One on One: Cultural competency not just for journalists

By D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – Last week, as the story of African American protests over the absence of black nominees for Academy Awards was developing, Sam Fulwood explained what he learned reporting the 1992 Los Angeles riots that broke out after a jury found the police officers accused of beating Rodney King not guilty. Covering a newly created “race beat,” Fulwood reported the public reaction to the King story. Blacks and whites, he found, saw the story in dramatically different ways, with blacks sympathizing with King and whites finding ways to minimize any police misconduct.

Sam Fulwood

Sam Fulwood

It is the same story over and over again, Fulwood said, with the O.J. Simpson, Clarence Thomas, and similar stories showing a hard-line divide that defines predictable differences in viewpoints.

Fulwood was speaking to a group of journalists, students, and university officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as part of a Carolina Seminars series.

The purpose of the series that featured Fulwood, according to its leader, UNC School of Media and Journalism Professor Ferrel Guillory, is “to suggest answers to questions raised by the rearrangements in journalism and by the redefined forms of racial separation. This seminar will explore the intersection of race and the media in the post-civil rights era, with a mindset that our exploration should lead to real practical results for the media, for journalism education and for North Carolina, the South and the nation.”

The specific challenge for the media is how to report stories that sectors of its mixed audience may evaluate and understand quite differently. We are barraged by stories such as the no black nominee for the Academy Awards, Black Lives Matter, demands for removal of Confederate memorials, the Baltimore police-Freddie Gray trial, riots in Chicago following the release of tapes showing the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the riots in Ferguson, and on and on.

Fulwood grew up in North Carolina, where his father was pastor of Presbyterian churches in Cabarrus and Iredell counties. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1978, he began a journalism career that took him to newspapers in Charlotte, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Los Angeles as well as covering beats in Washington and South Africa. As an African American, he was often a lonely minority at some newspapers he served. Today he is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. He directs its Leadership Institute and analyzes the influence of national politics and domestic policies on communities of color across the United States.

Unsurprisingly, Fulwood touted the benefits to media businesses of diversity in their work forces, and not just African Americans. To serve best the readers and other users of their media product, the staff should represent a variety of ethnic and racial groups.

But, said Fulwood, there is more. Each journalist should have a background and attitude that gives him or her an understanding and appreciation for the cultures of the varieties of peoples who are readers or consumers of the media products.

Fulwood suggested the term “cultural competency” to describe a desirable attribute of someone who has a broad understanding and appreciation of how those in different racial or ethnic groups think and why they might see things differently.

Every journalist has a first responsibility to find and faithfully report the facts. In reporting those facts, however, the reporter with cultural competency will do a better and more useful job because he or she understands that readers may evaluate those facts in different ways.

And if those of us who are readers develop our own cultural competency, we can do a better job of understanding the stories the journalists write for us.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-MX digital channel  (Time Warner #1276) on Fridays at 9 p.m. This Thursday’s January 28) guest is Ron Rash, author of “Above the Waterfall.” Next week’s (January 31, February 4) guest is Sarah Shaber, author of “Louise’s Chance.”

To view prior programs:

For upcoming programs:

Thursday 5pm January 28 Ron Rash, author of “Above the Waterfall”

Sunday noon January 31 Sarah Shaber, author of “Louise’s Chance”

Thursday 5pm February 4 Sarah Shaber, author of “Louise’s Chance”

Sunday noon February 7 Damon Tweedy, author of “Black Man in a White Coat”

Thursday 5pm February 11 Damon Tweedy, author of “Black Man in a White Coat”

Sunday noon February 14 Margaret Maron, author of “Long Upon the Land”

Thursday 5pm February 18 Margaret Maron, author of “Long Upon the Land”

Sunday noon February 21 Lee Smith, author of “Dimestore: A Memoir in Stories”

Thursday 5pm February 25 Lee Smith, author of “Dimestore: A Memoir in Stories”