Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: 5 ways we’re working to better cover the breadth of our community

Staff Photographer

It was a well-intended turn of phrase that ended up offending readers.

Back in January, we sent one of our best reporters to an event we cover every year — the annual Tacoma gathering to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

She wrote a story describing speeches both fiery and poignant, all centered on the theme of helping young African Americans achieve their dreams.

Halfway through the story was a sentence that included the phrase “colored youth.” I remember cringing when I read it in the next day’s paper. It had been decades since I’d heard anyone use that word.

By the time I got to work, we’d already heard complaints from readers and members of the newsroom about it.

When asked, the reporter said she heard the phrase used during the event, albeit not by the person to whom it was attributed. And after hearing speakers talk about black people and brown people, she thought this was an acceptable alternative phrase.

We promptly removed the word from the story online and ran a correction in the next day’s paper.

But more importantly, we talked with reporters and editors about the importance of word choice, particularly when writing about our communities of color. Some words are not OK for us to use when describing a group of people, even if they use the words to describe themselves.

This was the second conflict in a month regarding our coverage of the local African-American community. Weeks earlier, we met with members of a young activist group who didn’t like how we reported a death on Tacoma’s Hilltop. They were right that we should have done better.

Clearly we needed to make this a priority and begin building or rebuilding trust with important segments of our community. It’s not only about covering African Americans but all communities of color, along with other groups of people who don’t make the pages of our paper frequently enough.

We called for volunteers from the newsroom and easily filled a conference room.

The challenges are considerable. The first is that our newsroom is not as diverse as the community we cover.

As one new source told me after the word “colored” showed up in print, one black reporter or editor working on that story would have instinctively and instantly known not to use it.

Covering communities of color means cultivating their members as sources, learning what stories matter to them and including their voices in communitywide stories.

If we’re not careful, our stories on any given beat too often rely on the same sources. Reporters cultivate them and depend on them for information. We need to get out and find new ones.

As our columnist Matt Driscoll said in the staff meeting, this is not about political correctness, it’s about more accurately covering the entirety of our community, not just the same old portion of it.

We want this effort to become a part of our DNA, so we’re taking a multipronged and long-term approach. Here’s what we’re doing:

▪ Writing stories — Each of our reporters will write an in-depth story at least twice a year about a community of color or other group underrepresented in our coverage. Better yet, they’ll write a story off their regular beat, but from the perspective of different sources.

You’ve already seen several of these stories. Derrick Nunnally introduced readers to the new imam at the Islamic Center of Tacoma. Craig Sailor wrote about efforts to register Cambodian seniors to vote, oftentimes for the first time in their lives. Debbie Cafazzo featured the Ballet Folklorico de Roosevelt, made up of elementary school students twirling to Mexican folk dances.

These stories came with beautiful photographs and videos that gave readers a visual glimpse into a way of life and hopefully allowed more people from our community to see themselves in the pages and pixels of our coverage.

▪ Expanding our sources — From these efforts, we are meeting more people who will inform our coverage for years to come. We are adding diversity and variety to the newsroomwide shared source list we use to find people to write about or to comment on events in the news.

▪ Training our staff — One of our reporters has served as a diversity trainer. He is developing lessons about the demographic makeup of our community, about what it’s like to be a person of color and about how to be sure we’re using appropriate language. We plan to invite community members in to help us with those efforts.

▪ Creating a minority internship — The most organic way to diversify our coverage is to diversify our staff, and we’re interested in growing our own. In addition to recruiting for full-time staff positions, we’d like to create an internship for a young person of color, ideally from our own community. We’re searching now for partners interested in helping us.

▪ Going on a listening tour — Lastly, we’re planning visits to places we don’t normally go, looking for stories we don’t usually write about people we don’t often talk to. We’re on the lookout for “untold” stories that are less about an event or a crime and more about real-life experiences from a different perspective.

I’m personally leading this effort and inviting staff members to join me.

Last month, I attended the first-ever candidate forum hosted by the Puget Sound Latino Chamber of Commerce. The panel included Latinos and Latinas running for the Legislature, lieutenant governor and Congress, both Republicans and Democrats.

I went to listen for the issues that mattered most to the 40 or so people who attended. Two concerns rose to the top: educating their children and helping small businesses.

As each of the candidates briefly told his or her life story, it became clear why those issues mattered.

Many were first- or second-generation immigrants. Education was their ticket to a better life for them and their children. And many got their financial start by opening their own businesses. Both can be challenging for people who don’t initially speak the language or understand the system.

At the forum, I met Martha Cerna and Esther Day, two Latinas dedicated to helping others navigate those systems. Another editor, a reporter and I met with them again last week over ice tea at Freighthouse Square, a building filled with people of color running small restaurants. For two hours, they shared stories both inspiring and disheartening about the struggles they see.

They agreed to alert us to more story opportunities and to meet with our staff. We invite others to do the same and to suggest future stops for our listening tour.

It’s but one step on a long journey to more fully and accurately cover this beautifully diverse community.