- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) | When Barack Obama ascends the stage Sunday at the Unity journalism convention, fresh from an exhaustively chronicled overseas tour, he will face a surprisingly divided audience.

Not on the subject of whether Mr. Obama should be president - members of the four minority organizations that comprise Unity are largely Democratic. But many at the quadrennial gathering differ on whether the underlying current of enthusiasm for Mr. Obama’s candidacy should be constrained or allowed to spill forth on live television.

“This is not a pep rally,” said Tonju Francois, a producer for CNN en Espanol and board member of the National Association of Black Journalists. “I don’t want to say it’s offensive, but the idea that just because he’s a black candidate, somehow our journalistic ethics would go out the window. … I think we need to behave.”

So does Unity. In an e-mail sent to the 6,800 conference attendees, the organization advised that “every effort should be made to maintain professional decorum during the event, especially since it will be broadcast to millions of people.”

Yet the same diversity embodied by Unity can blur the definition of decorum.

“People don’t view [attending Obama’s speech] as work,” said Connie Llanos, a reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News and member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). “We’re not going to write about it, so you’re allowed to voice your emotion or feeling.”

Still, “people shouldn’t be throwing underwear,” said Veronica Garcia, a NAHJ board member and copy editor who spent 17 years at the Los Angeles Times. “We’re journalists. We should strive to be a little objective.”

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry inspired a standing ovation at the Unity conference; President Bush got a few boos during his speech. This year, Mr. McCain declined an invitation.

Barbara Ciara, president of NABJ and the anchor/managing editor at WTKR in Norfolk, said it would be inappropriate “to show enthusiasm on any level” Sunday because of a perception that minority journalists’ coverage is slanted by their ethnicity.

But the message may not be getting through. Said Luz Villarreal, an associate producer for “Dateline NBC”: “I don’t think it’s such a bad thing if for 15 minutes you take off your reporter hat and respond to [Obama] as a human being at an event where you’re surrounded by people of color and you’re here for a united cause.”

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