Some readers were offended by caricatures

One of the significant "Aha" moments of my career involved the U.S. military's excursion into Somalia in the 1990s. Earlier this month, I was reminded of the lessons I learned that day when The Herald published some caricatures for a Black History Month quiz.

One of the biggest lessons is that readers look at our work differently depending on their backgrounds and life experiences.

I was an assigning editor at The State newspaper in Columbia during the excursion. As I recall, our troops were initially greeted as heroes. But, as the days and weeks passed, people began opposing our presence. One afternoon, a photograph moved on our wire services that showed an American soldier with several young children. The photo showed the soldier kicking one of the children.

The editors who gathered for our afternoon "budget" meeting -- when decisions are made about the stories and photographs to display in the next day's newspaper -- believed it was our duty to run the photo fairly large on the front page.

It's the media's responsibility to give fair and balanced coverage of all institutions, including the military. Through the years, we have done an exceptional job reporting on the courage and sacrifices of our troops. Most journalists I know have great respect for those who devote their lives to keeping our country free.

But when we have a photo that shows another aspect, it's our responsibility to show that, too. The editors saw an American soldier acting with meanness. And because the soldier appeared to be responding to something the children did, the photo also showed the increasing animosity toward our military in that country.

Unfortunately, all the editors in that day's budget meeting were white.

The next day, many African-Americans in Columbia were outraged that we ran the photo, and that we ran it so big. To them, the photo's display endorsed the soldier's actions. As one person said, the message was that this is how you deal with unruly black children.

The photograph emphasized to me that readers view our work through their own backgrounds, experiences, communities and many other factors. As we are making decisions, we need to take into account all of those viewpoints.

It also showed the value of having diverse newsrooms. Every newspaper I'm aware of is committed to diversity. And every newspaper I know of believes it should increase diversity. That includes The Herald, where only two of the 32 newsroom staffers are African-American.

I was reminded of these lessons on Sunday, Feb. 3, when our Lifestyles section published the Black History Month quiz. The quiz, prepared by one of our wire services, included caricatures of people referenced in the quiz, most of them African-Americans.

I winced when I saw the caricatures that Sunday morning. I worried that the drawings focused on several stereotypes.

Because it was a Black History Month package, I believe the artist had no intention of producing drawings that would offend African-Americans. Still, I was afraid it would.

Since then, I've had several conversations with African-American colleagues and others around York County. All were troubled by the drawings.

I'm sorry we caused that. Nobody in my newsroom sets out to intentionally offend someone in this manner. We know some stories will upset some people, and that goes with the job. But this was an effort to educate. And the effort likely was overshadowed by the drawings.

The package has reinforced the need for newspapers to consider how people from different backgrounds view our work. And it verifies the ongoing need for building diverse newsrooms.