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Can minority journalists resist applauding Obama?

By Jesse Washington Modified: July 26, 2008 at 3:27 pm •  Published: July 26, 2008
CHICAGO - When Barack Obama ascends the stage Sunday at the Unity journalism convention, fresh from an exhaustively chronicled overseas tour, he will face a surprisingly divided audience.

Not on the subject of whether Obama should be president — members of the four minority organizations that comprise Unity are largely Democratic. But many at the quadrennial gathering differ on whether the underlying current of enthusiasm for Obama's historic candidacy should be constrained or allowed to spill forth on live television.

In addition to race, the issue boils down to questions of human emotion, empathy versus ethics, and whether a group that has experienced its own share of prejudice can resist responding to Obama's powerful oratory and potent symbolism.

"This is not a pep rally," said Tonju Francois, a producer for CNN en Espanol and board member of the National Association of Black Journalists. "I don't want to say it's offensive, but the idea that just because he's a black candidate, somehow our journalistic ethics would go out the window ... I think we need to behave."

So does Unity. In an e-mail sent to the 6,800 conference attendees, the organization advised that "every effort should be made to maintain professional decorum during the event, especially since it will be broadcast to millions of people."

Yet the same diversity embodied by Unity itself can blur the definition of decorum.

"People don't view (attending Obama's speech) as work," said Connie Llanos, a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News and member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. "We're not going to write about it, so you're allowed to voice your emotion or feeling."

Still, "people shouldn't be throwing underwear," said Veronica Garcia, a NAHJ board member and copy editor who spent 17 years at the Los Angeles Times. "We're journalists. We should strive to be a little objective."

Conservatives have spent years decrying a liberal media bias; Democrats fought over how Hillary Clinton's primary coverage compared with Obama's. This week, the campaign of John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, sniped at the media constellation chasing Obama on his excursion through the Middle East and Europe. And questions of personal politics have plagued journalists of all backgrounds.

But even against this backdrop, the Unity journalists face some unique pressures. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry inspired a standing ovation; President Bush got a few boos during his speech, which disturbed some of the journalists present. This year, McCain declined an invitation to appear at Unity, citing scheduling conflicts.

Barbara Ciara, president of NABJ and the anchor/managing editor at WTKR in Norfolk, Va., said it would be inappropriate "to show enthusiasm on any level" on Sunday because of a perception that minority journalists' coverage is slanted by their ethnicity.

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