Make Your Call on the Washington Football Team Name

american-football-151765_150The NFL’s Washington Redskins have been around since 1932. The team’s nickname has been discussed, disputed and disparaged for a long time as well. In writing this column, I debated whether to use it.

In mid-June, the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office announced that it was tearing up the team’s trademark registration, finding that it was “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus could no longer be given trademark protection.

Is avoiding the term advocacy?

Team owner Daniel Snyder is on the record saying he will never change the team’s name and fans and supporters – including some Native Americans – embrace the name. Journalists and media outlets have taken a stand on the issue themselves.

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, the Washington Post’s Christine Brennan and NBC’s Bob Costas are some of the most prominent journalists who have called for a name change. On the other side, Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly has voiced support for the name.

The Pew Research Center reported last year that 76 journalists and news outlets such as The Oregonian (whose policy dates back to 1992), the San Francisco Chronicle, Slate and the New Republic have decided not to use the nickname. Poynter recently compiled its own list.

But is this kind of advocacy media outlets should be taking? Some argue that media outlets have always set a limit on terms that they consider offensive to readers, viewers and listeners. For example, refusal to use the n-word is nearly universal in American news media.

Others, though, argue that the term has long been part of the American lexicon, used by some Native Americans themselves. Changing it, they say, would simply give in to the “politically correct” police.

And yet opposition to the name from such organizations as the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Nation continues to grow – and is becoming more difficult for the news media to ignore.

If it offends, stop using it

So how should media outlets handle the Washington mascot controversy?

Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial page editor Mark Trahant, who is now the Atwood Journalism chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said it should be an easy call – if it offends, stop using it.

“With Washington you don’t have to go beyond the dictionary; (the) word is defined as a slur,” said Trahant, a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock tribe, in an interview via social media. “I remember repeating the R-word as a kid, early 60s. My dad told me that’s a word we don’t use. One test for journalists: Would you use the word in a community of Natives where you are not known? If no, then keep it out of sports pages.”

A Native American Studies professor and former journalism professor, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, wrote in an email that she believes the media’s role is to be a leader on the issue.

“What should media outlets do? The right thing,” she said. “I can’t believe there’s an editor alive who doesn’t know this term is offensive to many and for good reasons, both historic and contemporary. Hasn’t the public often relied on the media to set the moral high bar, provide guidance for ethical, responsible behavior and decision-making? Why stop short now?”

At the very least, every newsroom should have a brutally honest discussion about the name. More importantly – journalists must get beyond their comfort zone, take a stand and make a call whether or not to use the term.


Clyde Hughes is a freelance journalist based in Lafayette, Indiana, who wrote many years for the Toledo Blade. He has written for newspapers, magazines and websites around the country and taught courses on covering minorities in the media and media ethics as an adjunct professor.

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Donald Sterling: Not Just an Angel vs. Devil Story

There’s a lot that can be said of the saga involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. While the subject is a target-rich environment for news articles on diversity, sometimes we can get so homed in on the bad guy/good guy aspect that we miss other credible angles.

I attended a reporting on race workshop at the Poynter Institute in 2000 run by Keith Woods, who is now the vice president for diversity in news and operations at National Public Radio. One of the numerous takeaways I remember was that we as reporters often get locked into what he called “angel vs. devil” scenarios when reporting on race.

Reach for Complexity
The person making the perceived racial comment or taking the action is seen as evil, thus everything that person does or has done is viewed through that lens. Likewise, the victim of the perceived racial slight is almost always viewed more sympathetically, and is given a more supportive treatment. Woods tried to get us to step away from that paradigm and look at people involved in racial conflicts in all of their complexities.

That does not mean that Donald Sterling is not worthy of the critical reporting he has received. But reporters should not shy away from the complexities of the story. How does person who through his own words has such a negative view of African-Americans hire such a successful and strong-willed black coach as Doc Rivers? Or, on a more personal level, date a multiracial woman like V. Stiviano?

Likewise, how do we as reporters not critically look at Stiviano’s motives in recording Sterling?

Fresh angles on mental health, ethics

And how does our assessment of Sterling’s comments change if the “mentally incompetent” label sticks?

The initial reporting on the Sterling case brought up his contributions to the local branch of the NAACP and how the group had planned to give him a lifetime achievement award. I had a debate with other journalists on Facebook about this. Some believed the NAACP should never have taken money from Sterling. Others said fundraising is so difficult, especially for African-American and civil rights organizations, that Sterling’s generosity could be considered a “sin tax” and that the NAACP should have gladly accepted it.

That’s just one example of numerous angles that can be mined from the Sterling saga without getting into the “he said, she said” melodrama of the original story. At times we get so caught up in the tawdry details of the “angels vs. devils” that we miss other worthy topics.


Clyde Hughes is a freelance journalist based in Lafayette, Indiana, who wrote many years for the Toledo Blade. He has written for newspapers, magazines and websites around the country and taught courses on covering minorities in the media and media ethics as an adjunct professor.

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Language matters: Think before you write

DictionaryWhat does “elderly” mean to you? Is 60 “elderly?” Cyndi Lauper and Tony Blair, both 60, probably would not agree. Is 80 “elderly?” Perhaps, but why use the word at all? Simply state a person’s age.

What does “inner city” or “urban” signify to you? Probably not a Manhattan high rise along Central Park, although that location is urban and in the inner city.

Words can convey subtle and not-so-subtle meanings, depending on their context. “Inner city” often is a code word for a neighborhood of poor people of color. But using it to mean only that is inaccurate and unfair.

In news reports, we read and hear these types of descriptors all the time. I would argue that their use constitutes lazy journalism.

What about people who are in the U.S. without official documents? In 2011, SPJ approved a resolution that urged journalists to stop using the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.”

After the resolution passed, some accused the organization of having a political agenda. But, as SPJ has pointed out, this is a matter of accuracy. People without the proper paperwork have not been convicted of any crime. Because our constitution guarantees innocence until guilt is proven in court, these people may not be ruled “illegal” by journalists or anyone else except a judge or jury. In addition, a person cannot be “illegal.”

As journalists, we should use the words we actually mean rather than writing in code. On the word “elderly,” the Associated Press Stylebook has this to say: “Use this word carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the story.” List people’s ages, not judgmental descriptors.

Avoid using code words such as “inner city” or even “upscale.” When describing a neighborhood, research facts about that neighborhood rather than giving generalizations. Stereotypes are hard to break, but we can start working to fight them today.

Our own SPJ Code of Ethics states: “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.”

It’s an easy rule to follow if we think before we write.

Photo by Greeblie, courtesy Creative Commons License. Image by Denelson83, courtesy Creative Commons GFDL.

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Four ways to build a diverse panel, and why it matters

If you’ve ever walked into a room and been “the only one,” whether it involved race, gender or another factor, you know the feeling of exclusion that lack of representation creates.

The recent Online News Association conference in Atlanta featured a panel on “Disrupt Diversity,” which focused on journalism strategies to find sources outside comfort zones.

The panelists included one white male, Steve Buttry of Digital First Media, one black woman, Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, and one white woman, Jessica Valenti, columnist for The Nation. This is an example of a diverse panel whose speakers can offer a variety of perspectives. In fact, ONA made a particular effort this year to recruit a mix of panelists, with half of them women and 30 percent people of color.

Too many times panels and presentations feature people who come from similar backgrounds and have similar points of view. In fact, Rebecca Rosen wrote about this earlier this year in The Atlantic, calling on men who find themselves on all-male panels to refuse to serve. She was writing about technology and science, but journalism also is applicable.

Newsrooms continue to lack diversity, as shown by the American Society of News Editors’ annual census. Only 12.37 percent of newsroom staffs are non-white and only one-third of employees are female.

Finding people who represent a range of viewpoints is a helpful rule not only for journalism practice, but also for presentations. Whether we consider race, gender, disability, or any other difference, we must think about who is representing our organizations. Excluding part of the audience not only defies ethical principles, but it also is not good for business.

The excuses “we can’t find qualified minorities” and “we can’t find qualified women” often mean that people are not searching outside their own social and work circles.

Here are some ways to find a variety of speakers and sources:

  1. SPJ’s own Rainbow Diversity Sourcebook: http://www.spj.org/divsourcebook.asp
  2. The Women’s Media Center’s She Source: http://www.shesource.org/
  3. The CIIJ at San Francisco State University features links to several diverse journalism organizations: http://www.ciij.org/resources
  4. Many universities, including journalism schools, list professors and their areas of expertise on their websites, such as this one from Columbia Journalism School: http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/page/532-faculty-experts/

Please add your own links to diverse sources of information as comments to this post.

 

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Stories Have Power: Honor the Trust You’re Given

Who’s News is inviting top journalists and journalism educators to share their thoughts on inclusion in the news. Here, Teresa Trumbly Lamsam explains what two Native American journalists are learning as they curate a wellness blog.

Omaha, NE – As a journalist who cut her teeth on the copy desk, I should have pondered the likely editing woes in managing Wellbound Storytellers, a wellness blog written by non-journalists.

However, on reflection, I’m not sure well-laid Wellbound2plans would have worked.Why not? Because I’m the one who got “schooled.” All of those so-called editing headaches turned out to be lessons for me, the experienced editor.

I have condensed those lessons here as they relate to covering health, in particular, American Indian health and wellness.

Stories take time
As perhaps one of the few journalists still in love with the Inverted Pyramid, I value low word counts, aka, a story easy to cut. But people do not tell their wellness stories with a compelling nut graf in mind. At first, I was reluctant to get out of the way of a long personal narrative.

Fellow journalist and Wellbound blogger Rhonda LeValdo was more patient. “I think, if someone is going to tell you a really personal story, let them have the time to do that,” she said. “I don’t badger someone for information … like why they started doing certain things. Maybe it was a death close to them.”

LeValdo, past president of the Native American Journalists Association, said that people talk about personal health issues when they are ready, not just because you need to meet a deadline.

Sometimes, our journalism conventions get in the way of the stories.

Sharing creates vulnerability
The idea behind Wellbound Storytellers is to mobilize the collective, community nature of American Indians to be more transparent about our paths to wellness. The mission is to model the resiliency that characterizes the history and future of Native peoples.

We found that people were generally eager to talk about their health issues, but not as excited to share those stories openly. At first we were surprised. Levaldo and I were expecting other American Indians to share stories for the sake of community health.

In private conversations, people were passionate in telling us their stories. Everyone agreed that these stories needed to be out there, but few were willing to let it be their own stories.

Here are the main reasons behind the reluctance:

Stories have power: A shared belief among many American Indians is that stories in themselves carry power. Wellbound3 History has shown that trusting others with that power – whether reporters or readers – has not proven beneficial.

Storytelling skills: People are not confident in their writing or storytelling and don’t want others to judge them based on it. Also, storytelling is sometimes considered a quasi-official role in the community and therefore only the duty of some.

Embarrassment: For some, letting their health issues out there for the world to see is just embarrassing. Even minor considerations are a concern. As one potential blogger said,“What if I talk about my new healthy eating lifestyle and then someone sees me out eating cake!”

Consequences: What would others do with this personal information? Some worried about being fired if the tribal government found out they had cancer, for example. Others worried about ridicule. One blogger, who pushed past her fears, worried she would be shunned by the community for talking about controversial health concerns.

To a journalist, stories may just be part of the interview process. But for many American Indians, stories carry the wellness we need within them. At Wellbound Storytellers, we walk the balance between producing online content and carefully respecting the power of storytelling.

Teresa Trumbly Lamsam, Ph.D., is the editor and creator of Wellbound Storytellers and executive editor of Native Health News Alliance, a website for journalists under development. She is an associate professor in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Teresa, an enrolled member of the Osage Nation, is a former tribal press editor. 

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Telling their own stories: How two Native journalists got past gloomy health statistics to find stories of resiliency

Teresa Trumbly Lamsam, who founded Wellbound Storytellers

Teresa Trumbly Lamsam, who founded Wellbound Storytellers

Who’s News is inviting top journalists and journalism educators to share their thoughts on inclusion in the news. Here, Teresa Trumbly Lamsam explains why two Native American journalists decided to find a way to improve health coverage.

Omaha, NE – American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) have the poorest health status in the US and a lower life expectancy, including a higher rate (1.6 times non-Hispanic White population) of infant mortality.

AIANs also endure high levels of suicide and mental health concerns, obesity, diabetes, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, liver disease, and hepatitis.

As an American Indian journalist, educator, and tribal member, I was acquainted with the statistics. I could even put names and faces to many of those numbers.

The statistics may paint an accurate, revealing and even necessary picture of AIANs as the sickest people in the country. But after year after year of reporting and reading them, I became jaded about American Indian health news and maybe a little fatalistic.

I reached the “whatever” point. That point where you are ready to walk away and tell the status quo to have at it. But a reality check was right around the corner.

Rhonda pic

Rhonda LeValdo, former NAJA president, producer and host of “Native Spirit” radio show at KKFI 90.1 FM

As if on cue, my own health status became an issue, and given that my personality is not a good fit with cynicism, I shucked the jaded attitude and started looking for solutions. That search led me to Native journalist Rhonda LeValdo, who at the time was president of the Native American Journalists Association.

Turns out, health was on the top of her mind too, both personally and professionally. She was grieving the loss of family members to diabetes complications, and as a parent, determined that diabetes would not claim her or her children.

First we commiserated over the sad state of health reporting for American Indians in mainstream and tribal media. However, criticism wasn’t really doing it for us. We wanted to make a difference in news reporting – a difference that we hoped would also translate to better health in Native communities.

If teary eyes and passionate rhetoric could make a difference, we were well on our way. We left our meeting with a pledge to come up with an idea. Any idea would do because we were desperate to do something, even if it fell flat.

Wellbound ScreenshotSoon after I emailed LeValdo and suggested that we just blog about our own health journeys and recruit other Native journalists to join us. Within the first week of announcing the blog, American Indians who had read about Wellbound Storytellers were emailing to ask if they could contribute. The citizen health journalism blog was born.

Whether they are writing about disease or marathons, our bloggers focus on health through both traditional and contemporary frames using humor and everyday stories of resiliency. They come from all walks of life. Even the journalists write in a personal, conversational tone.

The statistics and perceptions about American Indian health paint us a pitiful people with an outlook of fatalism. The mission of Wellbound Storytellers is to show that health struggles and triumphs can go hand-in-hand. In your coverage of American Indians, consider striking this balance, too.

(Next up: Part 2 focuses on the lessons that Wellbound bloggers taught me about reporting on health and wellness.)

Teresa Trumbly Lamsam, Ph.D., is the editor and creator of Wellbound Storytellers and executive editor of Native Health News Alliance, a website for journalists under development. She is an associate professor in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Teresa, an enrolled member of the Osage Nation, is a former tribal press editor. 

(Photos courtesy of Teresa Trumbly Lamsam.)

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Hispanic Heritage Month: The Evolution and Celebration

Celebrations have been underway all weekend as Hispanic Heritage Month kicked off officially from September 15th through October 15.

Dancers during parade in Las Vegas.

Dancers during parade in Las Vegas.

The month pays tribute to the contributions Hispanics make and have made to the United States.  It also celebrates the different cultures and history brought to the U.S. from the ancestors of those from more than two dozen Spanish speaking countries.

The beginning of the celebration falls during a commemoration of Independence Day for several Latin American countries including Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.

As a reporter, I learned that this was initially just considered a designated week by federal lawmakers until the late 1980’s. That’s when it was changed into an entire month.

And a journalist was right there when it was transformed but Robert Lopez was not a reporter at the time. The current reporter for the Los Angeles Times recalls being a college student and congressional intern helping with the process of getting H.R. 3182 passed.

“It’s amazing to see it 25 years later,” Lopez says, “Nobody knew what would happen. We just wanted it to pass.”

Young charros with lassos

Young charros with lassoes

A quarter of a century later, it has grown very large across the United States. While there may be many events in your communities worthy of covering, during the initial week, this is a month long celebration. There is much territory that can be covered than just the “planned” events.

Lopez suggests using Latinos as sources, not just as subjects. He also says when writing stories about the community make sure there is a balanced perspective. There are many different countries or origins with complexities that cannot be lumped into together because of a common language.

While the Census estimates Hispanics are approximately 53 million, they are likely your readers, viewers and listeners as well. As the generations pass, many speak English and a growing number do not even know Spanish but hold tight to to their cultures and traditions.

If you’re not already consistently covering Hispanics in your news coverage, here is a good opportunity to expand over the next few weeks. There are stories everywhere from small businesses, unsung heroes, cultural traditions from the arts to food, and Hispanics are impacting the country economically.

Who knows how they could impact your newspaper or station?

Sandra Gonzalez is SPJ Diversity Committee Chair, Las Vegas SPJ Chapter Secretary,  NAHJ member, and reporter for KSNV-TV Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Ruben Salazar: Champion of Hispanic civil rights

A national journalism conference in Anaheim, Calif., last month provided an opportunity to learn about the Civil Rights Movement from the Hispanic perspective after a week of reminders of the famous Martin Luther King Jr. “dream” speech.

The Excellence in Journalism 2013 conference was sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am a past national president; Radio Television Digital News Association; and National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

A preview was shown of “Latino Americans,” promoted as the first major documentary series for TV to chronicle the history and experiences of Latinos in the U.S. It will air on PBS on Sept. 17.  Among those discussing the documentary afterward was Juan Gonzalez, author of a book, “News For All The People,” New York Daily News columnist and co-host of a syndicated TV and radio show, “Democracy Now!”

I met Gonzalez later at a book signing and mentioned I was the last editor of the El Paso Herald-Post in Texas in the mid-‘90s. During my time there, I became very interested in immigration issues since the community was 75 percent Hispanic and borders Juarez, Mexico.

Courtesy Special Collections UCLA/From Book Ruben Salazar/Border Correspondent

Courtesy Special Collections UCLA/From Book Ruben Salazar/Border Correspondent

Gonzalez took his book and pointed me to what he had written about Ruben Salazar, who began his reporting career with the Herald-Post in the 1950s and then moved on to the Los Angeles Times. He later went to KMEX, a Los Angeles Spanish-language TV station.

Sadly, he was killed at age 42 during a Vietnam War protest by young Chicanos. More than 25,000 participants converged in Laguna Park in east Los Angeles and a riot ensued after a minor disturbance led police to arrest a keynote speaker, Gonzalez writes. Salazar was killed by a sheriff’s deputy in a bar following the riot where he and a camera crew had gone for refuge. The circumstances surrounding his death remain in dispute.

Salazar was killed on Aug. 29, 1970, which was 43 years ago. At the time, he was the most influential Latino journalist of his era.

On the recent 50th anniversary of the speech by King at the Washington Mall, throngs gathered on that spot to hear President Barack Obama pay tribute.

Not nearly as many remembered Salazar, but Raul A. Reyes, a columnist for USA Today, did.

“Salazar deserves to be remembered for his crusade against social injustice, and because he devoted his life to empowering his community,” Reyes wrote.

Salazar’s legacy includes the formation of the California Chicano News Media Association, which led to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor in 2008.

(Courtesy of Knoxville Sentinel/previously published)

“Latinos Americans” premieres on PBS September 17th on PBS at 8pm Eastern.

Georgiana Vines is retired News Sentinel associate editor, and member of the SPJ Diversity Committee.

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Excellence in Journalism Conference= “Electric”

The Excellence in Journalism Conference in Anaheim was one of best conferences I ever attended. I heard the word “energy” being used to describe what was happening with the intermingling of three major journalism organizations all under one roof. I’ll even go one further: it was “electric”.

SPJ Diversity Fellows 2013 at Excellence in Journalism Conference

Fellows: Vianna Davila, Jocelyne Pruna, Sandra Gonzalez (SPJ Diversity Committee Chairman); Cheryl D’Mello, Maria Ortiz Briones, Francisco Vara-Orta, and April Bethea.

As SPJ’s Diversity Chairman, I was the “go to” person for six Diversity Fellows, hoping to encourage and expose them to the importance of diversity in our newsrooms and our coverage.

This year, having the National Association of Hispanic Journalists intertwined among the Society of Professional Journalists and the Radio TV Digital News Association was pure evidence of something wonderful. There were journalists everywhere, and as a longtime member of NAHJ, this was very interesting since I was wearing two hats at this conference.

As part of the program for the fellows, they were introduced to media industry leaders including Fox News Latino’s Director Francisco Cortes. During a luncheon with the fellows, Cortes shared his story of being injured while in the military, which opened up a window to writing. This “blessing” Cortes says eventually led him to a journalism career, where he is currently head of Fox News Latino. He started at Fox News as an apprentice.

Fox News Latino's Francisco Cortes give advice to SPJ Diversity Fellows

Fox News Latino’s Francisco Cortes give advice to SPJ Diversity Fellows

 

Cortes candidly shared pearls of wisdom to fellows including some suggestions to never be an employee who just “punches clock”; and to be humble and “hungry” in this career path.

The fellows also learned more about news management and diversity from Hugo Balta, who is president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and a coordinating producer at ESPN. He also has worked in management in several capacities including News Director throughout the course of his career in both English and Spanish language News.

Balta urged the fellows not to be afraid to take chances and swim against the tide with their storytelling. He also reminded them that sometimes it may mean being the unpopular person in the room, but bringing diversity into journalism is a “fight worth fighting”.

NAHJ President Hugo Balta speaks about diversity with SPJ Diversity Fellows

NAHJ President Hugo Balta speaks about diversity with SPJ Diversity Fellows

Balta, like Cortes was very straightforward with fellows and answered all kinds of questions on various matters in journalism.

Fellows also were introduced to SPJ leadership including both the SPJ and Sigma Delta Chi Boards. There was so much learning and networking in short amount of time. So many sessions made it difficult to choose. One of them brought forward from SPJ’s Diversity Committee helped spur story ideas from recent census data. Several dozen journalists attended this session.

While there was a lot of attention on enhancing our craft and becoming more involved in SPJ, we managed to find time for fun. Not only were new friendships forged but many memorable “moments” were experienced, from the receptions to hallways and ballrooms.

Journalists even found a few hours to get over to Disneyland and ride some roller coasters.

I think Excellence in Journalism 2013 will be one for the history books, and who knows, maybe the three organizations will clasp together again for another mega conference, reminiscent of all the “energy” that sparked from Anaheim this year.

Sandra Gonzalez is SPJ Diversity Committee Chair, Las Vegas SPJ Chapter Secretary, NAHJ member and reporter for KSNV-TV Las Vegas, Nevada.

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Youth shootings: All too often, journalists just shrug

Memorial service for Bijan Michael Shoushtari
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Devall

Under different circumstances, an assembly on the second day of the school year would’ve made almost anyone proud. Scores of teens turned out from Hamilton High – one of Los Angeles Unified’s most sought-after music and humanities magnets. Its Yankees football team represented in force, with forest green-and-white jerseys pulled over dress shirts and ties. Adults – parents, boosters, friends and relatives – crammed a modest South LA church to the rafters.

All this might have amused the young man at the center of the event, 18-year-old Bijan Michael Shoushtari, son of an African American mother and an Iranian father, had he been present in more than spirit.

The smiling young man whose prom portrait graced 500 printed programs had been shot to death barely a week before, in an apparent case of mistaken identity. At the time of his memorial service, the suspect was still at large.

The person who pulled the trigger likely saw black, not Persian. The gunman fired from a car that pulled alongside the one Shoushtari occupied with friends on a Saturday night near Crenshaw Boulevard, a popular cruising street.

The crowd at the young man’s memorial mingled constituencies that seldom spend much time together in LA – African Americans and Iranians; teachers, coaches and counselors who work with students from kindergarten through high school; a rainbow of middle-class parents and kids who’d known the Shoushtari family from the feeder schools that direct the luckiest students to Hamilton. By coincidence or intention, many in attendance wore pale brown, the Persian color of mourning that represents dying leaves.

It’s hard to imagine another “homegoing” that would have combined references to Khalil Gibran’s “On Children,” Rabbi Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” and Rev. William Sloane Coffin’s sermon after the untimely death of his son, Alex, alongside gems from the black sacred music canon including “Goin’ Up Yonder” and “What A Fellowship.”

All these influences shaped Shoushtari’s world and informed much of the coverage about his killing. Sure, the unusual constitutes news. But in an unintended consequence, the tone of stories about this young man conveyed a variation on the kind of comment journalists routinely record when gun violence happens among people in areas they consider safe: “This isn’t supposed to happen here.”

For many of the teen’s white and Asian American schoolmates, Bijan Shoushtari’s killing raised for the first time the kinds of dinner table questions worth asking whenever anyone falls victim to a shooting – like why someone as promising as their friend was vulnerable to a violent death.

That kind of query also challenges news decision-makers to steer clear of the assumption that this kind of shooting is supposed to happen anywhere and to pose necessary questions to ourselves:

  •  Does the culture of newsgathering too easily dismiss so-called routine shootings?
  • At what level do we accept the deaths and maiming of young people?
  • Does that unacknowledged complicity contribute to a culture in which this continues to happen?

Think about the times such questions compelled journalists to act – Barbara Davidson’s depiction of the aftermath of gun violence comes to mind – and resolve to learn from those examples.

The writer is a veteran public radio journalist who lives in Los Angeles. A version of this post appeared in the blog LA Observed.

 

 

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