Philadelphia newsrooms must shift culture and give power to Black journalists. Here’s how.
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (July 1, 2020) – In Philadelphia in 1973, Black reporter Acel Moore of the Philadelphia Inquirer met with The Philadelphia Daily News’ Chuck Stone and The Evening Bulletin Claude Lewis to rally local Black journalists and create an organization that would advocate for fair treatment, equity and accurate representation within their newsrooms.
That organization, the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, would become the first association of Black journalists in the country, and the founding organization of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).
To this day, nearly 50 years later, the same issues the founders of PABJ and NABJ fought for, identical to the ones raised in President Lyndon B. Johnsons’ groundbreaking Kerner Commission Report, are the ones we find ourselves advocating for in 2020.
We carry their legacy and their struggles in an effort to reimagine how Philadelphia newsrooms cover Black communities and how they actively incorporate Black community leaders, local Black journalists and local Black readers into every single fabric of their newsgathering and news distribution processes.
For decades PABJ has had to advocate for newsrooms to change their culture and include adequate Black representation within every part of their hierarchy: from reporters to the board room. Philadelphia is a city with a 44% Black population with a 25% poverty rate, and newsrooms have a long way to go to deconstruct the status quo which has historically supported white supremacy and racist policies.
Generations later, we’re still fighting to move the needle an inch for proper reparations that address the ongoing systemic issues and barriers which continue to divide and detach local newsrooms from the city’s Black communities. Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly” published in 2013 and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Buildings Matter, Too” story that was published this year are just two of numerous examples of newsrooms’ detachment from Black communities.
With the reckoning we’re seeing with similar uprising at the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Los Angeles Times, now is the time for local newsrooms to make the necessary changes that Black communities have demanded.
We’re at a crossroads right now in the media, and Black communities are sick and tired of not being listened to, valued, or incorporated into how the media is created in this city. More Black journalists are speaking out about racism in their newsrooms, more journalists of color are rallying for radical restructuring of power, and more foundations are emphasizing initiatives and projects that put race and equity front and center.
These foundations are also shifting away from projects and products that are historically awarded to newsrooms that serve up platitudes or buzzwords of a better informed society when they’re actually a veil to continue to cater toward white demographics, or privileged communities who are financially capable of paying for the news.
A reminder: Philadelphia has a 25% poverty rate and Black and brown communities are primarily impacted by this poverty.
Incremental change stops now. We’re still at the table hoping to address several issues in this industry, some that are new, but many which have been documented for more than 50 years; issues and troubles where viable and clear-cut solutions proposed by many Black journalists and journalists of color have been rejected, refused, silenced or dismissed.
No longer can we let this happen.
Below are just a few suggestions that Philadelphia newsrooms, and newsrooms across the country, can implement to set a baseline of their current diversity struggles, begin to shift culture, and make actionable changes that address systemic issues which continue to mar the hard work and great journalism that Black journalists and journalists of color produce each and every day.
Conduct and publicly publish an annual newsroom-wide sourcing audit to determine demographics of sources and determine pervasiveness of bias within news coverage and source listing.
It’s been documented over several years how bias in newsrooms hurts reporting. Every editor and every reporter should undergo a source audit within a one-year timespan to determine the level of inherent, unconscious or complicit bias in their work and then make that report available to the public. Luckily, NPR has done this for multiple years through its Source Diversity At NPR initiative. Locally, WHYY has too. Therefore, other local newsrooms should follow suit.
Conduct and publicly publish an annual diversity audit of its newsroom and company to document and measure diversity improvements.
Newsrooms have historically failed to diversity their newsrooms. This must be addressed immediately with an audit of each newsroom, with results published to the public for transparency and accountability. Attached to this report should be efforts that detail what changes will be made, each year, to shift the makeup of their newsroom, and company, to accurately reflect the demographics of the city. This audit should happen annually. Anything less is a disservice to Black communities.
Audit and publicly publish the demographic percentage of subscribers, viewers, readers and/or donors.
Too often newsrooms who ascribe to build their subscriber or donor bases only build subscribers that are majority white and cater toward white-centered issues. In fact, the L.A. Times sent out a newsroom email acknowledging that by emphasizing their subscriber base, it created bias within their news coverage, causing them to focus “on a white subscriber base even as the city became majority non-white.” We want local newsrooms to publicly audit their subscriber, reader, donor or viewer base each year and make the demographic percentage of these populations public to ensure that solutions focused on diversifying and expanding the demographic base of these groups are being met.
Create a local and diverse community advisory board for more direct community input on news
Newsrooms’ decision makers have proven time and time again that they are culturally incompetent and are detached from the realities of what’s happening within Black and brown communities. Training alone does not suddenly make one conscious about bias and white supremacist tendencies in editorial decision making.
Local newsrooms have never historically made concrete, or structural, efforts to educate and uplift Black communities so they may better understand the work, role and impact local journalism has on these communities.
These communities have been shut out from the process, despite having decades upon decades of insight, nuance, perspective and context behind issues and systems that continually impact their neighborhoods.
This is a call to create a direct channel of communication and engagement that invites neighborhood leaders (not business people who wear fancy titles and run white-led organizations) to the editorial table, giving them a say on what they think is appropriate and newsworthy, and to begin a process of centering the way the newsroom listens and serves Black communities and the readers it’s trying to acquire.
Luckily, this has already been implemented in other newsrooms. Other newsrooms have adopted similar models in other parts of the country. Therefore, there is no excuse to say it doesn’t work, or can’t work, in a diverse city like Philadelphia.
Journalists can’t deem themselves a “service” when they do not proportionally serve the communities that demand service and information. It’s time local newsrooms puts their public service status to work and develop opportunities for direct community feedback and input.
Creation of a public editor position that can critique coverage, improve media literacy for the public, investigate newsroom grievances and hold the newsrooms accountable
The public editor serves as the public’s eye and critic for newsroom coverage, a much-needed external position to keep local newsrooms accountable for their editorial decision making, their marketing and sales efforts, and their advertising partnerships.
This critical eye must be restored and led by a Black community leader who’s given unobstructed access to interviewing and questioning newsroom employees, learning about editorial processes and decision making, and bringing questions directly from the public to the company to elevate the communities’ media literacy.
This public editor should be selected by PABJ with input from Black community leaders, and given all the necessary tools and resources to investigate and report back to the public what’s happening on the inside. The public editor should also work to measure and audit all PABJ-proposed initiatives that are in partnership with newsrooms, as well as the efficiency of all diversity and equity measures that newsrooms implement within their companies.
This is what transparency and accountability is about.
Diversify the company.
Hire more Black people and people of color, including those from the LGTBQIA+ and Indigenous communities and make sure they are accurately reflected within all levels of the company, from management to the board. Enough has been said on this, there’s no excuse for HR and hiring managers to claim “they can’t find diverse sources.” That’s patently false and lazy.
Managers should be held accountable for the diversity of their teams. After all, the demographics of a company is a direct reflection to their diversity efforts and their values of maintaining a diverse workforce.
Any incentive within a performance review for managers , whether it’s better benefits, better salary, new title or new responsibilities, must be tied to that manager’s diversity efforts. Did they come up short or outright fail to improve their team or their coverage? No promotion or increase in benefits then. We must be serious about the consequences of not shifting the culture of the newsroom. If managers can’t handle that, they are not fit for the role.
We look forward to leading and organizing conversations around these proposals with clear expectations that by partnering with Black media organizations like PABJ, implementing these proposals can lead to equitable changes within the Philadelphia media ecosystem and support the demands of Black journalists and journalists of color within your newsrooms.
Perhaps, at last, we can finally start to break the media’s racist cycle which has marginalized our communities, disenfranchised our power to tell our stories accurately, and censored our voices.