NEW YORK – Alexis Johnson figures she wasn't the loser when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said she couldn't cover protests triggered by George Floyd's death. Her readers were — denied the perspective of a black woman with family roots in law enforcement working in her hometown.
Nobody anticipated it would lead to a staff revolt and become a national story, part of an extraordinary week where the news media's sluggishness in building diverse newsrooms became part of the national conversation.
“Our communities are changing and our demographics are changing and we as a news industry have done a poor job of recognizing it,” said Katrice Hardy, Indianapolis Star executive editor and head of the diversity committee for the News Leaders Association.
That's not a new complaint. The Kerner Commission that looked into causes of 1967 riots in American cities described the absence of black journalists in newsrooms then as “shockingly backward.”
When a precursor to the News Leaders Association began measuring employment diversity at newspapers in the mid-1970s, it set goals to reach by 2000. That year passed without the goals being met, so the time frame was extended to 2025, said Richard Prince, who blogs about minority issues in the industry.
“They're not going to make that, either,” said the former newspaper editor.
The association even has trouble getting its annual diversity survey filled out. Only 293 newsrooms out of 1,700 queried last year responded. Four news organizations reported having a higher percentage of minority journalists than the community they cover.
In electronic media, 12 percent of broadcast journalists are black, similar to the national population figure of 13 percent. But only 5.5 percent of news directors — the bosses — are black. Minority representation is growing more slowly than in the country as a whole, according to Hofstra University research.
“Whenever I'm in a gathering of the leaders of media I'm struck by the lack of diversity,” Dean Baquet, the first black executive editor of The New York Times, told Prince in 2015. “It is stunning, given that we're supposed to capture the culture, and how tough we can be on the rest of society.”
Baquet declined an interview request.
Pockets of success include the Times, where 43 percent of journalists hired in 2018 were people of color. Gannett, the newspaper chain for which Hardy works, has done well because meeting diversity goals is part of a manager's evaluation, Prince said.
Just over one in five journalists on the U.S. staff of The Associated Press are people of color, the news organization said.
“It’s plain and simple,” said Cheryl W. Thompson, NPR reporter and president of the nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors. “You have to make the effort. You have to just do it. It’s not complicated.”
At the Inquirer last week, black reporters led a sickout following use of an insensitive headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” on a story about about architecture damaged when protests turned violent.
“Blunders like this undo years of work trying to get sources and readers to trust and read the paper,” Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong wrote.
Hardy suspects that such suspicion of mainstream media was behind people at a recent protest in Indianapolis saying a Star reporter wasn't welcome. She's urged reporters covering the protests to build bridges as well as report news — to come back with names and contacts for future stories.
In Pittsburgh, Johnson ran afoul of rules that discourage journalists from being publicly opinionated on social media posts and elsewhere. Many newsrooms have strict social media policies to ensure sources feel they will be treated fairly.
She had tweeted a pointed joke, showing pictures of a garbage-strewn parking lot and writing, “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don't care about this city! ... oh wait, sorry, no. These are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate.”
She was told she could not cover the protests, and so were colleagues who retweeted her in solidarity. The paper's executive editor, Keith C. Burris, wrote in a column Wednesday that Johnson had crossed a line separating reporting and commentary.
Johnson doesn't believe the tweet inhibits her from covering the story fairly, or that readers would perceive her as biased.
“It's absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “It's kind of insulting to my experience and my professionalism as a journalist. It's not only insulting to me, but to black journalists around the country.”
A failure to include journalists of many different backgrounds means missing stories. Hardy, who just left a job in Greenville, S.C., said that without black journalists there, stories about gentrified neighborhoods would have gone untold.
The sweep of national protests following the death of George Floyd has news leaders talking to their staffs about how the story affects them.
A frank memo sent by Los Angeles Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine on Friday came after staff members pointed out instances of racial inequities. Pearlstine admitted that the newspaper had a long history feeding the city's racism as it grew. He said the paper did not have enough minority writers and managers and outlined steps to correct that.
“Our coverage didn't simply ignore people of color, it actively dehumanized them,” Pearlstine wrote. “More recently, we can be faulted for focusing on a white subscription base even as the city became majority non-white.”
Several issues led to The New York Times' ouster of editorial page editor James Bennet over a flawed opinion piece by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. An internal outcry over the essay wasn't apparent until a number of black journalists tweeted that Cotton's argument in favor of using federal troops to quell violence made them feel unsafe, and others throughout the newsroom supported them.
The Bon Appetit editor, Adam Rapoport, resigned after a picture of him in a racially insensitive Halloween costume emerged. On Wednesday, the magazine promised major changes, stating "our mastheads have been far too white for far too long.” Complaints about racism alleged by former staff members led to Refinery29 editor Christene Barberich's reassignment.
The impulse to take concerns about their news organizations public is one reason to believe that this time, concerns about diversity won't be forgotten anytime soon.
“Before, it stayed in-house,” Thompson said. “Now it's out there. And there's power in social media.”
Johnson, uncomfortable and a little unnerved at the attention that her case has received, said she hopes that speaking out pressure her bosses to change their mind.
At age 27, she doesn't want to be shut out of covering the biggest civil rights story of her generation.
Instead, she became part of it.