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Editor's Weekly: Reporting on race and sexuality can shed light or spread heat

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2013 - Dear Beaconites -

You can't find subjects more incendiary than race and sexuality. This week, the Beacon dealt with both in ways intended to shed light, not spread heat.

Race in the St. Louis mayor's race was the focus of Beacon reporter Robert Joiner's analysis, posted Thursday as part of an ongoing series on issues. Though city voters will decide this contest, what happens matters to the region as a whole. Bob's story had been in the works for weeks when a recent flyer that portrays Mayor Francis Slay as a "slayve" owner lit a fire under the issue of race.

Race influences many aspects of life in our region, but discussing it can be difficult. Typically, the issue simmers on the backburner of public debate, boiling over periodically in controversies such as this one. In our five years of operation, the Beacon has tried to change that pattern -- to recognize that race is an ongoing subtext in many discussions, to decode what's being said and to explore facts and context that can inform attitudes. In other words, we've tried to lay the groundwork for progress.

Bob dug into the controversy around the flyer. He also looked deeply at how and why race is a factor in the three-way contest among Slay, aldermanic president Lewis Reed and former alderman Jimmie Matthews.

In addition to Bob's reporting, Beacon General Manager Nicole Hudson Hollway and voices section contributor Kira Hudson Banks appeared on KMOX to talk about how to talk about race. Kira, who is Nicole's sister, is on the faculty of Saint Louis University's psychology department, and her academic specialty is race. In coming weeks, Kira will use her column to encourage further reflection and discussion about race in the Beacon.

Sexuality and gender are the focus of Beacon reporter Nancy Fowler's extraordinary four-part series, Beyond the Gender Box. The series, which will conclude next week, explores the profound change underway in attitudes -- both the public opinion shift toward equal treatment and the personal transformations taking place.

"In the past — in public, at least — these terms [sexuality and gender] had strict meanings and defined social roles," the series explains. "But now more of society sees their meanings on a continuum, and expects people to choose for themselves where they fit in."

In addition to assessing overall trends, the series shares the personal stories of Leon Braxton, Kelly Hamilton and William Copeland. Their candor -- and humor -- are remarkable. Their experiences raise questions many of us might not have thought to ask about this fundamental aspect of human identity. We're grateful to these St. Louisans for trusting the Beacon to tell their life stories.

When covering controversial topics such as sexuality and race, news organizations have many options. Their choices are a revealing test of character. Some opt for sensationalism and emphasize the bizarre. Some opt for sizzle and report charge and countercharge without exploring substance.

The Beacon was founded expressly to explore difficult issues in a forthright, sensitive and perceptive manner. Race and gender are fundamental aspects of human identity that have huge implications for all of us, individually and collectively. In their thoughtful exploration of those implications, Bob and Nancy this week demonstrated the essence of the Beacon's character.