Reporters Struggle With Objectivity and Advocacy Reporters have a special perspective on a universal problem: how to cover a story when you have a stake in it. Journalists who cover politics are voters; those who cover America's wars are Americans. A new oral history reveals black journalists are no different when it comes to such tensions.
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Reporters Struggle With Objectivity and Advocacy

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Reporters Struggle With Objectivity and Advocacy

Reporters Struggle With Objectivity and Advocacy

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Reporters holding a convention this week have a special perspective on a universal problem. It's how to cover a story when you have a stake in it. Journalists who cover politics are voters. Those who cover America's wars are Americans. Reporters at that convention are members of the National Association of Black Journalists. In a new oral history, many writers describe the tension between objective journalism and advocacy.

NPR's Juan Williams has been talking with many prominent African-American reporters about this problem. Juan, welcome.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And why would it be a special issue for African-Americans?

WILLIAMS: Well, obviously, you have people who are part of an ongoing civil rights movement in this country. And Wallace Terry, now deceased, a former journalist, wrote a book called "Missing Pages," which is a collection of oral histories about black journalist going back now 50 or 60 years. And in that tradition, I went out and started talking to some black journalist myself. For example, I talked to Simeon Booker, who is a long-time Jet magazine correspondent here in Washington.

Listen here as you hear Simeon Booker talk about his relationship to a major newsmaker, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mr. SIMEON BOOKER (Former Journalist, Jet): Yeah, I knew Doc King very well. I knew him much better than I should have known him.

WILLIAMS: What do you mean by that?

Mr. BOOKER: Well, I would say his behavior as a leader.

WILLIAMS: Did you report on those failings of King?

Mr. BOOKER: Well, I reported by the skill of omission. I didn't mention it.

INSKEEP: So you have an African-American reporter being very careful what he writes about Martin Luther King, Jr.

WILLIAMS: Right. And he saw that as the appropriate role as an advocate. So, you go from that traditions, Steve, then you go to a tradition where you get black reporters now coming into work for mainstream or white newspapers. All of a sudden the role shifts.

I'll give you an example of Bill Raspberry, now retired in his 70s from the Washington Post, a Pulitzer Prize winner who comes into The Washington Post during the '60s in a - it's very evocative story he tells.

Mr. WILLIAM RASPBERRY (Former Journalist, The Washington Post): Let me give you an illustration of the pressure. Going to a rally of the black Muslims and hearing Malcolm X say, I know there's, in this audience, some spies for the white man. And there I've got a big old number two pencil with the word Washington Post written on it. And I'm searching desperately for another pencil to use so I don't get exposed as a spy. But Malcolm understood that. And he understood that this was a way of exerting some pressure on the black reporters to tell the story more sympathetically. And there were a lots and lots of such instances where black organizations sort of insisted that black reporters ought to cut them some slack.

INSKEEP: There's William Raspberry, who went on to be one of the great newspaper columnist in recent decades, one of the best known. That's how he handled it? He simply shrugged it off?

WILLIAMS: Well, no, you know, he's very sensitive to it. But he ultimately came to the conclusion that if you are viewed as an advocate, you might get away with it once or twice, but basically then you were sacrificing your credibility both to the black and white audience because they would view you as a water carrier for one side or another in this dispute. And people with credibility are the ones who are going to really make the difference.

INSKEEP: But, as you know very well, it gets more complicated than that. There are objective facts. Juan's wearing a blue shirt. He's wearing a red tie. Things get much grayer when you talk about the context of the story, what you include, what you don't include. Have African-American journalists found a role for themselves there to push on issues that maybe other people would ignore?

WILLIAMS: Well, they have had to. And I think that's part of the charge, is that you come with different set of life experiences and you bring that into the room. And you go into the '80s, you get now people coming in to leadership positions in the media, people who helped to define what news is and how the news is presented.

A'Lelia Bundles is one such person. Harvard grad, well-trained journalist, ends up at ABC in the midst of the OJ Simpson case. And here she is talking about them going out to try to cover that story as a young black woman.

Ms. A'LELIA BUNDLES (Former Producer, ABC News): One would assume that if they are asking me to do the story that they are hoping I will bring some perspective that might not be there. We went to interview a reporter at the black newspaper in LA. We interviewed the head of the Urban League because I thought it was important to hear what the black community thought. What got left out of the piece when the senior producers in New York went over it? Those two soundbites.

So that meant the piece was what it would have been had I not been there. And then, when the verdict came and people were stunned about the verdict, I thought, if only - I tried to show you all another perspective, and that was the thing that didn't fit what your preconceived notion was. So that's the frustration for me.

INSKEEP: That's A'Lelia Bundles, long-time former producer for ABC News, talking about some of her difficulties. And Juan Williams, I have to ask, mention for those who haven't seen you on television, you're African-American.

WILLIAMS: It's true.

INSKEEP: Is this…

WILLIAMS: I didn't have to tell my mom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Is this experience typical, do you think?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it is because I think there's a sense of being embattled. And I think that maybe you have to try to say, hey, there's a different way of viewing this. And it's not trying to engage in advocacy, it's just trying to enlarge the story. And it's interesting, I just had a conversation with Shirley Franklin, the mayor of Atlanta. And I said to her, how do black public officials feel about black reporters? Here's what she said.

Mayor SHIRLEY FRANKLIN (Democrat, Atlanta): I'm not just any mayor. I'm a mayor who is African-American and female. I feel very much obligated to represent the categories from which I come, and I would hope black journalists would do the same. I don't mean that they have to give spin to anything. I do think they need to give context.

INSKEEP: I wonder if whether people talking about the response of the black audience or the response of the white audience that it really gets down to the same concern, in that there has been so much bad publicity for African-Americans over the centuries. People have been beaten down so much. And there's a concern that the whole world is watching and you have to be careful of what you say.

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, I remember once, I was covering Marion Barry here in D.C. and…

INSKEEP: He's a longtime mayor here who was convicted and deposed and…

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. I remember standing at a bus stop one day and a guy comes up to me and says, you're Juan Williams. He says, you know that white newspaper you work for, The Washington Post, at that time, he says, you know that paper goes all over the country, all the over the world, and it's creating a real bad image of black people, you know. You should know what you're doing, working for the man and putting down black people. Now that's a lot of pressure.

INSKEEP: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Good talking with you.

WILLIAMS: It's good. Let me make one more point.


WILLIAMS: I think even as we do this interview, the question becomes how the story continues, because we see more and more niche journalism going on in this country. So, should we have women reporters doing news for women? Should we have black people doing news for blacks, Asians for Asians, Hispanic for Hispanics?

INSKEEP: Well, I go to tell you, though, some of my most rewarding experiences as a reporter are when I meet somebody who is completely different from me, other side of the world, completely different from my audience, and I find some way to translate their experience back to people that I know.

WILLIAMS: You know what, I couldn't agree more. I mean, for me it's almost emotion because I think it's the mission of a journalist and my life. But that is the sense and that's the challenge for black journalist almost on a daily basis.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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