The Pittsburgh Story: Racism in the Media and its Impacts on the Public

When deficit-focused reporting fails to tell the full stories of communities of color, newsroom ethics are eroded.

“Stories told from only one side that are stereotypical and fail to delve into the subject’s humanity, perpetuate racism,” says Letrell Deshan Crittenden, PhD, who leads the Communications Program at Jefferson and has explored the landscape of legacy media outlets and their community influence. In his article for the Columbia Journalism Review Tow Center Reports, Dr. Crittenden showed how diversity and inclusion efforts failed to leave space for the voices of color in the newsroom, leading to skewed coverage.

He specifically examined legacy media – TV and newspapers – in the Pittsburgh-area. Recently, two reporters of color were banned by their employer, a local Pittsburgh Newspaper, from covering one of biggest protests of our time. The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh denounced these actions and the retaliation tactics of the newspaper. In his research, Crittenden discusses how legacy media in Pittsburgh have long over-represented people of color as criminals. Also providing less favorable and compassionate coverage of victims of disaster or those who suffer from substance abuse when the subjects are people of color. Following the publication of Dr. Crittenden’s scholarship, Pittsburgh City Council voted to declare racism a public health crisis. However, recent events indicate that the problem persists.

The work is particularly timely today, as people across the country raise their voices in protest against racism and police brutality. It comes at a time when editors from such notable outlets including the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer are departing because of deeply troubling editorial decisions.

Dr. Crittenden hasn’t stopped at analysis. In an effort to take the insights from his initial research into practice, he teamed up with Andrea Wenzel from Temple University to examine several interventions aimed at bridging the divide between the media and the community. The new work looked at projects aimed at fostering engagement between Philadelphia-area broadcast journalists and residents of Germantown who felt stigmatized by media coverage. It also involved a project called the Germantown Info Hub, which served as an online news outlet written for and by Germantown residents.

Here we speak to Dr. Crittenden about his work and findings on racism in the media

Q: Following a week of protests across all fifty states for black lives lost at the hands of the police — do you think they may give legacy media the tools or incentive for true reform?

 I think it is too early to say, but there seems to be a movement in finally recognizing the role systemic racism plays in coverage of African American communities, and how certain norms only help perpetuate this issue.  On July 6, I will be a moderator for a discussion on the role objectively has played in silencing the voices of journalists of color. In a response justifying the decision to pull Alexis Johnson off of coverage, the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cited norms related to objectivity and fairness as a reason for removing one of the paper’s only black reporters from covering arguably the biggest story surrounding race this century.  But as I tell my students, objectivity is an unrealistic standard. The moment you make a choice on who to interview, or what quotes to use in a story, you are making a subjective decision.  When you assign a reporter to a story, you are making a subjective decision.  Hiring is a subjective decision.  Thus, when you have a system, as you do in a place like Pittsburgh, where newsrooms collectively are less than ten percent black, despite the overall diversity of the city, when you have a situation where journalists of color have long felt they cannot express their concerns over coverage, and when you have a situation where newsrooms collectively fail to address systemic racism within their newsrooms, you have an overall situation in which the newsrooms of Pittsburgh have made a very subjective decision to not take seriously issues related to race.  The fact that some people are finally recognizing this is a step in the right direction.  But it doesn’t mean people will take action.  I’ve been addressing these issues about Pittsburgh for years.  It has taken protesting not seen since the 1960s, and public humiliation, for Pittsburgh newsrooms begin to possibly take the matter seriously.  We will see what happens in the forthcoming weeks.

Q: Some of the research you discuss relates to all legacy media.  Is Pittsburgh unique in its failure to deeply report on communities of color?

Great question. I think it is easier to discuss how a place like Philadelphia is an outlier as a media ecosystem.  To be clear, Philadelphia is very far from perfect.  As our research has indicated, the city still has problems with how African Americans perceive local news coverage of black communities.  Overall, however, you are seeing a greater effort across the board to try and engage communities of color, and support journalists of color.  Resolve in Philadelphia has championed collaboration among newsrooms in dealing with issues impacting Africa Americans, like reentry from incarceration and housing affordability.  More efforts are popping up designed to increase the amount of local news coverage afforded to predominately African American communities.  In the past year alone, the Germantown Info Hub has emerged, and the East Falls Local, which serves the Jefferson community, expanded coverage into Germantown. WHYY also allowed Dr. Wenzel to critique its approaches to engaging communities of color, for another piece that was released in WHYY.

In order to impact change, people in power must be willing to give agency to voices who are otherwise powerless within the larger framework of an organization.

Philadelphia is also home to a very strong and active chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, one that was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the Lenfest Foundation, and two strong legacy media outlets serving the African American community in WURD and the Philadelphia Tribune.  In all cases, you see journalists of color, academics of color and strong allies stepping up to make a difference in how narratives are shaped in the city.  In fact, people of color hold, or have recently held top positions within WHYY, the Philadelphia Daily News, Resolve and NBC 10.  Again, a great deal of work is needed to improve news coverage in the city.  But the ecosystem has a lot of positives.

Pittsburgh in many ways is the polar opposite of Philadelphia.  As my piece mentioned, many African American journalists are miserable with their situations as reporters in the city. Its local NABJ chapter – which won two chapter-of-the-year awards in a span of three years – struggles to pay the bills each year, notably with its essential workshop that trains high school students of color to become journalists.  There is virtually no diversity in newsrooms, notably among leadership.  There are virtually no professors of color within the city’s journalism and communication schools. Local black media is struggling.  As noted in a 2016 census I helped lead, the New Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s black newspaper, has one reporter. And while Point Park University has attempted to create a Resolve-style effort in the city, the results I have heard thus far on the willingness of people to collaborate has been mixed.

But let me make this clear: Pittsburgh’s situation is far more common than unique. Most newsrooms across the nation are underrepresented in terms of diversity.  If you speak with residents of color in other areas, as I did recently for another study I’m conducting in Central Pennsylvania, they will say that they are displeased with news coverage.  Efforts to engage communities, or work on solutions-oriented approaches to coverage, are seen by many journalists as advocacy, thus falling outside the boundaries of very problematic journalistic norms.  Thus, as I state in my piece about Pittsburgh, what ails the Steel City is what impacts journalists throughout the nation, notably in areas with smaller populations of African Americans and other individuals of color.

Q: You write that increasing the diversity in a newsroom isn’t enough. Why not? What did your research find?

The argument that diversity will improve coverage has always had a fatal flaw since it was first pitched by the Kerner Commission in 1968.  It assumes that when people of color enter a workforce, they will have the ability to change from within any issues leading to poor news coverage.  That’s just not how newsrooms or frankly most workplaces operate.  In order to impact change, people in power must be willing to give agency to voices who are otherwise powerless within the larger framework of an organization. In short, they have to be willing to listen to employees, and adjust based on what they hear.

That simply was not happening in Pittsburgh, based on my study.  Many African American newsroom employees felt their concerns were dismissed by superiors.  Story ideas they would propose were ignored.  In some cases, newsroom workers became frustrated to the point where they either left the newsroom, or simply coped by keeping their mouths shut about issues they see, thus accepting the status quo.

Q: Your new project was aimed at learning from residents here in Philadelphia, whose neighborhood is affected by overwhelmingly negative media coverage. What were some of the biggest take-aways from those conversations?

The biggest takeaway from my perspective is that local residents are quite aware of the issues related to coverage. They also have a host of ideas on how to better serve their information needs through both engagement efforts and other direct interventions related to providing news coverage.

I often hear that local residents lack the media literacy to understand what they need from media.  I’m increasingly finding that isn’t the case. In reality, media lack the community literacy skills to understand how to better connect with marginalized communities, and are increasingly under pressure to disengage from community-centered reporting as a result of cutbacks within newsrooms. One of our goals with the Germantown Info Hub is to test ways that journalists can better engage with communities, either through direct contact, community events, or better story telling.  In turn, we hope to equip residents with the skills to better connect with journalists, and, when necessary, produce news content on their own.

Q: You write that although residents recommend that positive stories could counteract the stigmatizing narratives, journalism, which tries to tell “both sides” of a story, can be at odds with this approach.  Could positive stories be a means of correcting the record?

A solution is “solutions journalism.” What we advocate for with the Germantown Info Hub are stories based on the solutions journalism model. Solutions journalism as a concept has been out for several years, and is practiced across the nation by groups like Resolve.  It also has its critics, because of the traditional standards you noted. It’s seen as advocacy journalism.  But it’s not.  Solutions journalism seeks to find out ways to deal with various issues by first exploring the causes of the issue.  Then, it analyzes the potential effectiveness of proposed remedies, by looking at what has worked in the past, and what hasn’t. The approach is designed to move away from just talking about problems.  It is also designed to move away from simply posting “feel-good” stories about efforts without critically assessing whether or not they have a chance of working. For example, we did a story on the fact that Germantown residents feel they have a lack of fresh grocery options. One person suggested that a solution could be the development of a low-waste vegan grocery. While that sounds great in theory, such an establishment may not be accessible to everyone, given the food options and the likely price point of the products. Germantown has a large number of residents who live under the poverty line.  Additionally, Germantown actually has a number of long-time vegan eateries. Thus, it would be entering a marketplace that is already saturated. As you can see, this story didn’t merely discuss how great the idea would be. It gave a critical assessment as to whether or not such an option was the best solution within the neighborhood.

That’s not to say profiles and feel-good stories aren’t sometimes warranted. We do write profiles for the Info Hub, as a means of counterbalancing negative portrayals of the neighborhood. But I would argue that the idea that there are two sides to every story, and that balance is required for every story, is a significant flaw within how we do news coverage in the press.  A solutions orientation rejects this model as insufficient to dealing with significant issues.

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