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Newsrooms must do more for black journalists, says PG’s Alexis Johnson

  • By Katie Blackley/WESA

Newsrooms are not doing enough to support and amplify the voices of black journalists. That was the message from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson during a Tuesday virtual panel hosted by 1Hood Media, called “What Black Pittsburgh Needs to Know About Media.”

Johnson, who is black, spoke about her recent experience being pulled from protest coverage by the newspaper’s management. She said she was told that a tweet she sent about trash after a Kenny Chesney concert showed bias about the demonstrations.

During the conversation with management, Johnson says she responded that a reporter pointing out white supremacy after the Tree of Life shooting in 2018 wouldn’t have been punished.

“I said to them specifically, I said, ‘because I’m a black woman and I’m speaking on a black issue, all the sudden makes me bias?’” Johnson said. “It was really disheartening, and I think the double standard was pretty clear.”

A Pittsburgh native with a graduate degree from Temple University, Johnson added that she specifically had the knowledge and a cultural understanding of the demonstrators, more so than most white journalists in her newsroom.

“Black journalists have been covering these protests since the beginning of time,” Johnson said. “And we’ve had to swallow it. We can’t protest and we can’t tweet about how we’re feeling … and still we’re able to show up every day and do our jobs accurately and fairly.”

If newsrooms had more editors and managers of color, Johnson added, she likely wouldn’t have been pulled from coverage for the satirical tweet.

“If I had one [non-white] person to pull my managing editor aside and say, ‘Hey, we should rethink this before we act this way. How is this going to look?’ That kind of thing, I think that would truly make a difference,” Johnson said.

2018 Pew Research analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data found that newsroom employees around the country are overwhelming white and male, and especially so for upper management. That trend is changing with younger journalists entering the field, Johnson said it’s important for newsrooms to reassess how the idea of “objectivity” functions within their reporting.

“The millennials that kind of grew up on the internet are being more and more vocal and kind of founding our voices on these platforms,” Johnson said. “These archaic rules about objectivity and ‘be quiet and don’t talk about anything’ were created before social media.”

After Johnson was pulled from coverage, photographer Michael Santiago, who is also black, was taken off the assignments, as well.

Johnson thanked her colleagues at the Post-Gazette, specifically those who are members of the PG News Guild, which has called for Johnson’s reinstatement to protest coverage, and urged advertisers to pressure the paper’s management.

Hosted by the groups 1Hood Media, UrbanKind Institute and Black Women, Wise Women, or BW3, panelists began the conversation by talking about the recent protests against police brutality throughout Pittsburgh. The panel was moderated by BW3 President Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell and included Dr. Jamil Bey, CEO of UrbanKind; Janel Young, artist in residence at UrbanKind; and Jasiri X, CEO of 1Hood Media.

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