Style point: Have you ever met a 'white' person or a 'black' person?

I am developing the new syllabus for my fall journalism course at Rutgers and I will be re-enforcing the need for telling the truth in journalism. No longer will my students refer to a “black” person or a “white” person. They will have to use their creative vocabularies to come up with a different way to describe people when writing news stories.

I have never met a “black” person and I certainly have never met a “white” person. This truth has been a part of my teaching for eight-years, but beginning in the fall students will not write stories using those terms.

To make my point, I ask a “white” student if he or she has “black” friends. If they do, I promise I will give them $100 for an introduction. With the same promise I ask a “black” student if he or she has “white” friends. Every time the answers are enthusiastically affirmative to having “black” and “white” friends. They salivate looking forward to the cash as any college student would. You should see them preparing to text their friends on their cell phones.

I then approach the very same students holding a white piece of paper and say, so your friend is the color of this paper, yes? Holding a black object to another student I state, so your friend is the color of this black object, yes? At that point the students realize what the journalism community as a whole refuses to acknowledge and that is, there are not “black” and “white” people. The students understand that they mistakenly lied because they were lied to by society and the journalism world.

As they immediately recognize this, they also sadly realize they are not getting the $100.

“Plez ignor last txt. splain latr.”

Journalism is about telling the truth. Unfortunately when it comes to describing Americans, journalists steadfastly refuse to be truthful. It’s convenient to refer to someone as “black” or “white.” It’s inconvenient to take the time to be creative and describe people in other more truthful ways. Now, that is an inconvenient truth! For instance, I have met many African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jamaican-Americans and Polish-Americans. None were “black” or “white.”

In acknowledging this truth journalists are forced to face the rather uncomfortable fact that “black” and “white” are terms created for social-economic reasons with little regard to the true identities of people.

It was just two-years ago that the Associated Press Stylebook finally caught up with the rest of the world in using the term African-American, but it still claims that there are people who are “black.” It reads that the “term ‘black’ is acceptable for a person of the ‘black’ race.” I think one of my students not only could teach the AP editors the truth about “black” and “white” people, but they could also explain to the so-called “the journalist’s bible” that there is not a “black” race or a “white” race for that matter. There is only one race. It’s called human. That’s a simple fact that any anthropologist would support. Again, it’s about telling the truth and mainstream media have their collective heads in the sand.

I do look forward to the day when the terms “black” and “white” are not used to describe Grenadian-Americans, Kenyan-Americans, British-Americans and French-Americans. More to the point, I look forward to the day when journalists will simply refer to subjects as Americans and only use the ethnicity description when needed for journalistic reasons.

By the way, the offer still stands. I will give $100 to anyone who introduces me to a “black” or “white” person. I am just aching to meet one.

The need for a 'digital media pyramid'

[Editor’s note: A reminder: Friday, Feb. 19, 2010 is the deadline to apply for the 2010 News Entrepreneur Boot Camp. Please consider applying if you’re looking for better training on how to make your online news publishing efforts an income-producing business.]

The advent of the Internet and digital age of communications has brought forth the expected decline of newspapers at a faster pace than many business journalism experts predicted. A major part of the decline results from publishers not adjusting their products and news gathering techniques fast enough to changing technologies. Publishers competed in a digitally dominated world using analog-based technologies, business models and journalism techniques.

One news gathering technique still being taught to practicing and aspiring journalists is the more than a century-old use of the Inverted Pyramid, which guides the construction of writing predominately print news stories. The Inverted Pyramid is analog. A new paradigm known as the “Digital Media Pyramid” has found a place among some young writers and journalists.

The basic premise of the Inverted Pyramid remains sound, but the device desperately needs to be adjusted for the fast-moving digital world. The Inverted Pyramid has had its detractors throughout the years, many of whom assumed that it would be forgotten as a once-vital part of news gathering. But what the Inverted Pyramid provided that was hard to replace in the deadline world of news was the ability to quickly present facts, first to the editor and then to the consuming public.

The Inverted Pyramid is presented to journalists as an up-side down triangle with the top representing the most important facts to be presented, since this is what editors demanded and the consuming public needed for competitive reasons. Next, the Inverted Pyramid presents secondary information that would be connected to additional details supporting the reported facts. In essence, the most important facts are presented first, then repeated and supported by detailed information.

This presentation of news facts worked quite well during the latter part of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, especially since during that time many news reports were first sent via telegraph, and then eventually by other analog transmitters like broadcast television, radio and satellite.

Journalism historian Chip Scanlan believes the Inverted Pyramid may have never come into existence were it not for the telegraph. In the opinion of Scanlan and many other journalism scholars the telegraph was just as revolutionary during its time as the Internet is today. Unlike the Internet though, in real dollars, the telegraph was much more expensive. Therefore, a briefer, smarter presentation was needed to communicate initial facts. In its early days the telegraph cost as much as one penny per character to transmit. That’s a price even Twitter would love today!

During the civil war that one penny per character was a financial strain on newspapers trying to cover a conflict spread along many miles. The price of words dictated brevity, clarity and a concise writing style that permeates much of today’s news writing. In total, newspapers were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars paying for wire service transmissions and at the time, just as today saving money was paramount. The resulting writing style was drastically different from the flowery prose typical of the static media of previous generations. So teaching an Inverted Pyramid approach to writing news was convenient and it matched the revolutionary technology of its time.

With the advent of the Internet, brevity was just as important, but equally important were the many layers of digital information that could be distributed quickly and cheaply. With the Internet the analog-based presentation of the Inverted Pyramid suddenly becomes overwhelmed by an ocean of zeros and ones.


The “Digital Media Pyramid” addresses the demands of today’s journalists who could be writing a television, radio or print story and nearly simultaneously be required to re-purpose their work for a digital Internet audience.

The “Digital Media Pyramid” does not replace the analog-based Inverted Pyramid. It simply enhances it by bringing it into a 21st century digitally dominated information universe. The “Digital Media Pyramid” also commands an immediate understanding by young journalists and students who are already digitally minded. It provides for the traditional brief introduction of facts (the five W’s) which are boldly separated from all supporting details. Yet, the “Digital Media Pyramid” also addresses the need to surf the Internet for additional supporting information by permitting and explaining cut-and-pasting rules. The “Digital Media Pyramid” impresses on the need to respect copyrighted material and original works by teaching proper attribution and giving credit when needed.

The Digital Media Pyramid

The “Digital Media Pyramid” explains the journalistic use of photographs, video, interactivity and all elements that are not simply text. It respects the importance of such elements as being part of any news story in this new era of information.

Just as important and revolutionary the “Digital Media Pyramid” calls on journalists to be cognizant of advertisements in an age when software can dictate the appearance of a sales ad next to a story which can easily be bias by the appearance of inappropriate ads. This new pyramid teaches the writer to be aware of any ads automatically placed near or inside a written story, so the writer can inspect a story’s presentation and seek to maintain objectivity.

Finally, the “Digital Media Pyramid” encourages the self-education of “users” or readers, enabling them to quickly seek out balanced information on a news story through the use of embedded links, social networks and other resources.

Journalism students who have been taught the “Digital Media Pyramid” for the past seven years at Rutgers University have enthusiastically welcomed the change in how they are to prepare and present their news stories. Most comment that they immediately understand the “Digital Media Pyramid” just by viewing the diagram. That cannot always be said of the Inverted Pyramid. Typically, students have voiced a sense of recognition. The words “oh-yeah” precede a fuller explanation of the “Digital Media Pyramid” when it is presented to young users. Digital is already part of their environment.

It seems that the “Digital Media Pyramid” should find a place in the newsrooms and journalism classrooms around the globe, so reporters and editors are more prepared to address the needs of their craft and the demands of sophisticated audiences. After all, even the most hard-bitten journalists would agree that a writing device conceived during the Civil War could probably be updated to cope with the demands of the fast-moving digital world surrounding today’s journalists.

Finding the right balance between the needs of the journalists and the ever-pressing expansion of technology can be overwhelming. It appears that today’s digital universe makes this the right time to for adjustments and changes to an analog model that is more than a century old.