Friday, April 19, 2013

Brown Guys, Bicycles, Mug Shots and Newsrooms

While the country reeled from a slew of horrific events this week, there was a sub-conversation going on around the Boston attack. Muslims on Twitter started to hope the terrorist wasn’t part of their faith – a digital prayer heard by The Washington Post, among others.  And a cluster of other voices, some South Asian like me, remembered how they were treated post 9/11 at airports, on the street.

My family was part of what some call security and what some call ethnic profiling. A few years ago, my dad was asked to disembark a flight after a vacation with my mom, presumably because his tan skin and facial hair made a fellow passenger uncomfortable. His car window was also smashed with a projectile beer can in a part of Florida that isn’t known for cultural diversity.

As I  followed both the unfolding of the Boston attacks and this culture clash, another, more petty, event came to mind. When my bike was stolen a few weeks ago, I met my bike thief in a failed attempt to get it back (more on that in a different blog). When I called the police right after,  they asked me to describe the young black guy who I had seen riding away. I did, in my adrenaline-pumped state, to the best of my ability.

But I looked at the picture my friend took of him later and I realized I got it all wrong. He was black, yes, but I told the police the wrong clothing, colors and height.  Just like the suspects, after the Boston bombing, were described as brown or black with a backpack. Only part of that turned out to be correct.

Now I’m going to try to make a graceful segue into an insightful article my friend shared with me earlier this week from the magazine Jacobin. The author, Laurie Penny, posits that objectivity in journalism is both unattainable and unnecessary. She said only middle-aged white men can be seen as objective in the West, since women and those of other ethnicities can be perceived as projecting the bias of their background on their work.

I’m not going to support or refute the idea of objectivity – it is something I test in daily life. But at a conference I covered this week someone suggested I must know more about doctors and medicine because I’m Indian. My family jokes that I write about “Indians, in India, doing Indian things” more often than I need to. And being a woman and minority has come up in several conversations with sources, in both negative and positive light.

As someone engaged in understanding my background, I am definitely sensitive to the subtleties and differences between Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Indians. Not to mention the vast differences between states in India, which can seem like different countries. This sensitivity, both learned and intrinsic, has proven a boon in journalism. It makes me hyperaware of people’s roots, of their worldviews.  But it's also limited. It didn't make identifying my bike thief any easier. And it didn't mean I could have guessed how the Boston story would unfold.

I think we miss the point when we talk about diversity in newsrooms, and the missing link adds to the messy journalism we saw this week. This is not a narrative solely about ethnicity. There are scores of non-minorities who are meticulous and careful to learn the differences between “shades of brown” and religious sects, just as there are plenty of minorities who don’t look too far into their own backgrounds.

Real diversity in a newsroom requires a depth of thinking and knowledge that takes time and attention to cultivate. I'm not sure where that stuff is getting lost -- maybe in education or job applications or networking, but I want to find out, because the amount of misinformation and misguided thinking I saw this week was disheartening. And if we're perpetuating cultural confusion in media, you can be damn sure it's being played out on our streets.

I guess my point, and hope, is this: when we’re telling a story – whether it’s one of violence or unity, or both – we need all hands on deck. And those hands should be a true reflection of the best of the world that we live in to make any sense of the truth.

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