, Port Arthur, Texas


April 13, 2013

Pizzas in class a lesson in breaking down barriers

One of the duties of being editor is occasionally speaking to groups that want to understand something about how the chaotic environment called a newsroom comes up with the product called a newspaper we deliver to your doorstep every morning. That opportunity came along last week when a class in the Department of Education at Lamar University invited me to come answer questions about how school district administrators and newspapers could work and play well together.

I had a number of classes in the Education Building at Lamar but I don’t believe any of them were quite like this one. Elvis H. Aterbury, Ph.D., is professor of educational leadership. His leadership style is one I liked, in fact he used a team building tactic similar to the one used in the Baptist church where I was raised — food.

The students in this class Aterbury was teaching, part of the master’s program and a requirement for certification as principal, were about as diverse as the United Nations. There were seven Saudi Arabian women with their color head coverings. Saudi men were represented, too. One man was from Sri Lanka, I believe it was. Another from Niger. Hispanics. African-Americans. There was even one white guy who went to Thomas Jefferson and is teaching in Vidor.

These were all graduate students who had a couple of years’ experience working in their field. As class began they were all socializing with each other as if they were lifelong friends. The secret to breaking down the barriers of culture, gender and just about anything else, as Aterbury explained to me, was found in the five or six pizzas, two cakes, bowls of chips and ice chests of soft drinks. Cultures from the East and West, North and South all came together like the cheese and sausage on the pizza.

After they ate for a while and shared their experiences of the day with each other, the students got down to the business of asking me questions. I introduced myself as the editor of The Port Arthur News. Then came the typical “how did you get into journalism” question. So I told them the story of being an amateur photographer during my college days and discovering the student newspaper at Lamar, the University Press, would give me a pass to get on the sidelines at the football games if I would take photos for them. They also had a darkroom to which they gave me free access, whether I knew how to use it or not.

Hanging around the University Press office I discovered the helter skelter environment where many people are working at a frantic pace to find out all sorts of important things to go into a newspaper. I told the students how I kept hanging around and offering to help then eventually changed my major to communications, got on the staff and worked my way up to editor of the University Press.

One of the students asked what a principal should do if there were a situation on campus that resulted in reporters calling to ask questions. This was a very good question for students learning to be the person in charge on campus. It is only a matter of time until they will face a situation when something happens of public interest and the media comes calling.

The key thing for the principal to do from my point of view, I explained, was to take the call and be forthright with the reporter. If it was information the principal was unable to release, he should tell that to the reporter and explain why. If the principal didn’t know the answer to the reporter’s questions, he should say that and offer to find out the answer.

Reporters can be like bulldogs when they are in search of information. They will look here and there and everywhere if they can’t get the source they need. The best way to get your version of what happened into the story is to tell it. The reporter is likely to keep trying until they can find the information somewhere, and it may not be a source serving the best interest of the school.

One asked if reporters are always looking for a story. I explained to him that I had found at least three in that very classroom. Then another asked if everything said to a reporter would be reported. I answered that if someone introduces himself to you as a reporter, you can be sure they mean it.

Then a student from a foreign place called Detroit asked a question that was a little more difficult to answer. She said it seems to her that there are more negative stories involving crime and violence in coverage of minority communities and fewer stories of achievement and overcoming obstacles.

My thought went to the coverage of the disappearance of Natalie Holloway and Elizabeth Smart, both upper middle class white teens who caused media sensations. There have been few media sensations over the disappearance of black or brown teens. I explained that we try to be conscious of bias in the news and we go out of our way to present minority points of view. But that doesn’t change the fact that our newsroom, America’s newsrooms, do not reflect the diversity of the population at large much less the population in that classroom.

We keep that in mind when we hire new staffers, but the pool of applicants makes it very difficult to diversify. Here at the Port Arthur News we make gains, then lose ground in diversity. We will keep trying.

Then the student from Detroit, who now has a position at Memorial High School in Port Arthur, presented an idea of getting high school students involved in writing for the newspaper. If newspapers like The Port Arthur News did that with students from minority communities, perhaps more of them would go into journalism as a career.

Maybe something as simple as enlisting student journalists of all ethnic groups to participate in writing for the newspaper would be as effective in helping newsrooms reflect the communities they cover as the simple snacks like pizzas and sodas were in breaking down the barriers between the students from cultures across the world in Dr. Aterbury’s class at Lamar. That’s an idea worth pursuing.

Roger Cowles is editor of The Port Arthur News. Contact him at

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