Members of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association gathered Tuesday night in Oakland for a heated discussion regarding a recent East Bay Express cover story, “The Making of a Criminal.” BABJA president Bob Butler, who wrote a letter to the editor regarding the story, convened the gathering of about twenty local journalists, as well as Emani Davis of Youth Uprising and other nonprofit organizers, to raise issues and concerns primarily with the usage of the mugshot of Cyrioco Robinson with the headline “The Making of a Criminal” on the cover.
Express editor Stephen Buel and I listened to and addressed the attendees’ dismay that the image and headline perpetuated negative stereotypes of young, African-American men with dreadlocks as criminals. Davis and others were also concerned that the cover and story had been unfair to Robinson. The meeting’s organizers concluded that the packaging had deterred some people from reading the article, and discussed the possibility of an advisory council to serve as a watchdog for controversial media coverage in the Bay Area. After the meeting, Buel wrote the following letter to Butler and the association:
Thanks for your note. I appreciate you and BABJA extending the invitation, although I left our panel discussion feeling unsatisfied, and suspect that others did too. I regret that I had to leave before we’d talked the issue out.
I learned a lot Tuesday night, and would handle our cover differently next time. Obviously, I didn’t yet understand the issue, and won’t pretend to be expert now. But I heard people’s anger and hurt, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I am sorry for the genuine anguish our cover caused people and am also sorry if it discouraged the aspirations of young readers. Neither of those was our intention.
I love working at the Express precisely because I believe that long-form journalism offers the best forum to constructively engage the issues facing society. Race relations is one of the issues that matters most to me and the paper, as I believe the legacy of our coverage and my career clearly shows. In fact, Tuesday’s discussion was uncomfortable for me because I left the meeting feeling racially stereotyped myself. Having now felt the sting of what people in the crowd were describing, I can honestly say that I get it in a way that I didn’t previously.
I agree with both the points you made in your e-mail. Our cover obviously discouraged many people from reading our story. And a more diverse staff would certainly improve many elements of our coverage. That’s why, during my five years at the previously all-white Express, I have hired the paper’s first four African-American, Asian-American, and Latino editorial employees, and recruited many other writers, photographers, and illustrators of color. I remain committed to increasing the diversity of our staff and would welcome BABJA’s assistance in helping to identify talented young journalists.
Throughout my 25 years in journalism, I have occasionally relied on colleagues and friends to backstop my judgment. Clearly, I should have done so in this case. While I prefer such relationships to be individual rather than institutional, I would be happy to call upon you personally in the future.
Please feel free to share this note with other members of the association.