Racial stories bring strong reaction, demand deft touch

The Baltimore Sun

Stories involving race require particular clarity of exposition and even-handedness because the issues inevitably trigger strong reactions from readers.

Recent Sun articles - about the disparity between black and white students' performance in statewide achievement tests and about rallies to protest the treatment of six black teens who were charged with attempted murder over a schoolyard brawl in Jena, La. - generated a number of strong reactions.

In my view, The Sun's reporting on these stories was well researched, well edited and timely.

The majority of reader criticism centered on the presentation of a Sept. 6 front-page story by reporters Liz Bowie and Gina Davis about statewide test scores. The article was accompanied by a large headline in capital letters, "BLACKS IN SUBURBS FAILING MD. EXAMS." Also featured was a photograph of two unidentified African-American students writing on a blackboard.

Some readers questioned The Sun's decision to give the story such a prominent front-page presence. Others complained that the headline gave the impression that all blacks were failing the exams. And still others saw the headline and the data in the article as evidence of the cultural and academic superiority of one group over another.

Bowie and Davis' article was free of hyperbole. It offered readers a straightforward report about the gap in test scores between whites and blacks in Maryland's middle-class communities and why that gap is of particular concern to African-American educators and parents. The problem, in my view, was that the presentation of the story did not reflect its nuanced tone.

The presentation of Bowie's follow-up article, published in the Sept. 23 Ideas section, was indeed balanced and accessible. The substantial centerpiece - entitled "A critical gap" - broadened the scope of the previous news story to examine why many experts foresee serious consequences if more African-American parents do not become involved in their children's education.

Said Joe Siegmund: "Your article was right on the money. I find it very hard to understand why our public officials fail to recognize (or fail to speak the truth about) the obvious reason an achievement gap exists in our schools - parental involvement. Regardless of the socio-economic level, the family is the key to any child performing to their maximum capability. Blaming teachers and the school system for the failure of students is just hiding behind a convenient scapegoat. Keep writing articles like this and maybe someone will do something about it."

Sharon Wright of Baltimore, whose college freshman daughter graduated from Western High School, said: "This was an excellent article. My daughter and I used to discuss how many of her peers' parents were not involved in their kid's education. This article has the right message. Parents have to take responsibility. Without it, their kids' education will go right down the drain."

Ted Imes, an African-American who graduated from the Baltimore public school system and has a master's degree from Johns Hopkins, said: "Unfortunately, many of our children have come to rest on our accomplishments and take their current lifestyles for granted, as parents have sought to give their children more than they had when growing up. ... so the kids are enjoying the 'good life' without having worked a day in their lives to get it."

Reporter Kelly Brewington's Sept. 20 front-page article, "Thousands to take outrage to La.," was a thorough and detailed report about why the case of six black students accused of attacking a white student in Jena has resonated so profoundly among African-Americans in Baltimore and the across the country. The Sun, which like other newspapers has been criticized for not giving the Jena story enough coverage, offered readers an excellent overview of the situation.

Brewington's neutral overview story and the subsequent news stories about local rallies and the protest in Jena itself engendered a number of highly charged reactions. While no one specifically criticized Brewington's reporting, virtually all of the comments ran along these lines: "What about black-on-black crimes?" "What about black-on-white crimes?" "What about racism in Maryland?" "What about the rights of white people?"

The Sun has since reported on a growing movement by white supremacists against Jena protests, ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., and the decision by the four leading Republican presidential candidates to skip the Sept. 27 GOP debate at Morgan State University, a historically African-American institution.

Reporting about racial issues will, of course, continue, as will intense and provocative reactions.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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