Letters about The Daily Illini’s coverage of Cotton Club

By Steve Contorno

We’ve spent the better part of the last week trying to figure out where went wrong in our coverage of the Cotton Club after-party. Internally, our own issues with diversity kept us from understanding many of the issues brought to light by comments on our Web site. It wasn’t until I received a letter from Terrell Starr that I began to see the many ways in which our paper can be perceived. And although our reporter covered that story because of the amount of police attention it garnered, not the skin color of the people involved, Terrell also helped me to see how coverage of the event and other stories that week were interpreted by the public.

Terrell has been a reporter on our staff for two years and is a graduate student at the University. As a black student on campus, he was able to see the issue from many sides. I forwarded his letter to our entire staff and would like to share it with all of our readers.

Perception is often not reality, and without dialogue, those perceptions become hurtful assumptions or stereotypes. I don’t pretend to understand how the minority population felt when they read our paper last week just because I talked to Terrell; likewise, I don’t think the majority of our readers understand how we put together our paper just because they read it. But I would like for both sides to begin to understand each other better by encouraging communication. We must engage in dialogue to fix the gaps that only grow larger by ignoring these problems. I haven’t received a phone call or an e-mail, just one letter to the editor concerning what happened, and I fear that were it not for Terrell and his letter, we would be completely oblivious to what was going on. We pride ourselves on being the voice of students, and we’re working harder to be the voice of the entire campus by diversifying our newsroom and our coverage.

The lines of communication are open, and I will be working to contact leaders within the minority community to help us in better understanding each other. Please read Terrell’s letter and let us hear your voice.

Thank you.

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Steve Contorno, editor in chief

Letter from Terrell Starr

Masha said he was disappointed that negative events such as these garner so much attention, while more positive programs in the black community go unheeded.

“I didn’t see any DI coverage (of those successful events), but when altercations like this occur, I get a call the very next day,” he said.

– Femi Masha, social action chair, Central Black Student Union. The Daily Illini, Monday, Feb. 23, 2009.

Dear Colleagues,

Masha’s words cannot escape my mind. They contradict my view of the people I have come to know and love during my two-plus years at The Daily Illini. I always brag about working here and show off the outstanding work we do. I’m proud to be a reporter for The Daily Illini. Besides this, I feel the people with whom I am learning this wonderful trade called journalism are kind, unique and thoughtful.

But thoughtfulness seemed to be missing in the Monday-Wednesday front pages of our great newspaper last week. At first glance, Monday’s front-page story concerning the Cotton Club incident made me think, “Wow.”

“Did someone get hurt? Dozens of arrests had to occur,” I assumed from seeing the bold-type headline.

Yet, I learned in Tuesday’s article that only one arrest had taken place. I wonder if any of our editors considered how some would view a front-page story (with a bold lead, mind you) about a mostly black event covered negatively for a second year in a row. And that many black students may feel our coverage of them in general is already limited – with the exception of front-page stories about fights and academic underachievement (more on this later).

Quick question: Are fights so uncommon at the U of I that when one occurs, it’s front-page news?

The reason why I hold on to Masha’s words so tightly is because they reflect the larger problem of how local and national news media cover the black community. There’s a saying in journalism that “if it bleeds, it leads.” But with black coverage, I feel it’s, “if no one bleeds but someone is scratched, it still leads.”

I felt our newspaper reinforced this model unintentionally. We didn’t mean to, but that’s the feeling that I and many other people felt over the past few days.

I don’t profess to represent the University’s black community, but most of my friends and other colleagues of color do share Masha’s perception of the DI. I hear these views now, and I heard them more than two years ago when I joined the staff.

This is unfortunate. Most importantly, I know such perceptions do not truly define anyone with whom I work. And I have defended our newsroom when critics made what I felt were unfair comments (charges of racial insensitivity, mainly) about the people who work in it.

Yet our paper’s odd front-page layout on Wednesday did nothing to debunk these views.

The page prominently shows the nation’s first black president speaking before Congress. Then on the side, an equally prominent story with a bold headline reads, “Report says blacks trail on AP tests.”

So for three days, many of our readers got this message: You don’t behave well in large groups (Monday and Tuesday). And on Wednesday, our paper added insult to injury by saying, “You have a black president. BUT most of you are underachievers.” Many people have been asking me what I think about the first three days of this week’s newspaper.

This time, I can’t defend our newsroom.

But look at last Wednesday’s front page once more, and ask yourselves if you would run it again. If your answer is yes, I would be very concerned. As a black graduate student who strives to contradict stereotypes of being unqualified and unfit to attend institutions like the U of I, I was personally offended. It wasn’t that the story was bad. It just had no business being placed next to the Obama piece. What were we insinuating with last Wednesday’s layout? What message were we sending our readers? Given our first two front pages that week, were we sensitive? I think not.

Not to mention that study was released three weeks ago, so I wonder why someone thought it was so immediate and breaking that it deserved an equally prominent place on the front page (BOLD PRINT AND ALL) with the president discussing our nation’s worst economic woes since the Great Depression.

We have to do better than this.

I am writing this to you because I care about the unintentional messages we are sending our readers. Equally important, I care about you all; so to stay silent would not be collegial and it would breach my definition of friendship. Numerous minorities have declined to grant me interviews in the past because they feel our paper is racially insensitive and that I would not be fair to them in my reporting. Simply put, many minorities on campus do not feel the DI is their newspaper.

Masha’s ending quote and our front pages this week sum up the reasons why.

Last week, a young African-American journalism student who is held in high regard by several College of Media faculty, approached me and inquired about working at The Daily Illini. But he said he was reluctant to apply because of our coverage of the Cotton Club incident. “What should I do?” he asked me. “What’s going on in (your newsroom)?”

Several other graduate students have approached me and asked, “How do you feel about (these front pages)?” I’ve heard too many complaints over the years and last week to stay silent any longer.

I told them all that I would hold my judgment and share my disappointment over last week’s first three front pages with my colleagues first – just as I know any of you would do if someone questioned my integrity and work.

As young journalists, we will be entering the workforce, taking on the editorial positions of retiring baby boomers and making decisions about what goes to print and what doesn’t. Our decision-making last week was not a good start for our future occupations.

Unfortunately, The New York Post did not provide us the best model of how to confront insensitivity last week. Their so-called apology over their insensitive ape and stimulus package cartoon did nothing to quell grumbles of minority communities already skeptical of the media.

They would have been better off not apologizing at all. But we have a chance to offer a proper apology. We must even do better than The Post and set the industry standard when it comes to expressing sensitivity for all peoples of all backgrounds. It’s sad that the professionals our journalism professors consistently ask us to model failed to set the right example for us.

Therefore we, the students, must set the example for them.

Last week’s series of front pages reveal that we all (regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender) have to do a better job of moving beyond our cultural vacuums to better understand everyone in our campus community. It can be difficult. Even uncomfortable.

But taking such steps to connect with people who do not reflect our backgrounds can help avoid the blunders of last week. I, as a black person, could have been equally insensitive to some other group with a poor editorial decision.

I’ve spoken to several of you over the week and saw the regret in your eyes concerning this issue. Now it’s up to our editorial staff to show our readers the same regret I have seen these past few days.

And hopefully, the time will come when people like Masha will begin complimenting us on our fair and balanced coverage of their communities rather than highlight what they feel is our absence of it. I’m ready to help our newsroom do just that.