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June 1, 1999


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Flashpoints That Define Or Break Apart A Community

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Rahadyan Sastrowardoyo

Somini Sengupta, a metropolitan reporter for The New York Times, who has written about immigrant communities, including south Asians and Asian Americans, knows white reporters are rarely asked how their race influences their reporting.

"Similarly, we reporters of color should be able to cover what we want without having to explain ourselves," she said, addressing a group of journalists and academics. What she was interested in reporting on were the "flashpoints that define or break apart a community".

In a separate conversation, she elaborated on this by noting that the idea of "community" is always in flux. She said it is constantly being defined by such events as when a Trinidadian man was attacked and the different nationalities that define themselves as south Asians came together to speak out against this bias crime. By the same token, socio-economic divisions within the larger community are also important to note.

Sengupta was one of the three reporters at a panel discussion at the Newseum/NY in midtown Manhattan on May 24 organized by the Asian American Journalists Association, the Newseum and the Media Studies Center. All three emphasized that, while their respective ethnicities informed their coverage of their communities, first and foremost they were professionals seeking to report good stories.

In an auditorium overlooking Madison Avenue, Sengupta was joined by Victor Merina, a Fellow of the Media Studies Center and a former investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Albor Ruiz, a columnist for the New York Daily News and a former editor of El Daily News, a bilingual newspaper of the Hispanic community. Peter Noel, a contributing writer for the Village Voice, was also scheduled to participate, but breaking news related to the ongoing Abner Louima trial involving police brutality precluded this. However, Merina had spoken to Noel during the day prior to the discussion.

The raison d'etre of the discussion was to answer the ethical dilemma of a reporter who covers a story about his or her own ethnic group; as well, are there "whispers in the newsroom" even when one feels that he or she has been fair and balanced? Further, how does one respond to community leaders who may accuse a reporter of betraying one's own for writing a critical story?

Merina, a native of the Philippines, whose research project is 'What Color Is Truth: Pursuing Stories in Cultural, Ethnic, Racial Communities,' opened the discussion, noting that the concerns and problems to be discussed transferred as well to the coverage of women's issues, the gay and lesbian communities and religious groups. What may facilitate coverage of one's own include commonalities of appearance, knowing the language and even slang, and having established contacts within a group. On the other hand, he observed, "You may not be accepted by a community because you're seen as a collaborator, or as a representative of a paper," and a reporter may not actually know the language.

"Speaking [the language of a community] opens doors," said Ruiz, who was born in Cuba and first came to the United States in 1961. The need to do so ties into the upcoming Census 2000. "The demographic changes in the city lead to why editors increase coverage of these issues."

What are a community's reactions to "one of their own" reporting about them? "They're happy that you're there -- their existence is acknowledged." However, there is the risk that a group may feel betrayed if a story seems to evince a certain position about that group.

Sengupta, a native of Calcutta who grew up in Canada and southern California, added, "The elites of a community -- or the stereotypes -- define what 'we' are." To temper these definitions, she said, one has to listen carefully to what those elites say or don't say. "South Asians in New York are a very diverse group; there's a great diversity of opinion."

She gave an example of the 50th anniversary India Day Parade two years ago in which some members of the Federation of Indian Associations, an umbrella group of Indian ethnic organizations, had definite ideas of who should or shouldn't be allowed to march. Federation officials expressed the opinion that a gay and lesbian association didn't represent the mainstream of Indian culture; this was in opposition to the opinions of members of that association, who "thought very much that they were part of the fold".

Ruiz, who writes two columns a week for the Daily News, said his column was not ideological; "I am not here to write about Hispanic issues, or not write about them," asserting his column focused on events and issues of relevance to residents of Queens and Brooklyn.

The issue of "dirty laundry" was brought up. Merina, drawing upon his conversation with Noel, asserted that "Internal arguments within a community are legitimate news but painful to write about."

Sengupta said, "There's a lot to learn from dirty laundry -- we don't honor the humanity [of an ethnic group] by 'whitewashing' those issues." Ruiz cited an incident some years ago in which a New York City fireman was attacked, and his attacker fled to the Dominican Republic. He related the Hispanic community's role in the extradition of the attacker back to the United States, and asserted that, as reporters, "We must do our jobs as professionals, but we have the opportunity to cover what no one else would think of, or would care about."

Within the newsroom itself, dynamics between reporters and editors were also discussed. Ruiz referred to "editors' blinders" and cited a recent discussion he had had with an editor about the pop singer Ricky Martin (of La Vida Loca fame).

"Is he a big deal?" Ruiz was asked; the editor was surprised to learn that Martin had a Top 10 hit. "There always seems to be the suspicion that 'we' have an agenda ," Ruiz said.

"It's important that we go the extra mile to change the vision of what the city is, or what the future of journalism is." He added that there have been some advances made, but still "not enough" representation.

The three reporters were asked by a member of the audience if reporters should have the extra burden of advocacy. Merina responded with "If you don't cover it, it's not going to get covered," but made the caveat that racial issues are not a valued assignment in the same way that, for example, assignment to a foreign bureau was; those racial issues were often "covered at the risk of one's career."

Sengupta felt that reporters did not have that burden and asked in return, "To what end should we cover under-represented communities?"

Ruiz said, "It's often enough that you were there," and asserted that the primary responsibility was to be a good reporter, "bringing issues to the attention of editors that are good stories," and echoed Sengupta in saying, "We shouldn't have to explain ourselves."

Sengupta observed that there was an influx of African-American reporters in the 1960s to cover riots -- "[Media outlets] needed people to go in there" -- and added that it was an "advancement" to have non-white reporters cover the white community.

When asked if the airing of dirty laundry ran the risk of being blown out of proportion, Ruiz agreed that there was "a danger that could happen that doesn't mean we shouldn't do the story." He added that coverage of such problems aided in "learning how any society functions.... If there is a valid story, then we should cover it." Sengupta said, asserting, "One story should not be read as an example of a community."

In his wrap-up of the discussion, Merina observed, "When we are of like color, it doesn't always turn out so well -- it's not always the best of all worlds," but that the "pressure for making changes" in American societal perceptions and sensitivities must come from coverage of racial and ethnic issues.

Rahadyan Sastrowardoyo is a New York-based writer.

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