Minneapolis-St. Paul News Coverage of Minority Communities

Chapter 4

Twin Cities News Coverage of Communities of Color

If the normal daily routine of Washington journalism includes telling the audience what the president, his subordinates and key players on Capitol Hill are planning, proposing, and debating, and if virtually all of them are white, an inadvertent by-product of newsmaking will be a dearth of non-whites demonstrating competence and making major positive contributions to the nation’s business. For whites, longstanding cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings of non-whites readily fill in the blanks, reinforced by residential and social segregation that obstructs development of empathetic first-hand intimate relationships across group lines. The stereotypes and misapprehensions are anything but objective and accurate.[1]

The stress that news media management places on hiring and retaining people of color is not done as an end in itself. Unquestionably, the news managers and journalists who testified before the Minnesota Advisory Committee believed that having a diverse staff was important in and of itself. However, possibly more important, most of them saw diverse staffs as a means to improved coverage. This view is rooted in the belief that there is a fundamental difference between being born as a white person and as a nonwhite person in the United States. The difference in perspective that results is crucial to ending stereotypical coverage and improving the overall news production of a city or region. Professor Len Witt discussed this with the Committee:

The Pittsburgh Press did a poll and discovered that 80 percent of their white readers never had any contact with black people. My guess is similar numbers are true for Minnesotans. The bulk of what they know about black life is what they read in the newspapers, here on the news, or see on the TV. Now this is where it gets really crazy. In other words, for the majority of white Minnesotans, the only understanding they have of black and other ethnic cultures is what’s provided in our newspapers, radios, or our televisions. Ironically, most of the media stories are produced by news people who look and act a lot like me, white and middle class. So white and middle-class reporters and editors are telling other white and middle-class Americans about the black experience in America or about the Hispanic experience or the Asian experience or the Somali experience or the Native American experience. Common sense says something needs to be fixed in this formula. It’s mandatory that we, as journalists, get out into those communities and bring those communities into the very heart of the newsroom. However, this is not easy because a lot of reporters and editors don’t think the citizens have much to say. I have seen it over and over.

As noted in the previous chapter, the Twin Cities news media have begun sincere efforts to diversify their workforce. In this chapter, the issue of coverage of communities of color is discussed. Given that the newsrooms of the Twin Cities are more diverse than they were in 1992, it is not surprising that many presenters at the fact-finding meeting observed that coverage has improved since the first Committee report. However, as Professor Witt observes, local news media must move beyond merely hiring more people of color and begin exploring ways of bringing “communities into the very heart of the newsroom.”

Concerns About Continued Stereotyping

Although the diversification of newsrooms should have produced less stereotypical news reporting, some fact-finding meeting participants did not find substantial change. Forums and focus groups organized by the Inter-Race Institute to discuss local news media coverage of communities of color came up with some conclusions that question the extent to which Twin Cities news media coverage of minority citizens has improved. Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, president and CEO of Inter-Race, discussed the groups’ findings:

The focus groups included a wide range of people, diverse educators, European American media professionals, senior citizens, Somali residents, youth groups, media professionals of color. Our moderators heard the same complaints over and over again. The recurring theme was a need for change. And in particular, coverage is needed that shows all groups as part of the overall fabric of community life, as has already been pointed out. It is not enough to do positive stories on the African American community during Black History Month or Indian History Month. Rather, reporters should have a deep understanding and level of trust in the community so that positive stories are happening all year.

The conclusions of the focus groups in the Inter-Race study were enlightening. The Somali group concluded that the “local media tends to be too negative on nonwhite populations.” The representatives in the Somali group thus felt that these community members do not “trust those media organizations and feel devalued.” Perhaps surprisingly, the focus group consisting of college students “said that they generally felt the media did a poor job.” Within this group, Ms. Jenkins Nelsen stated that participants made comments “relating to the news media’s stereotyping, [lack of] sensitivity, and viewing whiteness as normative.”

Throughout the Minnesota Advisory Committee meeting, community representatives echoed the findings of this report. In fact, for some participants, coverage of communities of color still relies on the same old stereotypes. Francis Fairbanks, executive director of the Minneapolis American-Indian Center, gave her reflections of the Twin Cities news media coverage of her community:

One of the things that bothers me the most is any time there’s anything to do with American Indians, they always look for the bars and the Indians who are drunk. They never come to the Indian Center to see the people who are working there. They never go into the schools to see the Indian children who are going to school. So we’re displayed in the same stereotypic manner that we’ve always been displayed, as drunken Indians. I think it goes for both television and the papers. One of the things that bothers me the most about the media is that we don’t really hear newsworthy things that are positive. We look at the negative all the time. I think that’s really not a plus for people of color. You never see the accomplishments of Indian people. What you do see is the failures. Like when they talk about education, they talk about our dropout rate. And sometimes our families are blamed, but it’s the school system, I think, that should be covered. The curriculum has to change to teach our people that we do have something to be proud of. So it’s a wide range of things when we talk about concerns of civil rights and concerns of the stereotypical and discriminatory tactics.

Likewise, Lorena Duarte, a reporter for La Prensa Minnesota, has not observed noticeable improvement in the local news media’s representation of the Hispanic community. She felt that her community was still represented largely as “border crossers” who were coming to this country “to take your jobs.” For her, stereotyping has not been fully addressed within mainstream media. As Ms. Duarte stated, “There is just such an overwhelming amount of negative stereotyping, of misinformation, and many times just blatant disregard of our communities. It is very frustrating at times because you know what the truth is and you wish that more people heard it. But I think most people, especially white people, are conditioned not to.”

Another community representative, Clarence Hightower of the Minneapolis Urban League, concurred with these opinions that the news media still relied on negative stereotypes. Reviewing some current happenings in the area regarding public people of color, Mr. Hightower pointed out contradictions between how whites and nonwhites are covered:

It seems to me that if a person of color does something wrong, it just never goes away. A white person can do something and it might show up for a day or two, but a person of color, it shows up for the next month, the next six months, the next year. If you look at [Minneapolis City Councilman] Brian Herron, Brian’s face is attached to everything that can happen bad to the city council. And if that was a white person, I don’t think that would be the case. The same with [former University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach] Clem Haskins. Everything that can happen bad at the University of Minnesota, you see Clem Haskins’ face attached to it. If Clem Haskins was a white coach, I don’t believe that would be the case. In terms of how the city is segregated, I believe that if something happened bad in north Minneapolis, they make a point to say it was north Minneapolis. But if something happened bad in Edina, they don’t say the northern part of Edina, they don’t say the southern part of Shakopee. But if something happened in Minneapolis and in north Minneapolis, it seems to me like they make a point to paint this blighted, ugly, nasty picture about north Minneapolis.

Interestingly, criticism of news coverage of communities of color was not limited to community representatives. The Inter-Race study again discovered similar responses. As Vivian Jenkins Nelsen stated, “Our European media professionals had some interesting things to say. We asked every group to rate the media’s fairness in reporting about various racial/ethnic and national groups on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing the best. Respondents in this group—I’ll remind you again, they were the white professionals—gave the media a 3.0.” At the Committee meeting, most media professionals were aware of the deficiencies in the coverage, but television and radio professionals in particular felt handcuffed by the nature of how news is produced. For example, television news does not allow enough time for thorough coverage. WCCO reporter Dennis Douda described a typical television news production:

It’s frustrating. In a 30-minute newscast or even in an hourlong newscast, you don’t get to explore in-depth stories not only for individual communities but for the community at large. I think it doesn’t exist. This market is a rare animal in that I don’t know of another market where everybody competes with long-form, 10 p.m. journalism. Ours is Dimension. There’s Focus 5. There’s 11 Extra. You know, everybody has a longer forum, investigative or mini-documentary style of journalism that exists in their late news, when warranted. But even then the long-form stories rarely go beyond five or six minutes. It could take you five or six minutes to deliver your grocery list. There’s a challenge. But even getting two minutes for a story rather than a minute-thirty, which is just the facts, a minute-thirty—the average package now is supposed to be dictated to be about a minute-fifteen or a little longer so you can get X number of packages in a newscast. And the average package is five sentences: two sound bites and maybe a 10-second stand-up. Five sentences.

The five sentences Mr. Douda described do not allow for complex issues to be explored. In these cases, the fear of media professionals and community advocates is that viewers must then rely on stereotypes to fill in what the broadcast leaves out. For instance, Gary Hill of KMSP discussed a recent news event that he knows needed to be explored but was not:

The eighth-grade basic skills test results were just released here in the past few weeks. We just [showed] the statistics broken down by demographics. 86 percent of whites passed their eighth-grade basic reading skills test on the first try, 61 percent of Asians, 52 percent of Hispanics, 46 percent of blacks. Unfortunately, in our business, broadcasting, we have a set number of minutes and seconds to present a story. So what a viewer may take away from that story is no more than that lineup of players by demographic and a scorecard. Because the majority of people receive their information from television, I think we still have an enormous responsibility to try and put some context with the statistics and then help people understand how they might improve the situation in their community or in their home or in their school, whether it’s education, medical coverage, access to mental health or the police chiefs here.

The nature of television news production, however, does not allow for context and complexities to be aired. To provide these aspects of the story, more time and resources would have to be allotted. The same issues to some degree affect radio, particularly commercial radio. Steve Murphy of WCCO Radio shared with the Committee similar concerns in his industry:

I’d be happy to try to explain why [public radio does a better job of covering communities of color than commercial radio] to a degree, but I certainly can’t excuse the level to which it happens. We do need to work harder at this. There’s clearly huge shortcomings. But to explain some of it, a lot of it has to do with long-form formatting in public radio, the lack of commercials, the length of stories, which can be three and four and five minutes or longer. Unfortunately it’s still true that in commercial radio, we’re chasing headlines. And regardless of who it is that’s involved in that story, it’s making headlines. The other part is resources. I was at a recent media workshop with Melanie Sommer, who handles the Minnesota Public Radio Web page, and she was talking about the combined workforces of the MPR Web page with their news staff. And she told us that they have a news staff at MPR of 52 people, which blew us away in commercial radio. So I would say the combination of resources, and more importantly, the long-form format of MPR’s coverage. I really have to compliment them. They do a marvelous job of exploring issues, those personal stories, what’s behind some of those tragic stories that we cover in headline form, they can do a marvelous job of. And I commend them for that. Again, that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t do some of that ourselves and do a better job.

Unfortunately, newspapers are not immune from stereotyping either. Although newspapers can usually provide the larger context and complexities of a story, some presenters felt that oftentimes newspapers slip into old habits of stereotyping communities or simply ignoring issues of importance to them. The Inter-Race study found that many sectors of the Twin Cities called for “more news about communities that were not token, such as a black section, but integrated naturally in the newspaper.”[2] The focus groups felt that the inclusion of special sections does not change coverage because only the group being focused on reads them. Maria Douglas Reeve, weekend editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and president of the Twin Cities Black Journalists Association, gave her opinion on how well newspapers cover the local communities of color:

When I was thinking about this panel, one of the things I wrote down is festivals, festivals, festivals. If there’s a powwow, we’ll go do it. Cinco de Mayo is coming up. We’ll go do that. Hmong New Year, we’ll go do that. And in certain instances, if there is a story of general interest, you’ll try to get somebody, a person of color, to be a voice in that story. And if you’re really lucky, you can get a picture of them, and so that completes the package. But we don’t think about should we do a story “for this community” unless something is coming up, unless something is happening. But, I mean, that’s sort of the nature of newsrooms. Where you have more freedom with that is in feature sections where you decide. More often than not, I’ve been disappointed in how—and I’m paying attention to newspapers, because we compete with them—the story choice, selection, what are you writing about, what are you choosing to put there. I don’t think that there is enough thought about wouldn’t this be interesting to somebody in a different community.

Signs of Improvement

Although everyone who testified before the Minnesota Advisory Committee saw inadequacies in the coverage of minority communities, signs of improvement since 1992 were evident. One of the first positive occurrences since the 1993 report was the decision by the Star Tribune not to use Native American nicknames in its reporting. The change actually occurred before the release of the report but after the fact-finding meeting, so it was not acknowledged by the Committee. Thus, for more than the past decade, the Star Tribune has not used Native American nicknames in reporting, even in sports reporting. For example, baseball games between Atlanta and Cleveland do not include the team nicknames “Braves” and “Indians.”[3]

A senior thesis done at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism also provides some hope to the direction news coverage in the Twin Cities is going. In her study of both major Twin Cities newspapers as well as the Rochester Post-Bulletin, Nicole Garrison found that between January 1997 and December 2001 these newspapers had improved their coverage of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Minnesota and no longer relied heavily on the negative stereotypes that had been used in the past. She concluded, “Today, coverage of these groups is mostly positive and focuses on Mexicans and Mexican Americans as professionals, business owners, educators, homeowners and good neighbors.”[4] Despite these improvements, her study also discovered that the same improvement seen in the newspaper coverage of these communities “cannot be said of the quantity of coverage.”[5] As Table 4 demonstrates, the two major daily papers of the Twin Cities never averaged even one article a week in the period researched. It appears that reporters are more educated about the negative stereotypes that plagued articles in the past, but they are unable or unwilling to write a significant number of articles about these communities. The reasons for this finding were not discussed in the study.

Number of Articles Concerning Mexicans and Mexican Americans


Star Tribune

Pioneer Press



















Source: Nicole Garrison, “Newspaper Coverage of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Minnesota: January 1, 1997–December 31, 2001.”

In the statements of news reporters at the fact-finding meeting, possible answers to the questions posed in the study of the Minnesota Mexican community are presented. Maria Douglas Reeve of the St. Paul Pioneer Press discussed the complexity of news coverage as well as improvements she has seen:

Are communities of color still portrayed negatively? I think in some instances yes, some instances no. At least speaking for my own paper, we have tried to do some things, and I don’t think we’ve been as proactive as possible. We have newsroom goals. At the beginning of every year, we set out what those goals are going to be. Diversity is always one of them. So in the morning, when we come in, we critique the paper. We talk about what have we had, what have we not had, and we get to say, “Were we diverse today or weren’t we?” More often than not, we’re not. But maybe somebody has a plan somewhere, but I’m not seeing that there is this sort of proactive approach to making sure that we can say every day that we were diverse. I think that, in cases of stories of crime and such, we always cringe. Sometimes, we see something that we’ve done and decide maybe we should not have done that. In the case of that Somali man who was shot, I was the editor that weekend, and the reporter we sent over did do a good job of finding out who he was. It was decided that we didn’t want to just say, “this crazy Somali man . . .” Rather, who was this guy? Did he have a family? We got pictures of the kids. I mean, this is a human being that this horrible thing happened to. Can’t we show this was a human being as opposed to taking Minneapolis cops and what they said, their word for it? So we try to do those sorts of things. Are there cases where we could do better? Absolutely.

Another sign of improvement is the consciousness of the issues that reporters at the fact-finding meeting expressed. This consciousness seems to be having a positive effect on some of the articles written. For example, Pioneer Press reporter Lisa Donovan discussed a story she wrote about an African American prostitute who was murdered. Although stories like this are usually covered as a typical crime story, Ms. Donovan took the time to find out more about this woman, and she was impressed with what she found. She described the process of crime writing to the Committee:

We constantly are making this value judgment on life, and I don’t think that’s right. So, I decided I was going to go in and get to know her and to find out who she was. When I emerged from that experience, I realized the commonalities that we all have—and I hope that that’s what the readers took away. This was a woman who had some problems, but she was funny. She was beautiful. She had children. She had friends that she hung out with. She would go down the right path and then verge off into the wrong path. She was human.

Public Radio and Television

The Minnesota Advisory Committee found that Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) seem to be doing a credible job of providing diverse programming, particularly when compared with commercial radio and television. Bill Buzenberg, vice president of news at MPR, and Brendan Henehan, executive producer for content at TPT, listed some of the many programs that addressed issues of concern to communities of color that aired on their stations. For example, Mr. Buzenberg testified that in the previous six months, MPR had done 174 stories dealing with race and ethnicity. Included in this list was a major series titled “The Changing Face of Minnesota” and “The Color of Justice in Minnesota,” as well as stories on Native Americans in the rural justice system, “driving while black” and racial profiling issues, the needs of the Somali community, the mental health needs of the Hmong community, and diversity profiles of Hispanic Americans.

Likewise, Mr. Henehan discussed numerous programs and series on TPT that addressed the needs of underserved viewers. Mr. Henehan spoke sadly about the cancellation of “News Night Minnesota,” a nightly news and issues program that made diversity a main priority. As Mr. Henehan described:

It was regular reporting from Indian reservations around the state. It was looking at our changing immigrant population, whether it was Serbians from Pelican Rapids or Hispanics in Worthington. It was looking at the plight of gay high school students in Minneapolis. It was racism on the campus of the U of M in Morris. It was a place where even if you weren’t a person of color, it was front and center on a nightly basis. We set a goal of having fully one-quarter of the content of that program devoted to communities of color and underserved communities.

In addition, TPT has a program titled “Don’t Believe the Hype,” which was entering its 10th season at the time of the fact-finding meeting. Its mission is to “create a program, created by and for youth of color, challenging notions of what it means to be a youth of color in America.” Furthermore, TPT was the first station in the United States to create a Hmong language program, provides a weekly program that concerns the Twin Cities Arab American communities, and has a news program targeting the African community.

The priority on profits that commercial stations operate under makes following the example of MPR and TPT difficult. However, prioritizing service to communities of color and striving to improve coverage can be replicated. Prioritizing profits and serving the communities of a locality should not necessarily present an either/or dilemma. It will take great effort. Mr. Buzenberg, in stating the goal of Minnesota Public Radio, may have provided a model for commercial radio and television:

We still believe in something called educating the public and understanding that our audience is diverse, and we’re speaking to that diverse audience, and we cover that diverse audience. We also are not in the opinion business, as much as we are in the facts and providing information through gathering that information with reporters. I think that counteracts stereotypes. People need solid information, and that’s the business that we’re in. I also say that it’s this kind of knowledge and familiarity and understanding that really is critical to our success as a nation. The diversity in this country, in this region is a strength. And we have taken that on board at public radio, and I believe in what we do and who our audience is, and we know that our audience is very diverse. So our purpose, really, in public radio is helping all of us understand who we are.

Although compared with commercial television and radio MPR and TPT are doing commendable programs, their spokespersons and the Minnesota Advisory Committee believe there is still room for improvement. As Mr. Buzenberg said, “I will repeat, we’re not perfect, we haven’t done everything that could be done, and we have more to do.”

Experts and Spokespeople

One of the concerns expressed throughout the meeting dealt with the news media’s use of sources and experts to discuss certain issues. Community members believe that it would be a positive step for news media to interview people of color for technical and professional stories. For example, Soraya Amra, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s Minnesota chapter, noted that there are many Arab and Muslim Americans in the Twin Cities area who are very educated and can speak knowledgably about stories regarding medical issues, financial markets, and other areas of interest to the general public. Having people of color speak only about issues of interest to other people of color does little to educate the general public about the diversity of these communities. Clarence Hightower of the Minneapolis Urban League was even more critical:

It seems to me that the intellectual capacity of people of color, as displayed in the news media, only goes as high as things that are bad. The news media will call you and talk to you about crime, talk to you about housing, talk to you about welfare, things that are negative. But [I guess to them] we’re not smart enough to know anything else. [I suppose they assume] we don’t have attorneys, we don’t have dentists, and we don’t have medical professionals. We just don’t get those calls.

Murali Balaji, a reporter for the Pioneer Press, stated that his paper had begun the process of meeting more people from communities of color so that reporters could “expand their rolodexes.” However, he concurred with Ms. Amra and Mr. Hightower that reporters tended to return to the familiar experts that they already know:

There’s a general reluctance, I believe, and it doesn’t have to be just white, male reporters. I think there’s a general reluctance among all of our peers to expand our contact lists. If we are quoting a doctor on a medical story, why can’t we find someone of Southeast Asian background who’s a qualified, articulate expert on the subject we’re writing about? I think by diversifying our source list, we’ll be able to better integrate communities of color and, more importantly, treat every individual as a human being rather than typecasting groups.

Just as participants of the meeting called for journalists to diversify their sources when doing articles and segments on professional issues, they also called for diversifying their sources when doing pieces on communities of color. This issue was raised at the beginning of the meeting by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. He discussed how he had noticed the media’s tendency to locate the community spokesperson and interview that person exclusively when covering communities of color. A fairly recent event in the sparsely covered Somali community reminded him of this tendency:

There was the shooting of a Somali man, which received an extraordinary amount of news coverage. At several times during that event, members of the media would say to me, “Well, who do you think of as a Somali spokesperson?” And I would step back from that and challenge them and say, “What do you mean, a Somali spokesperson?” Do we ask every gay person in Minneapolis to appoint a spokesperson to speak for their, quote, unquote, common experience? No, we do not, because their experience is very different. Do we ask every person of Asian descent to appoint a spokesperson when we talk to them about that? And with our Somali communities—and I use that in the plural—that’s especially important right now. And I think in the task that you folks have, one of the points I hope you bring forward is the idea that this is not the responsibility of communities to come forward with the, quote, unquote, spokespeople who will be able to represent the common experience, as if there is one. It’s the responsibility of the media, and I would add politicians, to understand the complexities of communities and not assume that there can be one or two spokespeople.

Civic Journalism

I want to make the point that it’s not enough to rely just on initiatives like this to try to bring more diversity into journalism schools and diversity into newsrooms. The majority [of journalists] really need to change the approach that we have to one of how we define news, how we deliver news. And I would refer back to my comment earlier about the way we cover government and politics, which tends to be very focused on the sort of narrow slice of the folks who are involved: the leaders.

In this statement, Lynda McDonnell of the Urban Journalism Workshop offered her opinion about the direction she believes the news media should take for true change to occur. This altering of news coverage from starting and ending with what leaders say to starting with people in the community and holding leaders responsible is part of the type of journalism called civic journalism. Professor Len Witt discussed civic journalism with the Advisory Committee:

Civic journalism is something that really only got a foot in the door in about 1993, so it’s really new and it’s kind of experimental. And I know how newsrooms react to it, but I just cannot understand why. Maybe the community, just like you set up a little community center for kids or—and this could happen on the Indian reservation, it could happen in the community, what if there was like a little community center, room, place, where journalists could actually set up offices. With computers today and laptops, they can move anywhere. And I don’t see why you couldn’t almost have little bureau offices, instead of like in downtown St. Paul, at MPR, or in downtown Minneapolis, in a building. Have a little place where various reporters can come, right in the middle of the communities, and expose the community every day, expose the Indian reservation every day, expose the urban population, maybe for Somali or Indian or Asian. It just seems like it would make sense if the person showed up there every day, got to know people in the community.

In addition, civic journalism stresses intimate knowledge of communities prior to events that occur when news media “parachute” into communities without any previous understanding. Many community leaders stressed the need for news media to have some knowledge of the communities they cover. The knowledge of and relationship with communities are central to civic journalism. Soraya Amra of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told the Committee, “I also recommend that the people who are reporting on issues specific to different minority communities, that they understand what is important in those communities or have some knowledge of that community. Oftentimes a reporter is sent out that doesn’t have any knowledge, so then when we see the skewed report or the biased report or whatever, it may not be intentional, it may be just because of ignorance. And so something that they can do to help themselves is educating themselves.”

Although very few news media around the nation practice civic journalism, the contact between journalists and communities that the practice espouses may be particularly lacking in the Twin Cities. Dennis Douda of WCCO gave the example of how a news station in another market interacted with communities:

I know that [WCCO news director] Maria Reitan came from a market, Louisville, Kentucky, a smaller market, but came here surprised that we didn’t have a reporter dedicated to covering communities. She identifies it in the broader sense. Generally that tends to mean communities where specific cultures are able to thrive. That would include minorities, but it wouldn’t have to exclude the majority either. But she had, in Louisville, three reporters who were assigned the responsibility of maintaining touch with the communities that may not garner coverage.

According to Professor Witt, media professionals are often reluctant to establish strong relations in communities, possibly out of a feeling that they have nothing to learn there. As he explained, “You know, [journalists feel that] we’re the professionals. We can’t be tarnished by what the everyday people are going to try and push us to do. They’re going to corrupt the news.” Another explanation Professor Witt offered deals with power: “There’s a lot of talk about how you can get communities involved and get communities talking and we want to hear from communities. But then there comes the next line where the community actually gets in power and wants to make changes, then you’re talking about, well, maybe we’re not so interested in talking with the communities. Because institutional change is really hard to come by.”

The business side of the news business makes civic journalism difficult also. As Lynda McDonnell told the Committee, cost consciousness limits the effort news sources can make in covering communities of color. As she said, “[Civic journalism is] the kind of reporting that is often very difficult to commit to when budgets are cut, when staffs are trimmed, and when profit expectations are raised. So, the kinds of things that are easy to do—to put greetings in the paper on every ethnic label, to put together source lists with a variety of people from ethnic backgrounds—are important. They’re valuable things to do. But it’s the deeper commitment to how we define the news, how we report the news, and how we deliver it that I think is really key.”

With the cost concerns and time constraints of the news industry in mind, some ideas regarding integrating communities and journalists in the spirit of civic journalism were broached. Soraya Amra discussed one idea. She told the Advisory Committee, “A positive way that the media can approach some of the concerns that we have is to invite the three [community leaders on the panel] here or three others and meet with us and understand the issues that are affecting our communities. As a positive thing, members of my group will be meeting with the Star Tribune next week, but on the negative side, that was a meeting that was scheduled about six months ago that was cancelled.”

The Inter-Race study came to some basic starting points where the news media and community could begin to bridge the gap that appears to separate them. The focus groups in the study concluded that there are few opportunities outside of crises for groups to meet with the news media. Therefore, the community focus group recommended that there be social activities where representatives of the media and the general public get to know each other and allow them to come together during noncrisis times. It was also suggested that a conference be done to begin educating the community and the news media.

In addition, some presenters offered basic advice on how journalists can still learn about the communities they cover. Vivian Jenkins Nelsen offered a rather obvious solution:

I’m just surprised that people think they can write about our community and never read about it. So there’s such a lack of—I’m going to say it’s almost anti-intellectual behavior. It’s, like, come, look at the story, who’s talking, who’s doing this, you slap it together. There’s no background. You know, you can read a book from time to time. And I’m not just saying that because I’m an academic, but I’m saying that because I think it represents a lack of respect to communities of color that you’re not willing to even background yourself in that way. So I’m saying that I think the education needs to be deeper than just talking to each other. I think it has to be much more intentional than that.

Community Involvement

According to Vivian Jenkins Nelsen:

Consumers of news must assume some responsibility. It is important that an unfair or biased story do more than make people mad. Letters to the editor, phone calls, meetings must follow. Readers must also accept that sometimes less-than-favorable coverage of their community is simply a reality. Rushing to defend those who are wrong and always pointing the finger on racism solves nothing. When a negative story is fair and balanced, readers should acknowledge that as well.

Throughout the meeting, presenters discussed the responsibility of reporters to make the proactive steps of learning about the local communities of color. However, as Ms. Jenkins Nelsen admonished, the community must not get discouraged and become apathetic. Community involvement is crucial to improving coverage. As frustrating as it is for communities to see themselves falsely represented or overlooked by the local news media, it is also disconcerting for reporters to write insightful articles on communities and receive no response. Lisa Donovan discussed the frustration reporters feel when they do a story that is important to communities of color and receive no feedback:

In a police department study, more African American men and more Hispanic men were being asked by police the question, “Do you mind if I search you? You don’t have to say yes, but could I search you?” Most of us probably would feel like, yes, we need to do that. So I wrote a story about that, and I did not receive a whole lot of reaction from the community about that. And so I think that that can often signal to our bosses, to our editors, and to the people who are deciding what stories go where and where we should devote our time that maybe this isn’t something our readership is interested in.

Likewise, Duschesne Drew discussed the importance of community feedback on stories. Without the positive feedback to show editors that people are reading these stories, it is unlikely editors will spend the capital on producing similar pieces. He told the Committee:

Jim Walsh, who at the time was a legal affairs reporter, and I spent a little over three months crunching numbers and filling out information and requests to do a pretty meaty package on the racial profiling issue. We made a huge investment as a paper in that topic. We made it because Jim saw a story and drove it. He had an editor at the time who didn’t think that was the best use of his time. It was an internal struggle over getting that story done, and it burned some relationships, some personal relationships, in our newsroom. And the stories ran. I think people read them. I know we did get some feedback. But the realities for a lot of that stuff, there are many of us, black, white, green, who see things and push for them, and sometimes we end up losing. But oftentimes, when we win, it is a little disheartening if there seems to be no reaction at all.

Both the news media and the community need to work diligently if the problems of stereotyping and lack of coverage of communities of color are to be solved.

[1] Robert Entman, The American Media and Race Relations in an Interdependent World: A Report on the Shorenstein Center Conference on Race and the Press, June 29, 2001, pp. 2–3.

[2] Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, president and CEO of the Inter-Race Institute, testimony before the Minnesota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Minneapolis, MN, Apr. 24, 2002.

[3] Tim McGuire, interview, Dec. 7, 2001. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement calling for an end to the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. See “U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Condemns the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols,” Apr. 16, 2001, <www.usccr.gov/press/archives/2001/041601.htm>.

[4] Nicole Garrison, “Newspaper Coverage of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Minnesota: January 1, 1997–December 31, 2001,” p. 36.

[5] Ibid., p. 37.