Student guest post: A voice other than our own

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Allison Tate is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting. A native of Caswell County, North Carolina, she has served as a staff writer and photographer at The Caswell Messenger and as co-editor of the Durham VOICE.

Pat and I stood in the old “backshop” of The Caswell Messenger, peering at the freshly printed proofs of the newspaper that would land in mailboxes tomorrow, Wednesday or next week depending on how the post office behaved.

The white-haired, longtime office manager of the Caswell County newspaper had become the principal photographer of community events. The page of photos in front of us was, if memory serves, of a concert held at the pavilion down the street.

While she had definitely seen more of life than I had, she had also seen more of Caswell, too. She was a veteran newspaperwoman; I was a bright-eyed newbie who had been interning at my hometown paper for two months.

I asked her what she thought of the page. Had I used the photos she had liked most? She smiled just as she always did when I showed her the B-section pages I designed. She said that I had. Then her voice lowered as she told me about a concern that seemed to hover over her whenever she ventured out with her camera.

Someone always seemed to be rubbed the wrong way come Wednesday, she told me. Someone would tell her that the quantity of the photos favored the community’s African-American population. Others would tell her that there were too many photos of whites.

Racism was a problem that plagued our little community newspaper in the rolling hills of rural North Carolina, and it played a part in how stories were presented.

As I’ve had time to ponder that afternoon and to look around at the media outlets that surround, I’ve realized that racism’s role in the media isn’t limited to America’s small-town newspapers. And its effects don’t just come in the form of self-conscious photographers. The effects of racism touch media outlets in our urban centers, too, and it affects what—and how—stories are covered.

Northeast Central Durham, home to the Durham VOICE, continued my education after that summer at the Messenger. The impoverished inner-city community, if you’ve heard of it, has a less-than-stellar reputation. Authorities refer to it as the Bull’s Eye for its criminal activity. Homeless men and women roam its streets. The houses that aren’t being gentrified are falling into disrepair.

And there we are, a cohort of mostly white UNC-CH students that switches out semester after semester, roaming the community and telling the stories that seem to have either been unseen or unacknowledged as newsworthy by the larger media outlets. While others have heard of Northeast Central, we get to know it.

To know it is to know Samuel Jenkins and why he decided to keep his barbershop on Alston Avenue.

To know it is to meet Wanda Boone and see her eyes brim with tears over the sadness of losing teenagers to overdose and the joy of seeing her mission to end overdose gaining ground in the community she loves.

To know it is to meet Phyllis Terry, the owner of J.C.’s Kitchen with a beaming smile who took charge of the restaurant after her sister’s death.

To know such a place is to love it and to learn from it.

Of the seasoned media professional I ask, what communities like this have you heard of, and what communities like this have you known? Of the journalism student who is fresh out of the gate I ask, what communities will you take at face value, and what communities will you immerse yourself in?

It would be a denial of the truth to say that race — which, unfortunately, touches every corner of our society — doesn’t affect the way the media informs and shares with readers. It is not a denial of the truth, however, to say that the issue of racism is here, that we can learn from communities like Northeast Central and that through learning and knowing we can make a difference in our profession that has long been overdue.