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Strangers on their own news beats.

When Loren Ghiglione was rounding up comment recently regarding the minority hiring programs of the American Society of Newspaper Editors I automatically responded with a cheer. Who could argue with such a worthy cause? But then I got to thinking about the many related issues that are also involved in the complex relationship between our profession and society.

What is the intent of the ASNE initiative, for example? Is it simplyan affirmative action program to expunge longstanding biases? A drive to make newsrooms mirror images of the general population? Or, in a larger strategic sense, is it an effort to penetrate more deeply into communities in order to serve a wider range of readers?

As I see it, the problem is not just inadequate minority hiring, although that is a factor, of course. Nor is it only the challenge of ethnic diversity, or the immigrant waves that have so swiftly and, in some areas, so overwhelmingly changed the communities newspapers are trying to reach. What may be more important in the long run is a cultural gap between reporters and would-be readers--class differences, if you will, not just race, gender, or ethnicity.

As editors and journalism schools demand more and more education in the name of professionalism, staffs become more elitist. However much individuals may differ, natural selection produces a kind of social and intellectual clustering, a blend of similar interests and attitudes, that sets journalists apart from much of the society they presume to reflect. They move into their own neighborhoods, mingle with other professionals, talk about the same things. They are no longer card-carrying members of the working class. They don't socialize with shipping clerks or truck drivers, go to the same picnics or bingo games, or join hands at prayer meetings. Sports is a common denominator and celebrity a shared affliction. But reporters are often strangers on their own news beats.

After World War II, when I first covered the police "shacks" in Brooklyn, the pattern was different. The beat reporters were mostly the offspring of firemen or garment workers or longshoremen--ordinaryworking stiffswho lived on the same streets and drank at the same bars as their readers. It wasn't much different 15 years later, when I returned to New York with The Daily News following a stint in Washington. I remember one day in Criminal Court when a hood, in the midst of being arraigned, suddenly shouted greetings to the police reporter I was with. They had been boyhood friends and still lived in the same neighborhood. Legmen in those days needed rewritemen to translate their notes. But they lived the city's life. When you were with them, you could feel the city's pulse. As Pete Hamill has observed: "Their street reporting was informed by the special knowledge that came from the street. If they encountered a plumber or a longshoreman, they knew the language."

At The Daily News in the 1960's and 1970's, I championed the idea of "upgrading" the staff. Although Jimmy Breslin, one of the best reporters I ever worked with, never made it through college, all our new hires were required to have a degree. So fresh recruits swarmed into the city room clogged with education and determined to reform the world. They didn't live in Red Hook, though, or Hunts Point. Blacks didn't want to settle in East New York or be assigned to Harlem. Just as vast wealth and deep poverty existed side by side but seldom touched, most newgeneration reporters were mentally and emotionally separated from the most numerous and, in many ways, most vibrant communities in the city.

The day after the great blackout in New York City in 1977, I spent some time roaming through Bushwickwhere looters had left whole blocks in smouldering ruins. One man rocked back and forth on a chair with a baseball bat guarding his gutted store. A woman picked through the charred remains of a church. It was stifling hot and when a cool breeze suddenly sprang up, I turned to the woman and exclaimed: "Isn't this great?" "No," she replied. "Very bad! If fire now, two apartments go, not one!" A wind that was refreshing to me was frightening to her. I was an alien in her world, only a shout away from our office on the other side of the East River.

This kind of estrangement means that millions of lives lie mostly hidden in unwatched warrens, only attracting attention at the intersections of violence and crisis when public agencies become involved and the media are alerted. Like business reporters who depend on analysts for news, city reporters get too many of their stories second hand from cops, the courts or other official sources. This is one reason why many people automatically associate blacks with crime--it's almost their only news link to black communities.

Thousands of nonprofit groups and religious organizations are working on the front lines of social stress in New York's neighborhoods. Colombian and Dominican neighborhoods, Chinese and Korean, African and Arab. There are health clinics, foster care homes, youth development programs, Catholic and Jewish schools--more than 130,000 children in the parochial schools alone. It is a throbbing universe of activity in the very heart of city life but, in the absence of disaster or scandal, much of it receives little public notice. A fact that has been brutally criticized by Osborn Elliott, former Editor of Newsweek, ex-Deputy Mayor, and presently head of New York's Citizens Committee.

Whatever the practical obstacles or professional hang-ups may be, true diversity means that reporters and editors should be in intimate, continuing and, I would add, sympathetic communication with every part of community life. When only government and politics or violence are reported then much of that life is excluded. The effect is to emphasize degrees of separation rather than the kind of bonding, the mutual interest and empathy, that ideally should exist between journalists and ordinary people. "If we are to create a sense of place for everyone," as Gregory Favre says, "then we must create a sense of belonging for everyone."

I believe one explanation for the extraordinary success of "Angela's Ashes" is that Frank McCourt is a superb reporter who personally lived the story he told and belonged to the world he described. He didn't need any help in understanding his characters because he and they were the same. He was not an outsider who had to interview the natives to get the facts, so his readers were gripped by an intense, directly felt realism. Also, McCourt never talked down to his characters; he treated them with respect, as equals.

That is another important point--the degree to which an elitist journalism not only promotes a "curled lip" cynicism, as Elliott puts it, but also creates attitudes that, consciously or unconsciously, demean the beliefs, lifestyles, and views of ordinary people. A case in point is religion, which millions of Americans take seriously and is a central feature, for example, of black community life, but is poorly and often derisively covered by the press. I remember rushing a reporter to the South on a fruitless mission to find flim flammery in the Moral Majority movement; I prejudged the story because of a built-in bias, something that is also frequently on display now in coverage of the Religious Right and fundamentalist groups.

Peter L. Berger, writing in Commentary, says these groups are part of a class-based populist revolt against the upper levels of the American class system, "the bastions of elite culture"--including the media--that have fought to compel total secularization of society as well as government. To the extent that journalists identify with these secular elites, they appear to be hostile to the convictions of millions of ordinary working class people. And this is not an ad for editorial diversity or balance.

I don't know the solution. At The News we tried to get closer to the ground by assigning reporters to community boards and neighborhood organizations. The idea was to build news from the bottom up, instead of top down from city hall and police headquarters. Although this approach produced more grassroots coverage, it was labor intensive. And it could not fully overcome the disconnect between readers and many reporters' and editors whose story ideas still were colored by their own social and intellectual predilections.

It may be argued that the destiny of newspapers lies with the elites in society because that is where the readers are, and will increasingly be as educational levels rise and new immigrants join the American mainstream. Barbara Tuchman once observed that no one knows anything about the peasants in the Middle Ages because they couldn't write and those who could didn't care. But journalists should care. Upper crust readers, no less than their fellow citizens, need to see society in all its dimensions if they are to understand the world around them. Social explosions that so often catch us by surprise can only be foreseen, and possibly prevented, if the press is operating at the ground levels of community life where unwatched stress is the incubator of silent crisis that later becomes a public disaster.

Changes in journalistic culture may be as important as increased minority hiring if we are to achieve true "diversity in the newsroom." Newspapers, especially, need to develop a closer, broader, more understanding and more trusting relationship with their communities. Their survival depends on it.

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I've bought wigs and had makeup people do serious makeup. I have developed a different sense of clothes. I wear eyeglasses. I normally never wear lipstick, so if I put on lipstick and a blond wig, I'm a totally different persona. It's amazing. My husband finds it pretty funny. But my elevator man knows, winks at me and says, "Aha--you're going to a new restaurant...." This is a serious eating job. I go out for 12 meals a week." Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic for The New York Times, in the house organ "Inside The New York Times," Fall 1997.

Michael O'Neill is the former Executive Editor of The Daily News in New York and a past President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Retired, he lives in Scarsdale, N.Y.
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Title Annotation:cultural gap between journalists and readers
Author:O'Neill, Michael
Publication:Nieman Reports
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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