Panelists help fellow media pros bone up on ‘cultural sensitivity’

Marsha Pitts-Phillips
Marsha Pitts-Phillips (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Was the media coverage of July’s police shooting death of Philando Castile and other recent shootings handled adequately? The Minnesota PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) recently invited a crisis communications expert, a gender, race and media professor, and a deputy metro editor to offer their assessments and explain how to handle media interviews in a way that reflects cultural sensitivity.

“These are very unusual times for our country,” noted Greater Twin Cities United Way Media Relations Director Marsha Pitts-Phillips as she moderated the August 23 morning discussion and Q&A session at the United Way downtown Minneapolis headquarters.

Jason Sprenger
Jason Sprenger (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Star Tribune Deputy Metro Editor Maria Douglas Reeve, University of St. Thomas Communications and Journalism Associate Professor Dina Gavrilos, and Tunheim Senior Consultant Stan Alleyne spoke for almost an hour to a mostly White group of public relations, media relations, community relations and communications professionals. When asked about the evident lack of diversity among those present, Minnesota PRSA’s Jason Sprenger told the MSR, “We are a reflection of Minnesota society, [but] we are still getting more diverse. We want to be reflective of different viewpoints, different perspectives.”

All three panelists praised Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s surprising comments that if Castile were White, he probably wouldn’t have been shot by police during a traffic stop. Dayton has been looking at racial issues for some time now, “so it wasn’t that he just got up and started talking about race,” said Alleyne, a former chief communications officer for the Minneapolis Public Schools.

“We were quite impressed that he actually came out and talked to the [protesters],” said Reeve of Dayton. “You want to hear from the governor or somebody at that level of power on a day like that. I think he did exactly the right thing to come out speaking to the crowd [outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul], to the public.”

Gavrilos, who since 2000 writes and presents on “social injustices and diminished life opportunities inflicted on those deemed outside the norm in U.S. culture,” told the audience that such “calling people out” episodes should occur more often. “It shouldn’t be a point of controversy,” she noted.

“For him to acknowledge that and be honest about [it]…was bold. It seems like people are reaching a point where they are fed up with those incidents.

“The pattern is becoming more visible to the mainstream” because of more use of cell phone videos and other mediums like social media to hammer home this point, said the professor. “I think people are not going to sit well for blatant examples of racism from organizations [and] companies because of what is happening and the level of intensity that is surrounding issues of race right now.”

Alleyne advised public relations people to first look inwardly on how the particular incident is personally affecting them, then examine how it is affecting the organization they are representing. “There are all kinds of things happening today that you can get ahead on,” he pointed out.

Pitts-Phillips then asked Reeve if it is harder as a Black woman to do her job when such shootings occur. Reeve responded, “As a person of color in the newsroom and in management, there is that added pressure.”

Stan Alleyne, Maria Douglas Reeve and Dina Gavrilos
Stan Alleyne, Maria Douglas Reeve and Dina Gavrilos (Charles Hallman/MSR

During the Q & A session Sprenger asked about the frequent use of racial descriptors and identifiers by the media. “I think we have to use [descriptors and identifiers], and we do a disservice by not [using them],” said Reeve.

“If we don’t, you may assume that it is a Black person or a Brown person when it’s not. We have to make sure we are using descriptors that are fair. We’re trying to describe everybody the same, [but] I don’t believe we are color blind yet.”

“The media is a product of our social and cultural environment,” added Gavrilos. “The stories we will see [are] going to reflect that.” Gavrilos suggested to the audience that they purposely seek out “alternative sources. You got to go where [communities of color] are getting their information.”

“Reporters and editors have to be aware” in covering racial stories, said Reeve. “It is our job to provide a complete, accurate picture as much as possible.” She added that her newspaper tries “to find authentic voices” to use in stories. “We are looking for context on what is going on…in a way that helps people understand it. They can either react or not react” as a result.

When asked to further explain what she means by “authentic voices,” Reeve told the MSR, “I think there are people who are drawn to incidents and tragedies — people who feel they have to come [and voice] their frustration on what’s going on. We are looking for people who have been prompted to act, do something.

“There are some people and groups [who] know deeply what the point of the action is. People who are genuinely disturbed and pushed to action, who want to express to our leaders that things can’t continue.”

“I am very pleased with the outcome of the panel,” said Pitts-Phillips. The journalists “were able to give a voice to some of the frustration that is happening in the broader community. We as communications professionals can bring these untapped voices to the broader public.”

“This is a topic that we need to continue to discuss,” said Alleyne.


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