2001-02-18 Holland Sentinel Summit called for dialogue

Summit called for dialogue
Holland Sentinel

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the media breakout session at Tuesday’s Ottawa Area Summit on Racism.

I knew I would be a participant in a session charged with developing strategies to ensure that local media “will be fair and objective in reporting issues and events related to ethnic diversity and will present a balanced perspective in their reporting.”

What I didn’t know was whether I would be walking onto the firing line. While I was to participate in the strategy session, I would also be a representative of an industry that many people think is a part of the problem of racism rather than part of a solution.

I came with my mental armor on, prepared for slings and arrows directed at the news media in general and The Sentinel. It turned out there was no need for me to be defensive. What I found was a group of 22 people dedicated not to spreading blame but to looking for solutions.

There was criticism of the media, to be sure. Some complained of how the news media often skews the perception of minorities among whites, highlighting the mug shots of criminals but paying little attention to the mainstream life of minority communities. They noted correctly that minorities are seriously underrepresented in almost all news media outlets, contributing to the tendency of the media to see and portray the world from one white, middle-class perspective.

I wasn’t unaware of these concerns, particularly on the issues of minority representation. It has been difficult and frustrating for The Sentinel – and for hundreds of other similar newspapers around the country – to find qualified minority journalists willing to work in a small-town newsroom. That lack of minority representation means newspapers miss a lot of stories because they’re not in touch with a major portion of their communities or don’t understand their perspective. It also means there’s often no one on staff to challenge and educate white journalists when minority communities are misrepresented.

When it came time to devise strategies for an action team to carry out after the summit, several suggestions, including the formation of a media watchdog group and the development of a resource directly to help reporters cover local minority groups, were bandied about. These ides were eventually rolled into one broad strategy: Engage the media in a dialogue regarding greater diversity in staffing and viewpoints and to encourage more inclusive coverage.

I was particularly impressed with the second strategy. Instead of putting all the onus on the media, participants recognized that consumers of media have a responsibility too. The summit committed to developing a public awareness campaign to encourage community members to take personal responsibility for fair and accurate coverage.

It will be interesting to see how the media dialogue promoted at the summit works out. I look forward to an ongoing dialogue on the issues that were raised.

Overall, I considered the Ottawa Area Summit on Racism to be a positive exercise. I have no illusions that it will spark a sudden transformation in attitudes toward race in Ottawa County, but it’s important to generate discussion about a subject that most people prefer to sweep under the carpet.

In some cases, I felt, the strategies adopted by the breakout groups were too board to be achievable. In the case of our media session I wish the discussion had been broader – we scarcely talked about he most powerful shapers of public attitudes, prime-time television and advertising. And while I was impressed by the number of whites at the summit (about 75 percent of those in attendance, I’m guessing), I wanted to hear more input from members of the minority community. I think the media session would have been more valuable if it had involved more than one Hispanic and four African-Americans.

More important than what happened at the summit Tuesday though is what comes next – how many of the ideas and strategies set forth at the meeting actually become reality. The warm feelings generated by the positive discussions Tuesday will dissipate quickly if they’re not backed by hard work and real deeds.
Jim Timmermann is managing editor of the Holland Seninel