Note: Michigan Daily Editor in Chief Donn Fresard normally edits the stories on the front page. Because he was quoted in this story, he did not edit it.
Journalists have not only a right but a duty to offend in certain situations, according to panelists at a conference yesterday about minorities and the media.
“A greater danger to our society than a press offending people is a press that does not inform,” said keynote speaker Ellis Cose, a Newsweek columnist.
The symposium, called “Can You Print That?” brought together reporters, editors and academics from diverse backgrounds and was sponsored by the University chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Controversies about what is and what is not appropriate to print when it comes to racial and ethnic issues affect many types of news media, including campus publications.
At a panel discussion in the afternoon, Tiffany Hsu, editor in chief of The Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley, said she welcomes the debate that arises from controversial articles because it creates dialogue between the student community and the newspaper.
“I try to encourage my staff not to shy away from controversy when they cover diversity issues,” Hsu said. “But I do ask them to remember that they have to consider their work carefully and sensitively.”
The panelists agreed that student journalists sometimes make mistakes that offend certain groups, often because of a lack of training.
Student newspaper staffs are constantly changing, as are their contacts and sources in campus groups, which can lead to misunderstandings when writing about complicated issues, several panelists said.
Last December, campus groups criticized The Michigan Daily for printing two editorial cartoons that addressed affirmative action using what they considered simplistic, stereotypical depictions of black students.
Some students took the cartoons as an attack on whether they deserved to be at the University, said Donn Fresard, the Daily’s editor in chief.
The University’s chapter of the NAACP called for the Daily to retract the cartoons. The cartoonist resigned over the protests.
Fresard said in some cases a controversial article or cartoon can lead to productive discussion when people use it as a catalyst for debate.
“I’ve always found that the most productive thing is having people who are upset come in and meet with us,” Fresard said. “The problem tends to come when people get so upset with us that they won’t even come in or write in.”
Both Fresard and Hsu said the lack of minorities on their newspapers’ staffs also negatively affects their coverage of minority issues.
The lack of minority journalists is not limited only to campus newspapers.
In many national media outlets, minorities who choose to become reporters are often actively and subtly discouraged from covering issues relating to a specific ethnic or racial group, said Catherine Squires, an assistant professor in the communications department.
Because of these problems, minority students sometimes don’t trust campus papers as a credible news source.
“There’s a consensus that The Michigan Daily does not represent the needs of black students on campus,” said audience member Sarah Jackson, a Rackham graduate student in communications, adding that she prefers to get her news from a blog focused on issues in the black community.
No matter what, the media will always receive criticism from those who feel its coverage is biased or offensive, several panelists agreed. But is it important to take risks in order to fully inform the public of controversial issues?
“The question is not whether the press offended,” Cose said. “The question to me is whether it is doing its job.”
Emily Barton contributed to this report