Blacks at UM expose flaws of student paper


November 09, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

I was in the audience last Thursday when editors of the Diamondback -- the student newspaper at the University of Maryland at College Park -- met with black students to discuss charges that the paper is biased in its coverage.

During the discussion, I found myself thinking of the story of the emperor who had no clothes.

The forum had been called by student members of the National Association of Black Journalists after an acrimonious three days: On Monday, somebody made off with about 10,000 copies of the Diamondback and replaced them with a sign accusing the newspaper of racism. On Tuesday, campus officials vowed that the persons responsible would be identified and punished. And on Wednesday, students held a massive anti-racism rally on campus.

Under the circumstances, the Diamondback editors -- Drew Weaver and Raja Mishra -- deserve credit for facing their accusers. The two editors were sincere. They were contrite. They seemed eager to do the right thing.

But they came to the meeting as naked as the fabled emperor: The Diamondback editors could offer no plausible defense against the charges of bias in their paper, no alibis, no credible excuses.

I almost felt sorry for them because they seemed like nice people. But the Diamondback has received more than enough sympathy from the national media. I choose to reserve my compassion for the beleaguered blacks on campus, who say they have tried for years without apparent success to be fairly represented by the student press.

Blacks accused the paper's editors of sensationalizing reports of black crimes on campus while down-playing crimes committed by whites. The editors apologized.

Blacks charged the paper's editors with ignoring events held by black fraternities and sororities. The editors apologized for that, too.

Blacks accused the paper's editorial page editor of endorsing candidates in the Black Student Union elections even though the paper scarcely covered the campaign and even though no one on the staff bothered to interview the nominees. The editorial page editor claimed he found everything he needed to know about the elections by reading the black student publications.

Said Corey Dade, editor of the Black Explosion, which is one of two black publications on campus: "If you don't want to use the 'R' word, you can call the Diamondback exclusionary in its coverage. Of course, exclusion on the basis of race is racism."

Explained Mr. Weaver: "What happens is, you have a lot of students who are learning, you have low minority participation, and you have white students trying to cover a community they are not actively involved in. It isn't racism. It is ignorance. Inattentiveness. We're trying to change that by instructing our reporters to go out and cover communities that are not their own."

Mr. Weaver urged blacks to work for the paper to help heighten the sensitivity of the staff. Two of the paper's 19 editors and six of its 20 writers are black.

"I categorically reject that idea as a solution to biased coverage," countered Shanon D. Murray, editor of the Eclipse. The Eclipse and the Black Explosion were established years ago because blacks were dissatisfied with the Diamondback.

Said Ms. Murray: "It is unfair to expect blacks to shoulder the burden of unfair coverage on their own. Fairness must be the responsibility of every single member of the staff. If it isn't, nothing is going to change. It can't be all one-sided."

Ms. Murray, who is attending school under a Baltimore Sun scholarship for minority students and who works for the paper during the summer, is right. Even professional white journalists have used "ignorance" as an excuse for biased coverage for far too long. The basic reporting techniques taught in Journalism 101 should be more than enough to ensure fair and accurate coverage of any community -- if the will to do so exists.

At Thursday's forum, black communications students exposed their white counterparts as, at best, incompetent when it comes to covering the black campus community.

The black students were well-informed. They were polite but firm. If no one else will say this, I will: I was really, really proud of them.

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