Getting to Know Keith Woods

Keith Woods became so mired in heated issues of race relations while he was city editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans that he may have understandably opted to turn to other topics after leaving the paper.

After all, months of tearful voicemail messages, name-calling and hate mail can easily lead to burnout.

But 15 years after the explosive 1993 series “Together Apart: The Myth of Race” was published, Woods is still at it, but in a different work environment and an even sunnier location. “I’m still teaching journalists how to think about [the] coverage of race,” he says.

Woods, 49, joined the Poynter Institute in 1995 and is now dean of the faculty at the internationally renowned facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., which modestly describes itself as “a school for journalists, future journalists and teachers of journalists.” It is, in fact, a state-of-the-art training site providing seminars led by experts in the field. Earlier this month, the Poynter Institute announced that it will use a $1.4 million, five-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help transform journalism education by expanding the journalism e-learning site, NewsU.

In his current position, Woods is one of those experts, most notably on the subject of race, diversity and media. He is author of “The Essence of Excellence: Covering Race and Ethnicity (and doing it better),” a 2001 report for Columbia University.

In one of his articles on the Poynter site, “Reporting on Race Relations,” Woods offers insightful, yet simple, tips to journalists. For example, “Examine your fears and look for ways — through reading, writing, talking — to move beyond them. The more comfortable you are in asking difficult questions about race relations, the more complete your reporting will be.”

Now, in this presidential election year, with the historic candidacy of a Black man, Woods is discussing many of the same issues.

“No better thought is being applied to race today than there was 15 years ago,” Woods tells Diverse. “There is no evidence that the industry has gotten better.” Not enough attention is being paid to the subject of race on the political scene, he says, because journalists, like the rest of America, avoid the topic routinely — until someone blurts out a sentence or phrase that captures headlines.

He points to Geraldine Ferraro’s comments about Barack Obama’s race making a difference in the primary campaign. “All kinds of assumptions were made, when all I wanted to know was this: What do you mean by that? All I wanted from journalists was for somebody to step away from stone-throwing for one minute to ask, ‘What do you mean?’”

Part of his role at Poynter is to teach journalists to pose such questions before reaching the predictable conclusions. A 1980 journalism graduate of Dillard University, who later went on to receive a master’s degree in social welfare from Tulane, Woods has blended his academic interest with his passion for responsible journalism.

Adding to the difficulties of reporting responsibly on race is the ever-present problem of newsroom diversity. And in the current economic downturn, which has prompted layoffs at news organizations around the country, Woods sees even more “devastation” of the diversity landscape coming in future months.

“At this moment in journalism, the financial bottom has fallen out and [companies] are scrambling to find their footing,” he says. “For the first time, we’re having trouble getting recruiters to come to our job fair,” he says, referring to one of Poynter’s annual events.

Yet he says the hard times may hold promise for those journalists who are just beginning their careers. “They need to know what they need to know.” That is, they need to understand the significance of having multimedia expertise on their résumés. Despite the setbacks, Woods is cautiously optimistic. “There may be a better time coming once this storm shakes out. Whatever this is will reach its zenith and will diminish, but like a hurricane, we don’t know what will be left when it moves on.”

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