As journalists in the United States reported on racial injustice and police brutality amid the murder of George Floyd, there was another story about racism brewing in the newsroom. In this case, journalists became the story.
After publishing a column originally titled “Buildings Matter, Too,” The Philadelphia Inquirer received intense criticism not only from readers, but their employees, too. Journalists of color at the publication spoke out against the column and organized a “sick and tired day” to protest racial injustice at the organization — all this after years of criticism for having a predominantly white news staff in a city that is predominantly Black.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette faces similar accusations of racial injustice. After posting a tweet satirizing the mainstream media’s coverage of the looting that ensued after protests, Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter at the publication, was barred from covering the city’s protests for allegedly showing bias. This led to a social media campaign using the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis in solidarity with the reporter. On June 16, Johnson filed a federal lawsuit against the Post-Gazette on the basis of racial discrimination.
From The New York Times publishing Sen. Tom Cotton’s opinion piece advocating for the militarization of U.S. cities, to the hashtag #BlackatLAT to call out the lack of Black reporters at the Los Angeles Times, and the accusations of racial discrimination by former staffers of Refinery29, news publications have to reckon with their own allegations of racism and the journalistic standards that uphold them. It’s obvious that diversifying the pool of candidates considered for new positions and attending several diversity workshops mandated by management are not working. So what happens now?
An Overhaul of Journalism Schools as We Know Them
Journalism schools currently reflect the industry — they are in a state of uncertainty.
On one hand, the cries of “fake news,” “the enemy of the people” and other attacks from the White House when the news doesn’t portray the Trump administration in a favorable fashion has many young minds interested in the news industry. On the other, journalism schools are facing a new reality of preparing students for an industry full of uncertainties where it seems like every week there’s a different news organization laying off its reporters or even closing down.
According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment at traditional newspapers has dropped by half from 2008 to 2019. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has left hundreds of journalists unemployed and several publications permanently closed.
The digital era has introduced new ways for consumers to stay informed in a country with shifting demographics. Journalism schools in the United States are starting to introduce and require courses on social media, virtual reality and coding. However, none of those skills will matter if students don’t have a firm grounding on how to use them with diverse communities.
Every journalism school should require a course on racial justice in the newsroom, taught by journalists and professors of color. A module on race in an introductory journalism course and a unit on inclusive practices in a class on journalism ethics are no longer enough. Schools should prioritize antiracist and inclusive practices for every student who wants to enter a communication field.
For example, the University of Southern California’s undergraduate journalism program requires students to take a course titled “Engaging Diverse Communities.” Topics in the course include the inequality marginalized communities face, language usage when reporting on diverse populations and the biases new technologies may promote in the newsroom.
The University of Missouri’s undergraduate journalism program also requires a similar course. “Cross-Cultural Journalism” teaches students the importance of diversity in their reporting by providing tools for covering different social groups in the United States, including common mistakes made by journalists and how to avoid them, best practices for reaching diverse audiences, and representations of gender, sexuality and race in media.
Moreover, racial and social justice should be fundamental parts of introductory courses where students first learn the ethical framework of the industry and how to report. Classes should require students to report on topics like race, gender, sexuality and immigration so they can grow their social justice orientation — or at the very least, report consciously about identity and injustice. Students should critically engage with the works of racial justice activists and scholars. This will allow students to learn and improve upon their reporting of different cultures and social groups so they are aware of the best practices once gainfully employed.
Journalism schools cannot go on with the assumption that general education courses and white professors are giving student journalists the antiracist foundation that allows them to confront their biases — and structural injustices — and equips them with the tools to report in equitable and just ways.
Furthermore, journalism schools should hire, retain and promote full-time professors of color. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, reported by the Pew Research Center, finds that in fall 2017, white faculty members accounted for 76 percent of the entire faculty in postsecondary schools, while only 55 percent of the student body identified as white.
Schools have to reckon with drops in enrollment and government funding the same way the journalism industry has to adopt new business models to adapt to fewer consumers, increased competition and less funds from advertisement. This, however, should not be an excuse to put racial justice on the newsroom’s backburner or to reject diversifying the faculty at journalism schools.
Objectivity Is Dead. Time to Spread Its Ashes.
Newsrooms need horizontal and vertical change. From the entry-level reporter to senior leadership, newsrooms should reflect the communities they serve. Unfortunately, those sentiments have been shared countless times with limited change. If the industry as a whole really wanted to take initial steps toward meaningful change, it would collectively commit to adopting an affirmative action-style plan with the goal of making newsrooms representative of the publication’s regional demographics.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established what became known as the Kerner Commission to address the root of deadly confrontations between Black residents and the police department in Detroit, Michigan. In 1968, the Kerner Commission released a report that, among other things, criticized the press for focusing on “white men’s eyes and a white perspective.” It’s been over 50 years since the report was published, and the criticism of a predominantly white media continues.
Decentering whiteness in the newsroom will be challenging — it’s asking an industry that sustains the white male experience as the status quo to alter its framework to one that is intersectional and antiracist. Nonetheless, many progressive ethnic and feminist news outlets have shown us it’s not impossible. Decentering whiteness opens the door for better, more well-rounded journalism where the Black reporter isn’t limited to writing about race and crime, the Latinx reporter isn’t expected to only pitch stories on immigration and the Asian journalist reports beyond the tech beat.
Journalists in urban cities often get a bad rep for only going to certain communities to report on crime and fires. To combat this, newsrooms must encourage reporters to respectfully immerse themselves in neighborhoods. Reporters should get to know the neighborhood’s people, not the neighborhood’s problems. They should build and sustain mutually beneficial relationships with community leaders and block captains, so they can be the first point of contact when writing a story.
Even better, newsrooms should even consider opening smaller news hubs in these neighborhoods and hire people from the community. Instead of reporting “about Latinx communities” or “about Black people,” they should encourage journalists to report with and from within these communities. There’s a power shift that takes place when the preposition goes from “about” to “with.” The communities that often go underrepresented in every part of the reporting process should be integral parts of the final piece.
Who are reporters citing as experts? Who are the sources? Who are the reporters themselves? Whose story is being told? What neighborhoods are not being covered? What perspective is missing? Is this story important and relevant to the communities we often ignore? Is this racist or antiracist? These are the questions editors should be asking on a daily basis.
As journalist and author Lewis Wallace once wrote, “Objectivity is dead.” Now it’s time to burn it and spread its ashes. An industry that relies on the myth of objectivity is an industry that accepts the status quo and feeds into the division and hatred that promotes injustice. Objectivity is a straight, cis white man’s approach to reporting about an issue that does not personally affect him.
We’re seeing the pitfalls of objectivity take center stage as our politics and media consumption becomes more partisan. The left criticizes mainstream news media such as The New York Times and CNN for often representing more centrist views and for normalizing the chaotic and dangerous Trump presidency, while the right is becoming more critical of Fox News as President Trump disavows some of the outlet’s reporting and polling. Objectivity contributes to the left-right binary that is not only reductive, but often perpetuates racism.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, historian and author of How to Be an Antiracist, defines antiracist as “the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity.” Reporting that intentionally rejects racism and is vehemently antiracist should confront racial injustice and reject the notion of neutrality — an antiracist ideology has no room for objectivity.
Racism in the newsroom cannot be swept under the rug or ignored once racial injustice leaves the top headlines. This needs to be a constant conversation backed by measurable actions and significant systemic changes.
If the news industry is going to survive, it needs change — a change so radical that it becomes a shell of its former self with an antiracist ideology as a new ethical pillar.