About News

Coverage of Protests Brings Out Internal Newsroom Anger

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

The homicide of George Floyd and the subsequent street protests have illuminated failings not only among law enforcement agencies but also among many mainstream news organizations. Along with other issues, the well-documented lack of racial diversity on newsroom staffs has shown itself in harmful and embarrassing ways.

Perhaps a black journalist in The New York Times’ chain of editing, or simply a heightened awareness created by a more diverse department, would have anticipated the valid internal and external criticism that U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton’s published idea to send the military to “restore order” in American cities posed a safety threat to protesters and journalists, especially black ones. “This puts our Black staff members in danger,” the newsroom union wrote.

Perhaps the same would have avoided the Philadelphia Inquirer’s headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” an insensitive variation of Black Lives Matter. That touched off a litany of complaints and a “sick day” by most of the Inquirer’s journalists of color. “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age,” they wrote in a letter to management. “We’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about ‘diversity and inclusion’ when we raise our concerns.”

More importantly than helping to fix internal blind spots, a newsroom that demographically reflects its community is better able to establish connections within that community and to report important stories. This is especially so with minority and marginalized groups. Karen Attiah, global opinions editor of The Washington Post and who is African American, said Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources media show, “We are still fighting for integration in our newsrooms so that the communities we cover and that we are a part of actually trust us.”

In many large cities where street protests over police brutality are taking place, it is more likely that black protesters view the media as an uncaring part of the white establishment than as a familiar and empathetic forum for expression of concerns. And fairly or unfairly, the perception is partly affected by who’s holding the camera or the notebook. There’s no question that a good journalist of any race can effectively tell this story, but I think it’s also true that a journalist of color can bring a deeper understanding of issues, born from life experiences. “(The media) are uniquely unprepared overall to cover this moment,” Attiah said.

The numbers aren’t good. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, a November 2018 report in the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Decades of Failure” reported that racial and ethnic minorities made up 17 percent of all staff in print/online newsrooms in the U.S., 25 percent of TV newsrooms and 12 percent of radio newsrooms. That’s despite comprising 40 percent of the American population. Newsrooms look even worse when focusing on leadership positions: for print/online outlets, the number was 13 percent. The American Society of News Editors quit doing its annual diversity survey in 2019 due to low response from organizations. The coroner labeled the cause of death as embarrassment.

Hand in hand with the question of adequate representation is the matter of how to take advantage of the perspectives that minority journalists bring. They shouldn’t be (and aren’t) hired solely for coverage that relates to their own demographics. But they are the best option for certain stories and certain beats. Minority journalists outside the opinion staff shouldn’t be allowed a greater license for political advocacy than other staff members. But it’s important not to neutralize their insights.

In other words, don’t do what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did this week. Management deemed a black reporter’s protest-related tweet as indicative of bias that would compromise the integrity of coverage and so banned her from further protest reporting. Then it did the same for at least one other black journalist who publicly showed support for her. Bad pro/con analysis by Post-Gazette editors.

Editors who hire would likely say they’re not seeing as many applications from minority candidates as they’d like. I see considerable talent among black students in my classes every semester. But many of them are not interested in journalism as a career. That’s another indictment of the industry.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.