The problems in the Daily’s Feb. 28 issue

The Daily needs the help of student leaders if it is to create better coverage in the future.

Total system failure: In a courtroom, it can mean a murderer goes free; on a space shuttle, it can mean the craft goes down in pieces; in a newspaper, the fallout is more subtle but not less damaging. At The Minnesota Daily, that failure has taken material form: the Feb. 28 issue.

In a year when the editor in chief has prioritized diversity coverage, when reporters have converged to demand more minority representation and when black leaders across campus have overcome their trepidation to work with the Daily, the convergence of events on the last day of Black History Month is a horrible irony. But a survey of what happened makes it tough for anyone to perceive this latest snafu as unintentional.

Here’s what went wrong: An article pitched as a profile of nine black student leaders appeared as a paltry collection of quotes. A photo of those leaders, who went to the Daily specifically for the shoot, didn’t run in the paper. And perhaps most stinging, a Nick Woomer column titled ” ‘Celebrating diversity’ is a recipe for disaster,” ran prominently on the opinion page, with a refer on the front.

“The Daily has a way of having accidents all the time at our expense,” said Charles Helm, a University student and member of the Black Student Union. And Helm has a point. This year alone, two front-page photos of black students have run under large, unrelated headlines about drugs or alcohol. Many other articles had misleading headlines, omitted crucial information or failed to thoroughly report the issue they intended to address. For black students, these missteps just add on to years of exclusion, or articles that are, “little, misquoted and mediocre,” said Rashida Fisher, an officer with the historic black Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

The problems with the Feb. 28 issue came days earlier, when rookie reporter Kori Koch began an article with “Student leaders share visions” and when editorial page editor Tim Burnett first saw Woomer’s column.

“I interviewed as many students as I could get,” Koch said, adding it would be an end piece for Black History Month. Good intentions, but Koch interviewed nine leaders and only had 13 inches of text – roughly 450 words. An astute editor could have seen the problem; unfortunately, Koch’s editor was out of town, and Managing Editor Britt Johnsen didn’t get the story until it was too late to fix.

Johnsen said the editors wanted “a more in-depth profile,” but they should have allotted more space and either assigned an experienced reporter or given Koch, who was a brand-new reporter, the coaching she needed. Also, not running the photos – which Editor in Chief Jake Weyer said was the result of a miscommunication with the photo department – further insulted those who took the time to meticulously describe their organizations, only to see one quote in the paper.

But the bigger problem is undoubtedly Woomer’s column. Before even considering public reaction, Woomer’s own assessment is disconcerting. “It failed miserably in clarity,” Woomer said. “It was my worst column.” Even Burnett said the article had serious clarity issues. Why, then, this column ran at all – and particularly on the last day of Black History Month – is incomprehensible.

Woomer said “the point was about right-wing people” and that “focusing on multiculturalism Ö is too conciliatory, too fuzzy wuzzy and doesn’t step on anyone’s toes.” Because this is not racist, he said, timing seemed irrelevant. Additionally, he said he didn’t know about the Daily’s checkered past on diversity and “had no idea so many people put so much time” into Black History Month. For his part, Burnett said he didn’t want to edit the column and risk removing “Nick’s voice.”

Some, like third-year law student Joe Schmitt, said that under critical reading, the column isn’t confusing or contradictory. “I think it’s all just jumping to conclusions and reading into it,” Schmitt said. But for the several readers, the column came across as attacking diversity and particularly Black History Month.

“It was like he was just laughing at everything we’ve gone through,” said Stephanie Clay, president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Helm said, “I feel like he was saying, ‘What’s the big deal about Black History Month?’Ö like he expects us to be complacent.”

While Woomer is trying to clarify his point by responding to e-mails and speaking in Cowles Media Fellow Sherrie Mazingo’s People of Color and the Mass Media (Jour 3741) class, the damage has been done.

“(The column) detracts very much from any stated efforts by the Daily staff about being open and inclusive,” Mazingo said. “I’m an absolutist and a purist when it comes to free speech Ö however, when you have a history and a background that is negative in this respect, independent staff members need to be more careful.”

Woomer said his idea was so complex that he wasn’t sure he could communicate it in 900 words. If this is the case, he should have chosen a topic more suited to his writing ability. As Burnett himself said, “It’s not serving the students, the public or the readership if they can’t understand it.”

This matter threatens to put Weyer’s efforts to reach out to minorities behind square one. But the Daily is lucky leaders such as Helm, Clay and others are speaking out and using their anger to prod the Daily forward. These people and the ideas they can contribute are the Daily’s most valuable resource. The fact that they are still willing to work with the paper, despite years of frustration, means there is still hope it can improve.

While Weyer and his staff work to make long-term changes, something has to be done now. Reporters and columnists need to be trained to do their homework and be mindful of community issues. Editors need to demand quality and hold back confusing or poorly reported articles or columns.

As Helm said, “You can’t just spout off without knowledge.” Daily staffers alone do not have the knowledge to handle these problems. But if they reach out and seek help from the people who do – like black student leaders – they can take this anger and channel it into creating better coverage in the future.

Libby George is the readers’ representative and ombudsman. She welcomes comments at [email protected]