Letters to the Editor

Readers respond to our May/June story by Pamela Newkirk, "The Not-So-Great Migration"

Black and White

Permit me to offer an amplifying note to Pamela Newkirk’s trenchant take on the migration of some black journalists (she lists me among them) from mainstream newsrooms to black-oriented news organizations (“The Not-So-Great Migration,” CJR, May/June 2011).

Since trading a senior writer’s position at Newsday in 2005 for the gifts and growing pressures of freelancing full-time, I have reported for a dozen or so news organizations, which have been roughly split between mainstream and black-oriented. Like many, I entered journalism, in part, to investigate topics, peoples, communities, that were/are not adequately covered in my hometown newspaper. I’m grateful for editors—of whatever race—who share my sensibilities for what constitutes a fuller scope of news and who pay me to get the story. I appreciate what black-oriented sites, in the main, are doing. And I recognize that it’s a double-edged endeavor: to what extent is “black” news on black sites and in black publications being relegated rather than spotlighted as part of the general public discourse? Were the media doing what we’re supposed to be doing, would the merits and risks of the current incarnation of black-oriented newsrooms even be up for debate? I share the concern of Newkirk, a former Newsday colleague, about who’s covering the news, and about the steadily declining tally of non-white mainstream journalists. While I very much agree there’s a place for a black news niche, I do wonder where this overall movement is leading.
Katti Gray
Brooklyn & Monticello, NY

I’ve spent nearly my entire career in black media, including nearly twenty-five years at Black Enterprise. The reason? Mainstream or “white” media couldn’t or wouldn’t compete for my skills and services. Even when African Americans in their newsrooms were at their peak, they were still woefully underrepresented. I’m not impressed with all the handwringing by media and newsroom execs about how distressed they are by the loss of African-American journalists and how important diversity is to them. Put your hanky away and compete by recruiting, paying, and offering the opportunities to advancement—all the way to the top—that we’ve earned and deserve.
Alfred Edmond Jr.
West Orange, NJ

We need a strong black press as well as great journalists of color in the mainstream. Online publications such as The Root have tapped into a niche. Magazines such as Black Enterprise and Essence have maintained their high quality over the years, while black neighborhood newspapers have struggled for lack of resources and brain drain. Wouldn’t it be great to restore some of those publications to their former glory?
Elaine Ray
Stanford, CA

Now that high-profile African-American journalists have been pushed out of “mainstream” media, black associations are taking notice. This article fails to mention other—not so high-profile—journalists who pointed out this trend ten years ago.

One local news site was started by Ann-Marie Adams, in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s now an award-winning news site. She realized she could cover her community better than the other media outlets there. Other black journalists should follow suit—start your own outlet or join others who are using the skills to empower their communities.
Boston, MA

Truth and Consequences
My compliments to John Sullivan for a thoughtful, well-researched article (“True Enough,” CJR, May/June 2011).

I am a former broadcast journalist turned public-relations consultant, and now run my own firm. I tell a story the same way now as I did when I was in broadcasting. I gather information, determine whether it is worthy of presenting, what is wheat and what is chaff, and publish or broadcast. I make my living in public relations and have for fifteen years, yet I’ve won awards as the best newspaper/online column writer and radio talk-show host in my market in the last year in head-to-head competition against full-time professional journalists.

It’s true that in any information-disseminating role, I operate from a certain point of view. The decision-making process itself, no matter how an individual applies it, imposes a point of view. The sooner we realize that no information is truly unfiltered or biased unless raw documents or unedited video is posted, the more adept we will be at processing that information.

There is very little difference between ethical journalists and public-relations professionals today. Both professions must be more aggressive about policing and calling out unethical practices, whether the egregious “pay for play” phenomenon of buying news interviews on local television or bankrolling front groups.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal
San Diego, CA

The central fact—that the ratio of PR flacks to reporter hacks has gone from near-parity to an almost four-to-one advantage for the flacks—cannot be spun.

Journalists may not be entirely independent, and we’re not all very good, but one thing about us: we don’t take pay from the people we write about. Even though doing so would improve our incomes to PR-practitioner levels.

Also, we don’t make excuses for people like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Unlike PR folks who, once in a while “burn” the public via dissemination of a whopper, journalists who do that really are finished. They go to law school or become consultants or life coaches.
Edward Ericson Jr.
Joppa, MD

Pay and Play
John Cook in his essay “Pay Up: Sources have their agendas. Why can’t money be one?” (CJR, May/June 2011) makes an excellent point, as others of us have argued, that the customary rationale for not paying the sources—that the payments will taint the information they provide—is dubious. Paid sources are just as likely to be eager to make sure their information is solid and truthful—in hopes of getting rehired—as they are to tailor it in fraudulent ways to keep the customer satisfied.

Moreover, if the ban is a way to ward off the corrupting effects of payment, it gives a pass to the ways that many sources are already paid in currency other than money—through prominence, enhanced prestige, and the like—and essentially denies the many less-favored sources who aren’t in a position to monetize those benefits the only reward that would actually work for them: hard cash.

Still, that doesn’t mean routinely paying sources would, on balance, be a good practice. After all, if journalism’s objective is to maximize the flow of accurate, publicly significant information, it’s hard to argue that making every source interview a sales negotiation would be a lubricant. It would certainly make the work of reporters harder, introduce a whole new legal morass of micro-contract disputes, and would undoubtedly drive up costs. Plus, it’s not even clear that it would encourage sources to come forward. Some might well be deterred by the prospect of being branded as money-grubbing informers.
Edward Wasserman
Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics
Washington and Lee University
Lexington, VA

In Lawrence Pintak’s “English Lesson” (CJR, May/June 2011), about Al Jazeera English (AJE), we reported that “only viewers in Washington, DC; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vermont—the three locations where a service provider offers AJE—could watch the channel’s Tunisia and Egypt coverage on TV.” We should have noted that viewers in other markets could watch AJE programming at times on channels like Mhz Worldview, which rebroadcasts international news programs from AJE and others, but that only viewers in those three locations had access to the entire channel as part of their cable package.

In Michael Shapiro’s essay “The Paper Chase” (CJR, May/June 2011), we printed: “Their Nubian goat was about to have a calf.” The sentence should have read that the Nubian goat was about to have a kid. No kidding.

In John Sullivan’s “True Enough: The second age of PR,” the author picked up a set of decimal-place errors from the book, The Death and Life of American Journalism (which the book will correct in the next edition). The piece should have said, “In 1980, there were about 45 PR workers per one hundred thousand population compared with 36 journalists. In 2008, there were 90 PR people compared to 25 journalists”—instead of the figures .45 and .36 for 1980 and .90 and .25 for 2008. The ratios remain the same. We regret the error.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.