The Post-Gazette’s treatment of Black reporters who have been pulled from the coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement underscores why we all should care about this — and gives some clues for what we must do.
Pittsburgh already has so few Black journalists, and many who are here say they feel mistreated, left out and stuck in dead-end careers.
Look at the research from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In a still fresh report that came out in October, Black journalists in Pittsburgh described what it’s like to work here. It’s not easy. Listen to what they said:
- “I felt like the token at that paper. I felt like I was buried, and my work was buried in one section of the paper. I was rarely on the front page of the paper, and I felt like when I tried to do more, I was smacked back to that [less prestigious section].”
- “In Pittsburgh, I felt very much in a box. I felt like I was fighting my bosses and [fellow] staff at the same time, and I was exhausted.”
- “It’s almost like you had to be really exceptional [if you were black] … some people didn’t get the same kind of encouragement. It’s not [that] talent is not recognized, but there did seem to be a difference between the type of encouragement and mentoring you might get between white and black staffers.”
Now, with those words fresh in your mind, think about what happened to Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter at the Post-Gazette who was told she could no longer cover the Black Lives Matter movement because she posted this funny tweet about white people making a mess at the annual Kenny Chesney concert.
Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!
— Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh 🗞 (@PGNewsGuild) June 5, 2020
When the Tow Center report came out, I asked some black journalists what I could do. They asked me to speak out. When Black journalists talk about the challenges they face — as they have done in this city for years — they told me it sounds like they are whining or “playing the race card.”
When white people, with our privilege, speak out about these problems, it lifts up Black voices by saying, yes, I see a problem here, too.
The Post-Gazette’s editors were wrong to remove Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter because of her tweet. Her comment resonated with the thousands of people who retweeted it because it was honest, not because it revealed some secret bias or agenda.
Besides, journalists do this. They develop a cynicism and a sense of humor to deal with the unusual, and often horrific, situations they have to cover. That doesn’t mean they cannot tell a story honestly and completely.
The Post-Gazette’s Managing Editor Karen Kane told me via email that she cannot comment on the situation involving Johnson or any of the related events that followed because it involves personnel matters. UPDATE 6/10: The Post-Gazette published an open letter on June 10 about this matter saying it was not based on race. Read it in full here.
The Tow report on Pittsburgh’s lack of media diversity also pointed out that Black journalists in Pittsburgh often feel isolated in their newsrooms, like their colleagues do not fully accept them. That’s what makes what happened at the Post-Gazette remarkable. After managers silenced Johnson, dozens of her colleagues spoke out in support of her publicly, using the social media hashtag #IStandWithAlexis, and retweeting her original funny tweet. The hashtag started trending on Twitter in Pittsburgh.
But there’s more. The Post-Gazette editors barred a Black photographer, Michael Santiago, who tweeted support for Johnson from covering the Black Lives Matter movement, according to the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. Then two protest-related articles written by other journalists who supported Johnson were removed from the newspaper’s website before being restored in unbylined and heavily edited versions.
From the Guild: “Protest-related stories by two staffers — city hall reporter Ashley Murray and general assignment reporter Lauren Lee — suddenly disappeared without explanation from the PG’s website shortly after they tweeted support for Alexis. Ashley and Lauren were baffled, and queries to management were met with silence. To us, the cause and effect is clear.” Read the full Guild statement here.
NABJ is Disturbed by the Silencing of Voices Like @alexisjreports & @msantiagophotos at @PittsburghPG! All employees, including Black employees, deserve to be heard without retribution for opinions that may differ from management. Full statement: https://t.co/Rw6GxgmWvb pic.twitter.com/oyuGK08NV5
— NABJ Headquarters (@NABJ) June 7, 2020
“The PG’s latest assault on our union is possibly the worst yet because it strikes at the very heart of journalism: truth and transparency,” the union wrote in an online statement. “Guild leaders are not entirely sure yet what is happening, but we are dedicated to finding out and correcting it.”
The Guild later tweeted about this petition:
Today, we’re launching a petition in support of the Post-Gazette Black journalists that have been taken off of protest coverage. https://t.co/ivVnE2rMk7
— Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh 🗞 (@PGNewsGuild) June 7, 2020
The Post-Gazette could have picked a better time to start worrying about bias. The newspaper’s own publisher, John Block, tweeted a photo of himself with candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, an inconsistency pointed out by Chris Potter, a former politics reporter at the Post-Gazette who now works at WESA-FM.
Since newspaper publishers oversee both news and opinions, that would have been a good time to say that the Post-Gazette was taking steps to separate the publisher’s opinions from the newspaper’s news coverage.
Beyond what’s happening at the Post-Gazette, we all need to do better to support Black journalists.
We need to encourage more young Black people, and young people of color, to work in journalism. Every summer the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation holds the Frank Bolden Urban Multimedia Workshop. The event this year has been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Point Park University plans to hold free virtual workshops for all young people interested in journalism, multimedia storytelling, moviemaking and more.
When I see the Black Lives Matter events happening across the country now, I hope that some of the young people who are marching will see journalism as a way to tell honest stories that right wrongs and make our communities better. If you know any young person who wants to learn how to use journalistic tools to tell stories they see happening, please encourage them to register here and to attend.
As white journalists, we need to do a better job of supporting the Black journalists who do join the profession. We need to actively participate in groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists and the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation to show our solidarity and support.
We need to hire more Black journalists. Pittsburgh’s newsrooms are not nearly diverse enough. While the city is 23 percent black, the Post-Gazette’s newsroom is about 10 percent black, the Guild’s president told The Washington Post. And if we’re being honest, the Post-Gazette has probably done a better job than most Pittsburgh newsrooms at hiring Black journalists.
It’s also not enough to just hire Black journalists; they need to see a clear path to leadership. The best way to do that is to make sure newsrooms have Black leaders and to mentor young Black journalists. If you see bias in a young Black journalist’s tweets, you work with that person to suggest what they could have done differently. You don’t simply move them to a corner of the newsroom.
All of us — including the white public — need to do a better job of supporting Black journalists.
The Black Media Federation is celebrating Juneteenth, the commemoration of slavery’s end in 1865, by hosting a Thursday night series of online discussions, streamed on Facebook. The organizers are planning to talk about contemporary issues, while also highlighting the work of Black journalists who came before, like Robert Lee Vann, Ida B. Wells, and others.
It doesn’t cost anything but time to watch the live stream, and you might gain a new perspective while showing support.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.