Washington Post reporters visit UI campus
Monday, October 27, 2008
Washington Post reporters Darryl Fears and Robert Pierre fear black Americans today are being
defined more by their images in popular culture than their lived experiences. Media coverage of
African American society, they feel, has barely scratched the surface - promoting a narrow range
of “caricatures" rather than tackling the subject with explicit detail.  
Eight years ago, Fears and Pierre sought to reveal those overlooked corners of African American society
that rarely receive a second glance. Devoting months to the development of individual profiles, their work
culminated with the Washington Post's multimedia series Being a Black Man winning the 2006
Iowa Gallup Award.
"We wanted a panoramic view of who black men are," Fears said. "The good, the bad
and the ugly."
Visiting The University of Iowa, Fears and Pierre discussed divisive issues of race in the media,
sharing both their thoughts and experiences while working on the
acclaimed feature series.
To capture the idiosyncrasies of African Americana – beyond what Fears
described as the “typical sports and crime stories” – Fears and Pierre took a more involved
approach. They embedded themselves within the lives of many of their sources.  
The reporters not only listened to their sources' experiences - they observed them firsthand.
Before Black Voices for Peace founder Damu Smith succumbed to colon cancer, Fears drove the
ailing Smith to medical appointments.  He visited Smith in the hospital.  He held his hand through
rigorous chemotherapy. When the civil rights activist lost his yearlong battle, Fears was there.
Smith was not a lifelong friend of Fears – he was a source.
"I became part of his life, as it was," Fears said.
When asked if he felt he had crossed any ethical boundaries, Fears was adamant.
"In this case, no," he said. "When you're digging deep into someone's life in a way nobody has, I think you can get close and still remain objective."
Pierre spent months observing a suburban family of three in Stafford County, Virginia, accompanying them to church service, social events and extended family outings.  Pierre's focus, a nine-year-old boy named Marcus, was entering the pivotal age when many minority children begin a social and academic downward spiral. Pierre watched as Marcus's parents did everything in their power to make sure this didn't happen.
"I filled up 10 of these," Pierre said, holding up a small notepad. His long term and personable interaction gave Pierre the opportunity to experience the source's plight firsthand. "You can't write the blues if you haven't had the blues," Pierre said.
Fears encourages journalists to relax and give sources a "bit of humanity." For a source to understand that a journalist is listening sincerely – acting beyond the role of stenographer – is essential, Fears said.
Rather than seeing themselves as entirely objective, Pierre feels journalists should instead recognize the biases they bring to the table, compensating those biases accordingly. Although bias is unavoidable, balance is certainly attainable, Fears said.
"I'm a thinking human being who has viewpoints on the world," Pierre said. He patronized a former Washington Post editor who "famously" refused to vote under the principle of objectivity.
"To hell with not voting. That's how democracy works," Pierre said.
Fears cited eccentric rapper turned reality television star William Drayton Jr. a a microcosm of black America's media woes. Known by the moniker Flavor Flav, Drayton is best known for the wall clock hung around his neck and turning his own alias into a pop culture catchphrase.  His reality television show puts him in a California mansion with 20-25 women who compete for his affection.
"Flavor Flav is a caricature of a black person, yet he has a show," Fears said. "I look at that, and I think, 'what the hell's going on here? We're reverting to these caricature images of African Americans we saw at the turn of the last century.'"
Pierre feels viewers’ inherent pessimism helps keep these television shows afloat.
"Everybody watches for a train wreck," he said, simply.
Fears and Pierre condemned Black Entertainment Television (BET) for failing to pursue a more in-depth approach to African American society. Though BET launched with the right intent, things quickly went downhill for the network according to Pierre.
"BET gave many good jobs to African Americans, but there are two sides," Pierre said. "At the end of the day, they didn't do what they could have done." BET's closure of its news division was a significant low point, Pierre said. Pierre and Fears compared BET to standards set by other networks such as Telemundo, a Puerto Rican television network which Fears said  has done great things for Latino Americans.
Though, Pierre and Fears believe these problems may someday be corrected.
"We ought to have people in the newsrooms making decisions that look like the community they cover," Pierre said, implying the need for greater racial diversity in the newsroom. "I think anybody can report on a community fairly no matter what their race is, but there are some who can go deeper."
Fears remains optimistic, but understands challenging the status quo is time-intensive.
"This country still has a way to go," he said.
Washington Post reporters visit UI Campus
Monday, October 27, 2008