The fallout from recent protests over the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have reignited long-standing concerns on the part of many Black journalists about their roles in the newsrooms they work in, and the value they are given (or not given) by the media companies they work for, how their voices are marginalized and/or silenced, etc. In one particularly egregious case, Alexis Johnson, a Black journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was prevented from covering the protests because of a single innocuous, joking tweet. Others have also been silenced in a variety of ways, or had their work tokenized by largely white newsrooms. Journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and many other leading publications have taken to Twitter and elsewhere to talk about their experiences of systemic racism in those companies.
We brought together a group of Black journalists this week using CJR’s Galley discussion platform to talk about their experiences with systemic racism in the industry, a group that included CBS News reporter and former Washington Post correspondent Wesley Lowery, author of a recent essay in the New York Times entitled “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists” (which sparked a related discussion series on Galley about whether objectivity has outlived its usefulness). Others who have taken part include Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th, a nonprofit focusing on gender-related issues, and a former national correspondent on race for Associated Press; Karen Attiah, global opinion editor for the Washington Post; Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root; Alissa Richardson, an assistant professor of journalism at USC Annenberg and author of the recent book Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalismand Adriana Lacy and Erin Logan, who both work at the Los Angeles Times.
One theme that ran through many of the discussions was the additional work that Black journalists often have to do in newsrooms. On top of often covering stories that involve violence against other Black people, with the associated emotional trauma that can produce, many Black journalists are also called on to give advice about stories written by non-Black reporters, and to educate their colleagues about racism and its effects. “In one of my group texts, this one with two other black male reporters, we recently were all talking about how there’s been a noticeable uptick in ‘Hey – could you give this a glance?’ notes that we’ve gotten from colleagues in recent weeks,” said Lowery. “And, to be clear, almost every black reporter I’ve ever encountered is eager and happy to help, but… there is very little appreciation of the real labor involved in being every person in the newsroom’s ‘black friend.'”
Lots of people have probably taken on projects or learned new things while quarantined with COVID0-19 — how to play the piano, how to paint, finished a novel, etc. But we had a pretty special experience, and it was special in part because we didn’t plan it at all, it just happened. It started in mid-March, when my wife Becky and I headed to the Farm (where we live now, near Buckhorn, about two hours north of Toronto) after coming back from vacation in Florida. Along with our youngest daughter Zoe, who joined us there during quarantine, we helped raise a little lamb who lost the ability to walk for some reason. Over the next couple of months, we helped teach him how to use his legs again and he wound up returning to his flock and becoming just a regular sheep. It was a lot of work at times, but it was definitely worth it. It was like living one of those Netflix specials or a Hallmark movie of the week!
It all started because a neighbour who lives across the road near Buckhorn asked if he could use one of the fields at the Farm to raise some sheep. So he put up a little pen and put some sheep in there, and then — as they do — the ewes had lambs (this tends to happen when you put a ram in with the ewes). First it was the twins we called Pebbles and Bam Bam, whose mother we naturally named Wilma. And then one morning when we went up to the pen, there was a little voice bleating: a new little lamb, wandering around the pen looking for his mom. But his mom — Bella — was still in labour with what would eventually be two other lambs, and so she didn’t have time to pay attention to the one we called Primo. So the poor little guy wandered around trying to nurse off just about everything, including the ram — who didn’t like that much, and head-butted poor Primo a bunch of times. And then finally, Bella gave birth to Big Red, and the one we called Dopey.
In 2011, two photographers entered the so-called “No go zone” that extends for about 20 kilometres around the site of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which flooded during the tsunami in March of 2011, shutting down the power and cooling systems for three of the plant’s reactors, which leaked radioactive fuel. About 150,000 people had to be evacuated, and they left everything behind, including farm animals, personal belongings and cars — all of which was quickly overgrown with vines and other vegetation.
The photographers also too pictures of some former townspeople in their shops and places of work, all of which have been more or less destroyed by shoplifters and vandals.
The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor and the protests that followed helped spark a debate in many newsrooms and journalism schools around the country about the time-honored principle of objectivity in journalism, and whether it serves any useful purpose or is just a dusty artifact of an earlier time. Former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wrote in the New York Times that what we call objective journalism “is constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision-making,” and has been defined “almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” Since then, journalists at the Los Angeles Times and other newsrooms have spoken out about their longstanding experiences of racism and a lack of diversity, and the impact that has had on the journalism they and their employers do. So is objectivity a relic? And if so, what should we replace it with? We got a group of journalists and other experts together on CJR”s Galley platform this week for a virtual panel discussion on those and other related questions.
Lewis Raven Wallace is a transgender writer, journalist, and author of the recent book “A View From Somewhere,” as well as the host of a podcast of the same name. He is also a co-founder of Press On, a Southern collective of journalists, storytellers, and organizers that uses journalism in the service of liberation. Wallace’s book is based in part on his personal experience as a former reporter for Marketplace who was fired in 2017 after he wrote a blog post questioning the idea of objective journalism. “As a transgender journalist, it was a scary time,” he said during our interview. “I didn’t feel I could or should have to be silent about the Trump administration’s attacks on trans people, people of color, and freedom of the press.” Wallace said in his view, it’s not an either/or debate between personal journalism versus objective journalism. “I believe objectivity itself is a myth that’s been perpetuated based on a normative white male cisgender perspective in journalism,” he said. “The journalism we call objective is generally just biased towards acceptable social and political norms.”
Wallace said in his view, the media need to think about “the relationship between journalism, identity, community, and truth” and that focusing on that can offer a path forward for journalism that rebuilds trust with audiences, trust that has been lost after decades of supposed objectivity. Morgan Givens also argued that a complete reframing of what journalism is and how it operates is necessary to move forward. Givens is a writer, performer, and audio producer based in Washington, DC who works with NPR and WAMU and is also a former police officer who worked in prisons to eliminate sexual violence. “Black Americans have always lived in a United States where police killed us and still do with impunity, but this was an America that white journalistic institutions and those who allow them to function ignored,” he said. “Is ignoring these communities an example of being objective or ignoring the truth because the reality makes white journalists uncomfortable?”