Professional journalists talk race representation in the media

With a diverse representation of minorities in media, Wang said there’s importance in a legitimate portrayal. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

What’s black, white and lacks a suitable representation of the bulk of races in America? If you ask the panel of journalists participating in the discussion “Confronting Racism in Journalism,” they would beat you to the punch line and say modern newspapers and media outlets.

The University of Connecticut Department of Journalism, with support from “Together: Confronting Racism,” presented a panel of three journalists of color who discussed what their role is in addressing the topic of race in the world of journalism.

The event hosted Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, essayist for NBC News: Asian America and contributor to Public Radio International; Helen Ubinas, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Hartford Courant’s first Latina news columnist; and Kevin Blackistone, columnist for The Washington Post and commentator on ESPN’s ”Around the Horn.”

Marie Shanahan, UConn assistant professor of journalism, moderated the discussion in front of about a 100 students, faculty and professional journalists.

“I like the idea of getting people to listen. There aren’t a lot of civil discussions going on,” Shanahan said. “Racism is a basic fact in America. It exists here and people shut down the convo because it’s a hard to talk about.”

Shanahan hit contentious topics such as, what the world of news needs to do to fairly address diversity.

Ubinas said in the panel that publications have an obligation to present racial topics in a habitual manner, not just in the heat of a social event.

“These are conversations we should have all the time, not just when we are reacting to news,” Ubinas said. “You don’t just do things when you’re in a crisis, you have these conversations even when things die down and you keep having these conversations.”

Even though the topic of racism can be strenuous, Wang said the uneasy apprehension must be overcome to catalyse useful rhetoric.

“I tell students we are going into uncomfortable areas and it can go wrong at any minute,” Wang said she tells her students. “It’s a little bit nerve wracking, but race is a beat. You need to know your stuff. You talk to people and do your research.”

Blackistone agreed that research is essential to covering such personal topics, especially for journalists that are not a part of the race being covered.

“I have worked with white journalist who tackled race issues and do a good job at it, but they don’t do it on their own,” Blackistone said. “They do more listening than talking, so they are able to gather (information).”

Even with such obstacles, Blackistone believes racism can be defied.

“Absolutely, you can confront racism, that's what we do when we write. Everything I do is personal to me, (like) an attack on racism, bigotry, prejudice. I may not be pointing my finger to a particular person and it may not be something that happened personally to me, but this is the oxygen which I breath every day,” Blackistone said. “People of color, we talk about it every day like it’s, ‘What did you have for breakfast?’”

Ubinas agreed racism can be confronted, but not if media lacks diversity.

“You have to push yourself and check your own biases. You can’t recreate life experience,” Ubinas said. “I live it every single day of my life. When I walk into the room the first thing people see is this: I’m a woman of color. There’s value to being that person, who is a man or a woman of color, who grew up in rural America or the projects... Bring those people into the newsroom.”

With a diverse representation of minorities in media, Wang said there’s importance in a legitimate portrayal.

Wang said she recalled articles about Asian Americans that were compiled by quotes and data from numerous “experts” and one quote offering Asian commentary.

“The very last quote, to show the alternative point of view, feels like the newspaper reporter ran into the sidewalk and said, ‘Oh! Oh! There, an Asian person, let me ask you a question.’ And they go, ‘I’m just walking down the street.’”

Mikha Thompson, second-semester journalism major, said the concept of equitable representation of race presented in the panel left a notable impact on his notion of journalism.

“What stuck most with me was the lack of diversity in newsrooms. What I found surprising was it seems that we are in a state of regression where diversity is missing in a lot of places,” Thompson said. “Helen said we are progressing toward more diversity in newsrooms, which is important because it allows coverage of all communities.”


Lillian Whittaker is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lillian.whittaker@uconn.edu.