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Seeing red 

Sometimes newspapers do something that evokes an unexpectedly strong reaction. Sometimes we do something in hopes it will prompt a reaction, and it doesn't. And sometimes we do something we know might elicit strong feelings, but hope we don't.

The latter was the case with our cover of last week's issue. We ran a photograph of two young African-American boys in Old North Durham Park, hamming it up for the photographer, showing how they were going to scare their moms. They had red mulberry juice all over their hands, and we placed it over the headline "What's so scary about Durham?"

We knew the mulberry juice looked like blood. And we believed that readers, even if fooled for a second, would think twice, look at the caption explaining what they were doing, and understand what we were trying to say: We're so conditioned by our misconceptions about Durham that, when presented with an innocent photograph of two boys playing in the park, we're inclined to assume the worst.

Inside was a lengthy examination that found Durham's image to be less a reflection of the city's strengths and successes than one built on the media's focus on crime, a raucous political pluralism, and the regional dominance of Raleigh and The News & Observer. And it said that because of the high profile of the city's black population, racism is a factor that cannot be overlooked (

After the paper came out on Wednesday, we waited for the reaction. And thankfully, readers seemed to get it. Most of the people who called or passed along comments said they appreciated the stories and understood the cover's message. We received fewer than a half-dozen phone calls and letters of complaint, and all of the negative letters we received we're running in this week's Back Talk section.

We do not take those readers' objections lightly. They accuse us of exploiting both Durham's image and those young boys to perpetuate the stereotypes we were trying to highlight. But far from intending to support the image, we were trying to help people understand the problem. Far from intending to send a negative message about Durham and black males, we were trying to show that it is the assumptions and stereotypes of others that are the problem, not the city or its people.

But I understand their concerns. I explained our intentions to everyone who called to complain, and all said they understood--but still disagreed with the way we did it. I accept that, along with the judgment of the many readers who said they thought we did a good job highlighting the fundamental reasons that Durham's reputation belies its many strengths.

  • Sometimes newspapers do something that evokes an unexpectedly strong reaction

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