By Judi Whetstine
A front-page story in The Gazette on Sep. 10 titled “Does racial bias fuel Obama foes? How to tell?” generated complaining letters to the editor. Associated Press national reporter Jesse Washington, who specializes in race and ethnicity, wrote the story.
The complaints: on Sept. 16, “the message was that white people don’t vote for black candidates because they are black.” On Sept. 19, “is not a time-sensitive article, not news as much as it is an opinion piece and disappointed in placement of this article, the inflammatory headline, and the picture.” On Sept. 21, “the story avoided taking a hard look at the ‘birther’ controversy that Republican operatives promoted.”
Let’s consider those complaints in the context of ethical guidelines and standards for news reporters.
After some recent ethical controversies at National Public Radio, new standards were adopted this year. Guidance for “telling the full story” states: “Coverage should reflect the true complexity of the world we live in and reflect the views of many different groups.” Guidance for “completeness in reporting” states: “Understand the bigger picture of a story — which facts are most important and how they relate to one another. Be aware of all perspectives, the facts supporting or opposing each, and the different groups of stakeholders affected by the issue.”
The Society of Professional Journalists’ 1996 Code of Ethics states: “Seek the truth and report it.” “Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so. Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.”
The Sept. 10 Gazette story meets these principles. It directly addressed the complexity of racial bias in political campaigns, including media’s participation. The headline asks the question of how to tell if racial bias is a part of campaigning and the voter decision-making process. It is a timely question during this election season, and the story describes how some answer it.
The story cited academics and researchers, blacks and whites, reporters and commentators, and convention delegates and students. It cited differing opinions about implicit or unconscious bias. The story also generated additional local perspectives such as letters on Sept. 16 and Oct. 4 debating “low information votes and minorities.”
The story ends with a quote from Evan Woodson, a black student at Oklahoma State University, who “often hears other black people call something racist that he sees as benign. No matter how you cut it, politicians constantly seem to be accusing the other party of racism and that prevents people from having honest conversations about actual racism.”
Woodson’s response to the headline question, then, is that you cannot honestly answer the question in the context of a political campaign because of how the campaigns are run.
A news reporter does have a challenge in writing about racism in politics and probably expects to receive criticism. Nonetheless, it is important to report on the issue.
If you have an unresolved concern or question about Gazette or KCRG-TV9 news, opinion or online content, contact Judi Whetstine, SourceMedia Group’s community advocate, at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at Community Advocate, The Gazette, 500 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52401. Whetstine is not a SourceMedia Group employee. The longtime attorney, retired from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, serves on the Cedar Rapids City Board of Ethics and consults for the University of Iowa.