Do You Hear A Reporter Clapping?

Minority journalists (and those covering them) over-question the ethics of cheering for Obama

Leading up to Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the Unity convention in Chicago, there was some media speculation about how ethically problematic it would be if reporters attending the conference—the largest gathering of black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian journalists in the country—were to break into cheers when Obama took the stage.

It was a legitimate ethical question. (Check out one point of view, from Poynter’s blog.) Yet, in the media, it was discussed not so much as a what-if as a how-could-they-not. The headline of a widely picked-up AP article asked, a day prior to the speech: “Can minority journalists resist applauding Obama?” A graf-and-a-half in, reporter Jesse Washington wrote:

“But many at the quadrennial gathering differ on whether the underlying current of enthusiasm for Obama’s historic candidacy should be constrained or allowed to spill forth on live television.

In addition to race, the issue boils down to questions of human emotion, empathy versus ethics, and whether a group that has experienced its own share of prejudice can resist responding to Obama’s powerful oratory and potent symbolism.”

By framing the response to his headline as a possibly irresistible visceral reaction, Washington, who started covering the AP’s race and ethnicity beat just over a week ago, spotlighted a topic that wouldn’t have been much of an issue had the media (and admittedly,the convention’s organizers) not honed in on it.

Too bad that the organizers, themselves journalists, felt the need to remind the attending journalists to act with restraint during Obama’s speech. Their worry, impelled by the age-old question of advocacy vs. objectivity, is understandable. But it’s also condescending to those present, many of them veteran members of the press, to ask for “professional decorum during the event, especially since it will be broadcast to millions of people” (as an e-mail sent out to conference attendees reportedly implored).

It also seems as though Washington was a bit too hasty. The Unity audience gave Obama a standing ovation, but most reports admit that the scene fell short of speculated levels of frenzy and fervor. Post-speech coverage (NYT here, and WaPo here) gives some space to audience reactions, but focuses more on Obama’s answers to questions from CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux and Time’s Ramesh Ratnesar (some humorous, like how black he is, and some didactic, like his support for “properly structured” affirmative action). Washington must be relieved…or is it disappointed?

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.