We dealt with everything else -- ethics, difficult issues, how to ask questions. Nothing dealing with race.

Most of my students in journalism have been white. Most whites are uncomfortable talking about race. If you're uncomfortable dealing with someone, how are you going to be able, as a journalist, to fairly and accurately report on them? Or if you have no knowledge or background or history of why people feel the way they do? I don't mean to say this course is only for whites. It's for everyone in terms of understanding other groups of people.

  Q. Could that discomfort affect their reporting?

  A. Sometimes you have reporters who are really so afraid of being called a racist that they don't ask the questions they should ask. Say there is a corrupt official who happens to be black. If he is corrupt, he's corrupt. The reporter should ask the questions.

Sometimes the fear of being called a racist will result in a story not being done that should be done. It harms the community and everyone else involved.

In addition, students interview people they felt comfortable with -- those who look like them, dress like them.

  Q. Many times journalists get the first expert they can find on the phone, a lot of them they have never seen. How can you control that?

  A. I think you have a recycling of experts. You come back to that same person; there is no expansion of the people you call for opinions.

I tell them to interview someone who is of a different race. Whites interview blacks, blacks interview whites, Hispanics someone different. We talk about it, approach the issue from the point of view of, "This is what's out there. How can we change it?" Here is something you can do to change it: going out and keeping an open mind about people.

I do think that more news organizations are making an effort. I see more experts who are not white males.

  Q. Is there a right and a wrong time to mention race in a story?

  A. It depends on the story. If it's a story that has nothing to do with race, a story where an accident happens, whatever, there's no need to mention race.

The only time race was mentioned in the 60's or 70's was when the person was black, or Negro, or colored. Even a few years ago I had students who would mention "so and so, who was black." The question is, if you don't mention race, does that mean that the people you are writing about are white?

I tell them if you're going to mention a person as black, mention a person who is not. If it is not relevant to a story, it should not be mentioned at all.

  Q. When is it relevant?

  A. If it's a racial story it's relevant. For instance, there is a black man from Hamden who won the lottery a couple of years ago and he lost his ticket. He found it after the deadline and still wanted the money. The person who was against him getting it, one of the senators in Hartford, was black. They pointed that out in the story. They didn't say the reason. I think they mentioned it because they wanted to avoid it being a race thing.

  Q. But they were creating it.

  A. Yes. What they were saying is, "We're going to mention that this man is black so it can't be a race thing."

I do think it's relevant when you're trying to find criminals. However, if you say, for instance, police are searching for a black man -- now what I would tell my students, describe me to someone who will be picking me up at the airport.

  Would you say I'm a black man?

  O.K., I'm a black man but what kind of a description is that? You would describe me as bald-headed, glasses, short. To just say the race is not really telling anything. If you say searching for a black man with a scar on his wrist, dreadlocks, yellow shirt, that's a description.

  Q. Why is race ever a factor?

  A. I think people historically in this country have equated white with good, and dark skin with evil. It's easy to separate people rather than to see people as one. If there was no race thing in this country you'd still have other factors involved. In Africa, you've got tribalism, in Ireland, religion.

There is a natural conflict in any society. There will always be one side and another. Part of it is a human need to separate or distinguish people based on their differences.

America was founded on white supremacy -- manifest destiny with regard to the Indians. Africans brought here as slaves weren't considered to be human beings. There's a legacy that continues to some degree. Things are a lot better than in the past. However, they aren't as good as they could be.

  Q. Don't we segregate ourselves by choice?

  A. I feel a closer kinship with someone who is black than with another group. For instance, if I see a black person suffering on TV I'm going to feel a closer kinship than with another person.

We tend to feel more comfortable with those who are like us, look like us or share things with us.

I can tell, and I think most black people can tell, when a white person is uncomfortable with them. It could be intuitive but it's usually something. Attitude, unfriendliness, distance.

Reporters have to recognize that a person is going to see them in a certain way if they're not the same.

  Q. So wouldn't black sources be more comfortable with black reporters?

  A. So what are we saying? Do we send only Hispanic reporters to cover Hispanic issues? White to cover white? There is another side to this.

I tell people there is a good point to being knowledgeable about another culture, another person.

There could be a good side to ignorance. Ask questions. It's good to have black on black, white on white, but there is a value to being different. You can get other points of view, ask questions another might not ask.

  Q. Do you take issue with the news media in their portrayal of minorities?

  A. The news media shape our views of how we see each other. And if we see a black person arrested all the time on TV, that's the perception we're going to have, particularly those out in the suburbs who have little or no contact with black people. This is a view that's going to be seen. This reports black America to them.

One theory is that most news stations are in big cities -- New Haven, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Hartford. It's easier for them to go down the street to cover a black crime than go to the suburbs.

But also it's a case of not wanting one's own group to look bad. There are many occasions where things happen and we don't hear about it because this person said, "I'm going to cut you a break." Whites are giving other whites a break.

  Q. So you want reporters to be very conscious of race?

  A. I want them to be conscious of race. It's basically making a journalist, print or broadcast, aware. Making them conscious.

An example is the Jonesboro, Okla., school shooting. The shooting was by white males. No whites saw a racial angle. If these were black kids doing the shooting would they be seen sympathetically? Black on black would be seen as just a black thing. The mistake people make is, it is not seen as race if it is white on white.

  Q. Why talk about race?

  A. What I find disturbing is, I'm 41. I was a kid during the civil rights movement. I remember so much of what went on then. I find that many college students don't want to deal with race. People would rather not talk about it. They say it is not an issue anymore, or that we shouldn't bring it up, it will do more harm than good.

  It's so important for people to have that awareness, that fire in them to work a little harder to get out the truth in any story, particularly a story that has to do with race either directly or indirectly.





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