The discussion topic at Wayne State a few days ago was multi-layered, compelling and as timely as today's news. Actually, news coverage of Detroit was the topic.
Four current and former local media members spoke about how hometown and national reports on the city's revival regularly bypass longtime residents' contributions in favor of those by young newcomers -- "the savior narrative," as panelist Darrel Dawsey dubs it.
"The conversation was thought-provoking, frank and deeply intelligent," posts Kim Trent, another participant and an elected member of WSU's Board of Governors.
The hour-long conversation Saturday at WSU's Student Center Ballroom was part of a conference organized by Unity: Journalists for Diversity, a national group that "advocates fair and accurate coverage about diversity."
A comprehensive look at the Detroit-focused panel titled "Reporting Beyond the Narrative" is posted by Richard Prince, who came from Alexandria, Va., to cover it for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, where he's an online columnist.
The discussion -- moderated by Alicia Nails, director of WSU's Journalism Institute for Media Diversity -- kicked off with each participant citing a coverage example "that fails to take into account the contributions of old Detroit/ers and/or the human cost of the 'new,' " as Nails put it.
Here's who spoke and the "Exhibit A" each cited:
♦ Louis Aguilar, Detroit News business reporter, critiqued the freshest example -- a day-old News blog post by Hubbard Farms resident Chad Rochkind, headlined "Detroit's Revitalization Begins in the Streets." In last Friday's contribution, Rochkind describes creating a "parklet" public space at a Michigan Avenue curbside parking spot outside Astro Coffee. The white Detroiter writes: "The parklet was an immediate hit and instantly beloved by the community." Prince reports:
"Say what? Who is 'the community?' Aguilar asked. In the 2010 U.S. Census, Detroit was 82.7-percent black. The photo accompanying Rochkind's blog piece showed nearly everyone to be white.
♦ Darrell Dawsey, former Detroit News reporter and Deadline columnist, pointed at "A Gleam of Renewal in Struggling Detroit," a New York Times travel article (right). "In this ailing city, people look at Corktown as a bright example of what rebuilding can do," a freelancer wrote in July 2014. No black faces were shown as "white people were being cast as saviors of the city," Dawsey is quoted as saying.
♦ Kim Trent, former Detroit News reporter, nominated a 2010 NBC News "Dateline" piece that showed Detroiters reduced to eating coon meat and chef Anthony Bourdain's 2013 season finale of "Parts Unknown" on CNN. Prince writes that Trent told the audience:
"He [Bourdain] literally did not show one neighborhood where blight doesn't rule the day. I get that stark visual images are sexy to national media outlets and I'm not delusional about the fact that many of the city's neighborhoods are in horrible shape.
"But do you really think 700,000 people would live in a city where the only neighborhood choices are blighted urban prairies or hipster strongholds?"
♦ Luther Keith, former Detroit News editor: As the founder of Arise, a coalition of community groups, he sees coverage of its improvement campaigns as disproportionate. Prince reports:
Keith said, "Somehow the people in the neighborhoods don't get enough credit for the work they do." On Aug. 1, Arise Detroit staged its ninth annual Neighborhoods Day, with more than 250 community organizations pitching in to clean up the city. No other city has such an event, Keith said.
Nine days earlier, the Detroit Free Press wrote — inside the paper — about the record level of participation, but The Detroit News ran an Associated Press story in advance of the event, Keith said. "The only time we've been on the front pages is when outsiders are telling their story, but nothing about the black folks they were working with."
Prince's detailed column also quotes local journalists Vickie Thomas of WWJ; WDET host Bankole Thompson, who's also a weekly Detroit News columnist, and Walter Middlebrook, an assistant managing editor at The News.
The WWJ reporter is quoted as sharing an astonishing anecdote:
Thomas recalled that when City Councilwoman Brenda Scott died in 2002, a producer at her station suggested, "Let's call Coleman Young," who had died in 1997.
The Maynard Institute staff writer notes that the four panelists "could also name pieces that got it right:"
- An August NPR story, "Who Fixes Detroit? Young Black Detroiters Want to Resurrect a Lost Neighborhood" by Kinsey Clarke.
- "Surprising — no, astonishing — Detroit revival taking root" from January by David Olive in the Toronto Star.
- "An Insider's Guide to Detroit" by Tracie McMillan in the Wall Street Journal in June [subscribers only].
- Columns by Nolan Finley, the white, conservative editorial page editor of The Detroit News . . . [including] "Black input lacking in Detroit's revival."
- Steve Neavling, a white journalist who writes for Motor City Muckraker, was also praised. "He's in the community. He's embedded," Darrell Dawsey said.