How Did “No Angel” Line About Ferguson Victim Get Through?
In many ways, the reaction last week to a New York Times writer’s profile of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old whose death at the hands of a Ferguson, Mo., policeman prompted national outrage, was a black journalist’s nightmare.
Two words in the fifth paragraph describing Brown — “no angel” — became the focus of ridicule, abuse and claims that the Times was stereotyping young black men in a racist way. Could more black journalists in the editing process have helped? The reporter, John Eligon, says yes. An editor, Marc Lacey, who is also black, says no.
“I think one thing that a black editor could have brought to the process was maybe a more shrewd eye on the message and tone that the article was conveying,” Eligon, 31, told Journal-isms by email. “i fully stand by my feeling that i believe the article portrayed michael brown as an ordinary human, and someone who had his life pointed in the right direction — certainly not a thug or a bad guy. but perhaps a black editor would have been able to give me a better sense of whether that sentiment was in fact conveyed to the readers properly and could have helped make tweaks to ensure that the message was not obscured. i believe ‘no angel’ simply obscured the overall tone of the piece. . . .”
Separately, Lacey, the associate managing editor for weekends, said in an email that diversity had nothing to do with it.
“While there is no doubt in my mind that a more diverse news staff is a better news staff, diversity does not create perfection. In this case, the ‘no angel’ line was ill advised, no doubt about it. But it should be noted that the article in question, which I thought was well-done overall, was written by an African-American correspondent and passed through editors both black and white. While those words were debated and ultimately qualified, it would be simplistic, and wrong, to say diversity had anything to do with this. . . .” Lacey’s message did not say how many black editors had seen the piece before publication and did not discuss how the phrase was debated.
While the Times has an African American as executive editor in Dean Baquet and a black journalist originated the story, the success of efforts at diversity often rise and fall on the actions of those who are neither at the top nor the beginning of the process. In addition to passing judgment on word choices and headlines, they provide context to the finished product if only by timing and story placement.
The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, acknowledged as much the day the article appeared in print. “In my view, the timing of the article (on the day of Mr. Brown’s funeral) was not ideal. Its pairing with a profile of Mr. [Darren] Wilson,” the police officer who shot and killed Brown, “seemed to inappropriately equate the two people. And ‘no angel’ was a blunder,” Sullivan said.
However, Sullivan concluded, “In general, though, I found Mr. Eligon’s reporting to be solid and thorough. I came away from the profile with a deeper sense of who Michael Brown was, and an even greater sense of sorrow at the circumstances of his death.”