Journalists need to monitor their biases before we can honestly talk about race

newsroom@tri-statedefender.com | 10/10/2007, 7 p.m.

Linda S. Wallace

When I became a journalist back in 1976, skin color followed black Americans around wherever you went. I was a black hire, not a new hire. I was a black journalist, never a cub reporter. Whenever I made errors, colleagues quietly raised questions, not just about me, but about the abilities of every black person in the newsroom.
   
Though I had been hired to be a “black journalist” oddly enough, many of my early editors didn’t think that black Americans could fairly cover issues related to race or our community. Now this may surprise you, but actually that struck me as a reasonable argument. I knew black people who could be fair, and those who could not. So it seemed wise to set some standards. The problem, you see, was that I never once heard a white editor ask if white reporters might also be biased, or apply the fairness test to them.
   
Today, America is paying a huge price because of this error in judgment. After African Americans correctly noted that they were held to a different standard, many editors abandoned attempts to monitor bias. Rather than apply the standard to all, many instead decided to apply it to none.
   
This strategy eventually cost us our credibility. In 2001, while working for an online diversity news web site, a culturally literate corporate executive from an insurance company refused to let me interview him about the corporate strategy in emerging markets.
   
“We don’t talk about race to the media because we have found that most reporters don’t know how to cover racial issues,” he said. “Every issue you cover turns into an argument of some kind. For us, these stories are a lose-lose situation.”
   
I am not going to focus on what went wrong or who’s to blame. Over the last decade, I have been a biased journalist trying to lead the recovery. My efforts are focused upon gaining back the public’s trust by going back to the idea that journalists’ cultural and social biases need to be closely monitored, for both dramatically impact which stories they will write, which people they will interview, and which angles they will take.
   
A well-meaning news organization can send out a memo telling journalists to check their biases at the office door, and many good workers will try. But experience has taught me that it is nearly impossible to eliminate personal biases without offering training and including cultural competencies on performance evaluations.
   
America will not have a productive dialogue on race that leads to healing until the media finds a way to reign in its own biases and cover racial and religious controversies in a way that is fact-driven and science assisted, not solely based on the biased opinions of bystanders and media-sanctioned leaders.
   
Ironically, the tables today have turned on blacks who once asked white editors if they were racist for suggesting that they could not cover race objectively. As African American leaders in Memphis, Philadelphia and other cities raise grave questions about the white reporter’s ability to cover them, the editor’s answer too often comes in the form of a statement: 1) “You are a racist for asking that question” and (2) “You are playing the race card.”
   
Funny how times change.
   
Journalists need 21st century skills to be able to write about race, the same skill sets required by educators who teach in diverse schools, doctors who work in urban centers and CEOs who guide businesses in global markets.

(Linda S. Wallace is the president and CEO of Linda S. Wallace Communications. E-mail her at theculturalcoach.com.)