Tips for NABJ Chapters and Regional Leaders on Handling Complaints and Controversies Regarding Issues of Race and Representation Locally
By Eric Deggans, chair, NABJ Media Monitoring Committee
As the discussion over civil rights and race intensifies in America, the National Association of Black Journalists realizes that its affiliate chapters and regional groups face more demand than ever for help in dissecting problematic journalism content and racism in their communities.
To help sort through the challenges, NABJ has created this tip sheet with recommendations on how to handle requests for assistance, complaints about press coverage, concern about diversity issues in local newsrooms and more. The goal is to give chapter leadership and regional directors suggestions on how to respond to situations early on, with the knowledge that the national organization always stands ready to help in such situations if further assistance is needed.
Tip #1 – Try to determine what the real problem is. In some situations, it may take a bit of discussion and investigation to learn the full scope of a particular issue, which helps in deciding the best way to address it. If a media outlet in your community seems to be creating unfair or misguided coverage of the African American community, is it the result of an errant reporter, a problematic editor, the overall philosophy of the news outlet or something else? If the outlet lacks diversity, is it because top editors lack the will to hire non-white reporters, or something else? Learning the accurate details of the issue also helps you gain credibility with the community and any journalists involved with the situation.
Tip #2 – Try to establish a dialogue. NABJ chapters can be most effective when they are building bridges in communities and helping both individual journalists and community institutions do better work. Making that happen often requires talking to people at the center of the issue and urging their participation in a process to solve the problem. As frustrating and disappointing as it can be to see problematic news coverage or journalism practices, the goal is to convince institutions and people to do better. Often, the best way to make that happen is to have productive, focused discussions on the issues at hand and possible solutions.
Tip #3 – Be organized in your own response. Regardless of the importance of the issue, it is important for NABJ chapters and regional directors to speak with a unified voice. In local situations, the chapter president should coordinate responses to the issue at hand or designate a point person to take charge of the effort. If the situation is significant enough to bring wider attention, the local chapter should include the regional director and NABJ in discussions about details and strategy. People involved in the issue should always have the sense they are speaking with an organized group that has a unified voice. Otherwise, it is easy for confusion to arise about what the problem is and which solutions would be considered acceptable by the chapter and NABJ itself.
Tip #4 – Be accurate and specific. Generalized complaints about media, press coverage or the actions of institutions like police departments will not make much impact. Specific incidents recounted, with accurate detail, however, speak volumes. Rather than saying, “Newspaper X always covers Black people arrested worse than white people,” perhaps say, “in three separate stories, Newspaper X used mug shots to illustrate stories of Black people arrested, while using portrait photos provided by lawyers for white people taken into custody.” The specificity shows you have done your homework and provides concrete actions that can be addressed with definitive policies.
Tip #5 – Offer NABJ as a resource, without letting it become a fig leaf. Ideally, local chapters, regional directors and NABJ serve as sources of expertise in covering communities of color, best journalism practices, methods for creating dialogue about race issues and much more. Situations that may look adversarial – like criticizing a news outlet for its lack of staff diversity or mishandling of reporting on issues involving people of color – can be an opportunity to provide regular feedback and advice to help avoid future problems. Just be careful that organizations that tap our expertise are not doing so to simply look like they are taking action. If institutions or individuals are engaging in continuous dialogue without improving or making changes, then they may not be serious about addressing the issues highlighted by the chapter.
Tip #6 – Have a plan for speaking out publicly. It is important for chapters that have verified concerns to inform the community and provide transparency on how they are working to solve the problem. Press releases and interviews are an important part of that process, and chapters should have a process for speaking publicly about their work on these issues. Ideally, there should be one person designated to speak to the issue, and there should be an awareness among chapter and/or regional leadership of what will be said and what the group’s official position is. Even in situations where there is cooperation and productive dialogue, chapters should keep the community informed about issues and the strategies implemented to solve them. The press releases and public statements can then form a public record to which institutions and individuals can be held accountable later.
Tip #7 – Use NABJ as a resource, but be prepared to handle local issues locally. The national organization can provide advice and expert assistance on responding to problems, but it is often best for the local chapter to lead efforts to address local issues. Beyond the local expertise the chapters, working in conjunction with regional directors, provide, the process of leading reform or registering complaints can raise the chapter’s profile and build important connections in the community. Chapters should never hesitate to reach out to NABJ for help. But there are advantages to the chapter for leading efforts to dismantle systemic racism and issues affecting the image of Black people locally.