Pittsburgh Media Accountability: How the city’s protests shine a light on systemic issues in our newsrooms

Pittsburgh Police square off with peaceful protesters on Saturday, May 30. (Pittsburgh Current Photo by Mark Alberti)

By Brittany Hailer
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

The New Pittsburgh Courier, founded in 1966 by Rod Doss, is named after the Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of the most influential African-American newspapers in the country. Managing editor, Rob Taylor, told me that The New Pittsburgh Courier focuses on the needs and sentiments in the black community when covering stories, including the murder of George Floyd. Taylor said that the video of George  Floyd’s killing confirmed many feelings within the paper’s majority-black readership. 

“What can be done to curb this way of thinking by the police? What can be done to curb these types of actions against our community by the police? This is what the Courier is reporting. We are not concerned with promoting photos or videos of rioting, looting, or a police car being burned. That is not the true focus for our African American community. The focus is on changing the system, eliminating racist views, and making this country better for all, especially African Americans,” Taylor said. 

This complex web of truth-telling is compounded by the fact that most newsrooms (including our own) are predominately white. Those mostly-white newsrooms have mostly-white management. Which means, black reporters’ stories and pitches are edited by white people, with their own host of conscious and unconscious racial bias and prejudices. 

Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette removed black reporter Alexis Johnson from covering protests because she tweeted photos of trash left behind by Kenny Chesney tailgaters with the text, “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. Whoops.”

Taylor commended Johnson on her previous coverage, both on the black community and her general assignment reporting elsewhere. He called her a journalist on the rise. Johnson’s coverage of the protest is vital right now. Why? Because she has lived experience that white reporters do not:

 “Alexis, being an African American woman, can see certain perspectives in the field covering the George Floyd protests and demonstrations that those who aren’t African American just cannot fully understand or relate to. There are already a small percentage of African American journalists covering the George Floyd protests on the ground in Pittsburgh. Now is not the time to make it even smaller. Management’s job is to provide the proper coaching and then uplift its reporters and editors. Alexis has shown no bias in any of her published reporting,” said Taylor. 

1Hood Media is an artist and activist collective whose members utilize art to raise awareness. Recently, the collective has been hosting virtual town halls spreading information and education on various topics including COVID-19 risks in the black community and the recent Pittsburgh protests. 1Hood Media provided a statement to Pittsburgh Current regarding Johnson’s removal from covering the protests:

“The [removal] of Alexis Johnson represents the Pittsburgh so many of us know.  A city that defines itself as being the worst place for Black women to live and exist.  For the past few months, Alexis has worked tirelessly to create content that celebrates the beauty of Black peoples in this city while helping to create spaces for innovative dialogue and community. For a truthful tweet, she was removed from writing about a subject she knows best: Black lives.  Her removal happens while other local personalities outright disparage our communities, sister publications equate buildings to Black lives, and national syndicates call for the troops to murder us in the street.  If journalism is about shining truth on the cold, hard facts, then Alexis is doing her job.  If Pittsburgh is about attacking diverse millennials to create a hub of technology and media, Alexis is a pinnacle of what one can achieve. But she’s being unceremoniously cast aside for calling us in for our double standards. We need more Alexis Johnsons in media–period.  It’s time the most livable city includes the safety, protection, and inclusion of Black women without conditions.”

On June 5, Pittsburgh Black Media Federation (PBMF) issued a statement of outrage at Johnson’s removal. Brian Cook, president of the Pittsburgh Black Media ­­Federation said, “To remove one of very few African American news reporters – in the entire city of Pittsburgh – from a beat where she could make a difference, is not only troubling, it is abhorrent.”

PBMF called into question the justification for Jonhson’s removal: “Johnson’s social media communications was from her private Twitter account. It was there that she raised a question and offered a comparison that challenged stereotypes. There was no malicious bias and nothing to suggest her reporting would be compromised or slanted if she continued telling the story of the protests.”

For mostly-white newsrooms just hiring more people of color is not enough because diversity does not equal equity:  racism does not disappear after you have more people of color in the room. Pittsburgh news organizations need equity training; their black reporters should have space to express individual needs and concerns when navigating interracial relationships at work. Black reporters should be able to express outrage at injustices without censure. They should feel valued. They should be able to check their colleague’s and manager’s privilege, but also, white journalists should speak truth to power within their own organizations when they witness their colleagues suffering microaggressions or racism. We have to learn how to be uncomfortable because discomfort can no longer limit the actions we take both professionally and personally. 

Letrell Deshan Crittenden published in his study “The Pittsburgh problem: race, media and everyday life in the Steel City” that black journalists from Pittsburgh “experienced backlash when they voiced concerns about coverage and lack of diversity. Sometimes they were simply ignored. This led many individuals to stay quiet on issues of diversity and inclusion.”

Yesterday, Journalists of Color at the Philadelphia Inquirer published an open letter to their management, stating in part, “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age. 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. We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.”

‘Fair and balanced’ reporting means getting sources on two sides of a story so that your reporting remains objective. However, objectivity is not the same as fairness because it demands neutrality no matter what’s happening around us. News outlets have a duty to put quotes in context. Reporting the words and explanations of a bully without examination or nuance is not a fair practice, but a dangerous one. 

‘I was complicit in my own whiteness and ignorance in reporting’

Let me start here: on March 30th, I wrote a story covering the “Justice for George Floyd Rally” in downtown Pittsburgh. This was the first mass demonstration to take place in Pittsburgh since George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Thousands of protestors marched in the streets, dwarfing the size of previous demonstrations I’ve reported on, like those in the wake of the Antwon Rose II murder. I was in awe of my city. I was overwhelmed, sweating in my mask.I watched as my neighbors risked contracting a virus that has killed thousands of American lives. They did so to fight another invisible virus, one as old as the United States itself — one that reinvents its lethal nature in every aspect of American life, and claims the lives of our black and brown citizens without impunity. 

I want to break down how I was complicit in my own whiteness and ignorance in reporting the events from that day and how the media landscape needs to reconfigure their approach to covering our current civil rights movement. 

The headline of my account of the May 30 protest read:
“Peaceful Protest For George Floyd ‘Hijacked By Small Group’ That Turns Event Violent.”

This framing and headline is subjective and inaccurate to the events that unfolded on May 30. Even though “Hijacked by small group” is in quotes, having it in the headline, where you can’t give attribution, legitimizes the false narrative that outsiders are the ones turning protests violent.

As I was reflecting on my coverage and my role as a white journalist covering these protests, I wanted to ask my editor some questions about why we do what we do and why we made certain decisions.

Since its inception, Pittsburgh Current, says Editor/Publisher Charlie Deitch, has tried to break out of old reporting customs. But, he admits, he dropped the ball here.

“We approach each story with the goal of being accurate and complete in our reporting. That means talking to all parties involved in a situation,” Deitch said. “But, we’ve made it our job to not just report what is said, but to vet those comments. All sides should be presented, but not all sides deserve to be treated equally based on the circumstances of the issue. If one side is wrong, it’s our responsibility to point that out. We didn’t vet this information fully at the time we printed and that was an error that we own.”

Deitch said his concern was that the protesters, and the bulk of the attendees who were people of color, would be unfairly targeted as instigators and escalators of the situation.

“What I realized was that while we recognized when and where the escalation of this event started, at that moment on deadline we placed that blame on the protesters being identified as anarchists,” Deitch said. “That was shortsighted. But when city officials came out saying the same thing, without acknowledging their use of tear gas and rubber bullets, we realized there was more to it and started planning our followup story examining the history of violence in Pittsburgh at the hands of Pittsburgh Police.”

“We were wrong and when that happens it’s our responsibility to own it,” he said. 

Many white Pittsburgh journalists, myself included, reported a turn at this demonstration. After a young white man–who has since been identified and arrested by Pittsburgh Police–smashed the windows of a cop car, I reported that the protest turned violent. After publication, many organizers, activists and Pittsburgh citizens asked, What constitutes violence? A man smashing the windows of a car? Or the police using the escalation as a reason to mobilize and teargas the crowds who had migrated Downtown after the incident? 

One reader wrote to Pittsburgh Current, “Wow, you took the cops’ narrative and ate it right up. There are people who were blinded and disfigured by rubber bullets, chemical weapons used on everyone, at least one cop putting his knee on the neck of an already restrained Black protestor just like Chauvin did Floyd…The mayor has had it out for “anarchists” (which he calls anyone that doesn’t protest in a nice little box he designates,) long before he was mayor when he was blanketing entire city’s worth of leftist activists with the same ‘crime.’”

I reported that the protest was hi-jacked by a fringe group of a select few white kids because that was what our Mayor told us and because of who I saw smash a cop car. I did not question this narrative and how it could be harmful to communities of color and the larger national dialogue. The idea that fringe-white groups hijacked the protest detracts from the fact that the protestors who were scattered downtown received the brunt of the force from the Pittsburgh Police.

I discussed the recent unfolding of protests with PBMF president Brian Cook and he emphasized the incredible responsibility of journalists, “We as journalists, we have a very important role in our society. And very dangerous as well. What we say can sway the public opinion of a person or group of people.”

Cook emphasized that he did not want to call recent protest coverage a ‘failure’ acknowledging that “As a journalist, I know you have to report on what you see, but I think more voices could be used in help telling the story.”  

However, Cook said, “The failures would come in when you missed a mark on a story and did not make a retraction or correction. Many media organizations may want to stick to their guns if they miss a mark on a story–but as journalists, we want to be as credible as possible. We don’t want to link errors, especially blatant errors. If those errors aren’t’ corrected, that is a clear failure. People would respect the media even more if you made a mistake and admit to it.”

‘This happens when you don’t hold power to account’

On June 1, Pittsburgh Police tear-gassed protestors in East Liberty. City Paper was the only Pittsburgh newsroom to report this (at the time), deviating from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s press conference where he said that only smoke was used. Peduto held the news conference after witnesses reported their accounts online that police used excessive force on peaceful protesters. 

And then, the next day, Pittsburgh Police admitted that they did, in fact, use tear gas. Media outlets scrambled to report this development and on June 2, Peduto announced an investigation into police actions at the East Liberty protest. 

Courtney Linder, formerly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and now a news editor at Popular Mechanics, tweeted on June 2: 

“…I’ve had multiple non-media friends desperately reaching out to me about why Pittsburgh media has been covering the protests in a way that clearly doesn’t align with the videos that have been taken of the events. This happens when you don’t hold power to account. Our literal job…I think the biggest problem is that we want to hide behind a facade of ‘objectivity,’ one of the old-school tenets of journalism 101. But in the process, we are blind to what is happening right before our eyes. You can be fair without regurgitating glaringly obvious lies.”

So, our Mayor has provided false information to the press and the people. This version of events was corrected by social media posts and testimonies while many Pittsburgh media outlets reported the information his administration provided. The reason Peduto is opening an investigation into the East Liberty protest is because the people–not the press–called him into account and demanded it.

  My question is: At what point is white media going to get in front of this? At what point are we going to hold ourselves accountable?

Journalists are trained to remain objective and unbiased in their reporting–but at what point do we acknowledge that objectivity cannot exist? Each white reporter on the ground is viewing the events in front of them with implicit racial bias. It cannot be avoided. It is systemic and ubiquitous. It’s what allowed someone like me to ignore the voices of the people in the street and report what the man was saying behind the podium. 

Right now, we are watching our government and police force mobilize in order to suppress the civil liberties of Pittsburgh residents through curfews, rubber bullets and tear gas. My May 30th coverage is a reflection of my whiteness. I wrote that the mounted police stood their ground “as long as they could” but failed to question why mounted police were in the crowd in the first place. I wrote a story that centered the white man’s actions and not the violence of the Pittsburgh Police Department. 

If I had slowed down and not worried so much about being the first to get the story out, I could have taken the time to listen to the wisdom of the community. This tenant is more important now, than ever. Moving forward, it is imperative for me to understand and believe what the people on the ground saying happened and what community members are asking of our Mayor. No longer should I over-rely on elite, white sources and their rhetoric.

In her study, “Locating Whiteness in Journalism Pedagogy,” Sonya M. Alemán writes, “Moreover, reliance on official record keeping government documents, logs, files, court dockets, council agendas, and meeting minutes sustain the ‘‘status quo and an epistemology embedded with whiteness’’ because these records are ‘‘tied to ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘objectivity’.”

 I must examine my word choice in regards to “violence” or “escalation.” Am I using violent language to describe the actions of black protestors and softer language when describing the actions of white police officers? I will continue to ask myself whether I have considered the impact of the story on the lives of people of color. I will ask myself  if there is a dominant (white) discourse and if I have questioned this approach. 

I will ask myself, am I really minimizing harm? 

One Comment

  • Anne Rehm says:

    Excellent. I sent this to the Sarasota Herald Tribune. This was obviously written quickly, as there were things being said that needed to get out there. A little editing would be good: tenants/tenets for example. But that’s just nitpicking. Really, I am so pleased to see this. The author is thinking more deeply, something we all need to do.

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