What I learned at The Daily Texan Panel on Racial Sensitivity

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I recently attended a panel at The Daily Texan offices where some University of Texas educators and I had a conversation with the Texan staff of student reporters and editors about how to better handle issues of race in the stories they cover. The panel came about after a controversial cartoon appeared in the Texan last month regarding media coverage of the shooting murder of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. The cartoon offended a lot of people with its suggestion that the media has turned the case into a race issue when it’s not, and for its use of the word “colored” to describe Martin. The Texan editorial board issued a formal apology for publishing the cartoon and announced that its creator, Stephanie Eisner, would no longer work for the paper. It was then that they invited several professionals to come speak to The Daily Texan staff. Having covered the story twice on the Observer’s website, I decided to attend. Some things that stood out:

Stephanie Eisner was not necessarily fired. It’s not been revealed whether Eisner was fired or whether she quit. If Eisner was fired, one panelist opined, the editors who let the cartoon run should also be fired if The Daily Texan doesn’t want to appear to be making Eisner the scapegoat. No one on the staff responded.

College kids might not realize “colored” is an offensive word. One African-American professor on the panel explained to the room why the term “colored” is offensive to black Americans and wondered aloud if it was a generational thing for the young Texan staff not to know this. I followed up with an email to the editorial board to ask if this was the case. They declined to comment.

Some white people are afraid to approach subjects of color for fear of appearing condescending or exploitative. The student editors and others asked several times: Can we create more diverse coverage in the future without people accusing us of only doing it because of what happened with the Trayvon Martin cartoon? The answer we gave them was don’t worry about it. You’re always going to have critics no matter what you write. Better to write the truth, and the closest way to get to the truth is to cover all angles.

When a panelist suggested that the Texan do a story about racial profiling by approaching men of color on The Drag near campus and asking them if they’ve ever been racially profiled, one Anglo reporter asked very sincerely how he could do that without offending the men of color. It had never occurred to me that such an inquiry could be taken as offensive. I told him that if his intentions are honorable and if he listens to his subjects, most people are eager to tell their story to a mainstream media that largely ignores them.

What struck me most about the conversation with these college staffers is that they are asking the same questions about diversity that professional media outlets ask. The issues with which The Daily Texan is grappling are issues that all professional institutions grapple with.

Why is everyone in our office white? How do we reach out to people of color? Where are they? Why don’t they feel comfortable here? Why aren’t they coming for interviews when we advertise job openings? The issue is bigger than The Daily Texan. This is a societal issue. People of color are still far more likely to grow up in relative poverty, where the idea of going to college or, if they do go to college, majoring in something as “frivolous” as journalism, is just not seen as viable. It behooves those of us in positions of power to reach out to those who may never have had anyone say to them: Have you ever thought about writing for the paper?

A diverse staff won’t ensure that offensive content never gets published, and that’s okay. As one African-American professor said, “It’s important those kinds of views get printed in the paper so we can know what those people are thinking.” Still, having a variety of life experiences represented on the masthead increases the likelihood that more viewpoints are expressed.

Cindy Casares is a columnist for the Texas Observer. She is also the founding Editor of Guanabee Media, an English-language, pop culture blog network about Latinos established in 2007. She has a Master's in Mass Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. Prior to her career in journalism, she spent ten years in New York City as an advertising copywriter. During her undergraduate career at the University of Texas she served under Governor Ann Richards as a Senate Messenger during the 72nd Texas Legislature.