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Editorial: Racist Content Damages The Public's Trust In News

Matthew Keefe via Flickr
Creative Commons via Flickr

The Albuquerque Journal’s decision to publish a racist cartoon in its editorial section on Wednesday, Feb. 7, drew a lot of criticism locally and across the country. Statements from the paper’s editors afterward didn’t do much to quell the outrage.

In the KUNM Newsroom, the cartoon and the Journal’s response to criticism had us talking about when to use the term ‘racist,’ and our responsibility as journalists. We overwhelmingly agreed that the cartoon was racist and I see that largely as a reflection of the diversity of our newsroom.

The thornier part of the discussion centered around my question of whether it was our place as journalists to describe the cartoon as racist in our coverage. It was clear to me after frank and honest discussion with my news team that all we needed to do was stick with the facts. The cartoon is racist, and we’ll say so in our news stories.

It’s not just a difference of opinion whether a behavior or action is racist. Rather it’s a difference of knowledge of the history, context and institutional systems that privilege white people and disenfranchise people of color in the U.S. and around the world.

As journalists with a commitment to truth, we have to call racist behavior and actions racist or we run the risk of empowering the same people, institutions and systems that reproduce racial inequality with wage gaps, poor health outcomes, fewer educational opportunities, and less financial stability.

The fact that this cartoon was published by the largest daily paper in a state where a majority of people identify as Hispanic sharply points out a long-term and systemic problem in the news industry. We are not making enough progress towards diversity in staffing, despite a lot of lip service. Most of the coverage of the cartoon and the backlash was written by white journalists.

Reporters and editors are used to being criticized and should be accustomed to honestly evaluating mistakes in tone or content. Real journalists own up and correct course.

Today, we’re fighting against allegations of “fake news” when people just dislike the facts. At the same time, journalism must right the wrongs of the past with regard to how communities of color are represented and covered. We're struggling to rebuild trust with a broad audience, especially in this state. Mistakes like the Journal’s damage that trust.


We'll continue this discussion on Let's Talk New Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 15, at 8:00 a.m. Email your comments to letstalk@kunm.org or tag us on Twitter #LetsTalkNM

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.
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