Kwanzaa, Manti Te’o and respect

Kwanzaa, Manti Te’o and respect January 26, 2013

I enjoy reading other media critics and ombudsmen, (er, ombudspersons?) and thought about discussing this recent take on Kwanzaa coverage by NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos. He updated the post today and it gives me an opportunity to show it to you, too. You can read the initial column (“Gaining Or Losing Credibility By Humanizing A Reporter: A Kwanzaa Story“) for analysis of how NPR covered Kwanzaa on a couple of different programs.

The focus of the analysis is how a Morning Edition segment on Jan. 1 introduced and treated the topic. The host sort of interviews the reporter of the story — who, because he’s a black man, is also giving a first-person take on how he celebrates Kwanzaa — and it doesn’t exactly go well. In short, the reporter is a good personal example of a main point of the story about how celebration of Kwanzaa is on the decline. But this means that he’s a really bad “expert” source as a reporter on the story.

Much navel-gazing ensues, of course, and the host and producer of the show defend their use of an unknowledgeable source because it lends honesty and credibility to their reporting. Of course, listeners were less than pleased:

As Darcelle Gill of Leland, N.C., wrote:

“What a way to introduce Gene Demby, a journalist of race and ethnicity, to your NPR family/audience. I was disappointed to start my 2013 to hear an incomplete description of Kwanzaa.”

Exactly. No need to overthink this one. It’s disappointing as a listener to get an incomplete description of something.

Schumacher-Matos also made some references to how another NPR program — Tell Me More — approached the Kwanzaa story in a “standard” manner … by talking to an actual expert.

Michel Martin responds with an amazing smackdown:

I am annoyed by the characterization in your column of our treatment of Kwanzaa on Tell Me More as “the standard approach.” If you, or rather the person you quoted, had listened to the segment, or even read the transcript, then you would have seen that we actually accomplished what the Morning Edition piece attempted and failed to do. We explained the holiday AND made it personal (“human,” if you prefer) by inviting a person who both knew about AND had a personal connection with the holiday — and arrived at exactly the same place as Gene did which is to say, he doesn’t observe it (in the case of our guest, he used to and no longer does). Social media can make it EASIER, not HARDER to find things out. For example, you can reach out on Facebook or Twittter and ask if anyone is really observing the holiday and what they are doing? Knowing something and having fun with it don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

And one more thing — I think the thing that annoyed many listeners was the implication that there is something unknowable or not worth knowing about the subject. The thing about our listeners of color — in fact many people who don’t fit what they believe or have been made to feel is the NPR template or “core audience” — is that they want to feel that the thing that matters to them matters enough to us to be treated with respect. One habit of mind to consider: would you treat a different subject — something you cared about — the same way? That often helps me when I’m trying something new.

And yes, we DID know the seven principles.

Habari Gani to you too.

(Emphasis mine.) And then, I imagine, she dropped the mic and walked off stage.

I so appreciate a journalist “getting” this. It’s not just alienating and hurtful to have the things that matter to you be treated with extreme disrespect, although it is those things. It is also annoying to notice that the reporter knows nothing about the thing he’s supposed to be informing you of. But I can’t help but think that this lack of respect from journalists to consumers of the news produces an extreme lack of respect toward journalism, too. And so we get this vicious cycle.

For some reason I’m linking this to another interesting essay I read.

An ethnographer of Samoan culture — who also has an expertise in Internet romance, of all things — had some interesting things to say about the Manti Te’o situation. I don’t really understand why we live in a country where people care more about Beyonce lip-synching and fake girlfriends then, say, the various and sundry ways in which al Qaeda is engaging its opponents in Libya, Mali and Algeria (about which more soon …) but we do. And if we’re going to have wall-to-wall coverage of lip-synching and fake girlfriends instead of the obviously unimportant issues such as the motivation and tactics of various terrorists, can’t it at least be slightly better coverage?

Kwanzaa image via Shutterstock.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

3 responses to “Kwanzaa, Manti Te’o and respect”

  1. Wasn’t there another famous Samoan hoax? Wasn’t Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, hoaxed by a pair of Samoan girls into advancing her main thesis in” Coming of Age in Samoa,” that all Samoans practised free love as teens and that therefore all sexual morality was learned and not innate or natural, and Smoan society was free of all the bad things in Western culture.. So believed Derek Freeman, who wrote about it in “Margaret Mead and Samoa, the Making and Unmaking of a Anthropological Myth”, after researching the matter at some length in Samoa and interviewing the girls who were Mead’s informants. He exposed her descriptions of Samoa as moonshine.

  2. I missed the program and the responses. But here’s my pet peeve as a religion journalist about how Kwanzaa is normally treated by the news media: It’s mentioned as if it’s a religious holiday. E.g. “Whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanzaa this year . . . ” Kwanzaa isn’t an alternative to any other religious holiday, but is a cultural celebration intended to be compatible with a variety of faiths including Christianity. If reporters want to treat Kwanzaa with respect, they should get that right.