Racial protests prompt waves of upheaval in America’s newsrooms

A highly charged debate over racial justice advocacy and the ostensible goal of neutrality is likely to shape the future of 21st-century journalism.

Some staff members at The New York Times as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer recently called in sick to protest editorial decisions they found insensitive during the protests over George Floyd's death.

Julio Cortez/AP/File

In 2017, the syndicated radio show Marketplace fired a reporter for violating a tenet of the profession: neutrality. 

Journalist Lewis Wallace had written a personal blog post about the role of the Fourth Estate during the Donald Trump era titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.” He also strongly implied that the president is affiliated with white supremacists.

“The argument that I was making at that time was essentially that this idea of objective journalism is no longer shaping up,” says the transgender millennial, who was dismissed for expressing a political opinion by a media outlet keen to avoid perceptions of bias. “We need to, as journalists, be clear about and embrace our values, which in my view should include anti-racism.” 

On America’s most political holiday, clashing visions are nothing new

Mr. Wallace now appears to have been just a few years ahead of his time. In the wake of this month’s Black Lives Matter protests, newsrooms across the country are being challenged by mostly younger journalists to not only diversify their staffs but also to drop “both sides” journalism in favor of more activist stances which they believe provide moral clarity. They’re questioning restrictions against joining political protests and posting opinions on social media. And they’ve agitated to oust veteran colleagues who’ve published controversial opinion pieces.

The push for social justice advocacy isn’t just happening at media outlets such as The New York Times. Generation Z and millennial employees are urging similar stances within tech companies, big corporations, book publishers, and arts organizations. Such calls for a moral North Star have often been accompanied by a drive to shift the range of “acceptable” opinions within organizations. That’s raising questions within newsrooms about whether such curbs on speech are compatible with the search for truth and engendering public trust in the press. It’s a debate that is likely to shape the future of 21st-century journalism.

“One of the factors here, frankly, is that newsrooms have kind of developed a culture of their own,” says Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. “The culture is not necessarily that we are providing information for an electorate so that self-governing citizens can make their own decisions – but that, in fact, we are creating news organizations that are designed to influence public opinion.”

Others argue that the media’s long-standing tradition of presenting a balance of voices creates a problematic impression of moral equivalence. 

“American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment,” tweeted former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize who was arrested while covering the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Some contend that the tumult across America this month underscores the importance of staking out racial justice principles. They believe it’s not just opinion pages that need to be reformed, but news reporting, too. 

Mr. Wallace, the former Marketplace employee, recently published a book that argues the journalistic tradition of “objectivity” has historically given newspapers cover to repress and sideline muckrakers such as Ida B. Wells, the Black investigative reporter who documented America’s sordid history of lynchings during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

“There’s this long tradition in the Black press of journalism as resistance, journalism as activism,” says Mr. Wallace, author of “The View From Somewhere.” “It took activism and advocacy on the part of Black journalists, but also Black activists using the means of journalism – using Twitter, using live video footage, using Instagram, you know, documenting it – to get the mainstream media to report the truth about police violence in the United States.”

Newsroom revolts

Since the protests began, employees at numerous news organizations have staked out activist positions. The staff of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are currently engaged in a stand-off with executive editor Keith Burris (who has written opinion pieces in support of President Donald Trump). After Mr. Burris barred a Black reporter from covering the protests because of a tweet that he believed revealed bias, a huge contingent of the newsroom rose up to support her. They, too, were then barred from reporting on the protests.  

The top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer recently exited the paper following a furor over a piece by the staff architecture critic with the headline: “Buildings Matter, too.” At The Intercept, colleagues of writer Lee Fang exacted an apology from the journalist for posting a video interview with a Black man who asked, “Why does a Black life matter only when a white man takes it?”  

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington May 5, 2020. Senator Cotton wrote a controversial New York Times op-ed arguing that local law enforcement may need active-duty military forces to help tamp down racial unrest in the U.S. Days after its publication, and following an internal uproar at the Times, the editor of the paper's opinion section, James Bennet, resigned.
Andrew Harnik/AP

The staff revolt that has garnered the most attention is at The New York Times. Outrage erupted over a June 3 op-ed in which Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas proposed the use of military force to quell rioting. Many Times staffers claimed that Senator Cotton’s proposal, if enacted, would put Black journalists in harm’s way. Further objections asserted that the piece included factual inaccuracies. Within days, opinion section editor James Bennet resigned. 

Amid the fallout, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss tweeted that the newspaper was split into two camps. “The New York Times motto is ‘all the news that’s fit to print,’” tweeted Ms. Weiss. “One group emphasizes the word ‘all.’ The other, the word ‘fit.’”

The columnist blamed a culture of “safetyism” among more recent college graduates. Other staffers took issue with her analysis, with her tweets themselves generating harsh pushback.

“It is an expansion of some of the mentalities on college campuses ... looking at controversial or unwanted speech as a form of violence or being harmful,” says Donald Downs, author of “Free Speech and Liberal Education.” It also reflects a change in the politics of the left, says Mr. Downs, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The “woke” wing has moved away from the classic New Deal liberalism exemplified by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who famously declared that the remedy for falsehood and fallacies is more speech, not enforced silence.

In recent years, there have been foreshadowings of the current upheavals in newsrooms. After initially booking former Trump adviser Steve Bannon for a live interview at The New Yorker Festival, editor David Remnick quickly backtracked following an outcry from his staff. Similarly, The Atlantic fired conservative writer Kevin Williamson just days after hiring him, because the magazine’s rank-and-file objected to one of his earlier controversial statements on abortion.

“I think Thackeray had it about right in ‘Vanity Fair’: ‘One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object,’” Mr. Williamson says in an email. “Nobody seriously believes that James Bennet has it in for black people or that Tom Cotton is a fascist, but if you can lie to yourself successfully enough, then you believe that everybody who disagrees with you is the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler, which makes practically everything permissible: lies, the suppression of speech, the weaponization of employment for enforcing conformity.”

The often contrarian opinion columnist Meghan Daum wonders whether she’d make it into the nation’s biggest publications if she were just starting out today. Though the former Los Angeles Times columnist disagreed with Senator Cotton’s proposal to send in the troops, she frets that if a sitting senator becomes persona non grata on an opinion page, then readers who already have low trust in the media may simply leave and never come back. 

“If there’s a North Star for commentary, it really should be presenting views that are diverse and intellectually credible, that are offering something new,” says Ms. Daum, author of “The Problem With Everything.”

“With a lot of these columnists, it’s like there’s an unwillingness to surprise their own audience – almost a fear of doing so. I mean, I’ve seen columnists go on Twitter and tell people, don’t bother reading such-and-such. Don’t bother reading this article. And I want to say, ‘Why are you in the business?” she says. “What purpose is served in telling people to not read something?” 

A reckoning

Many newsrooms have been undergoing a kind of reckoning of late, as the racial protests have shined a bright light on their own workplaces as highly elite – and still mostly white – organizations.

For John Watson, who worked for 21 years at the Jersey Journal as its first Black reporter, diversity in the newsroom isn’t a matter of ticking boxes, it’s a matter of professional importance. If the newsroom isn’t properly representative, a portion of humanity’s issues may not make it into the news, he says. Minority reporters will spot stories that others will miss. Case in point: When Mr. Watson was city editor in the early 1980s, he received a regular FBI crime report, including for the newspaper’s county. But when he looked at the homicide count, he grew suspicious.

“I thought it was off by 10 or 12,” says Mr. Watson, now a professor at American University’s journalism school, where he specializes in media law and journalism ethics. “They didn’t count homicides by police, only civilians. ... It really hit me. Wow, the right people weren’t there to say, ‘Look at these killings. They aren’t being reported. There’s a significant number of killings not in the uniform crime report.’”

The Christian Science Monitor hosted an internal town hall meeting in which staff raised questions about the newspaper’s lack of Black staff reporters and its guidelines that forbid public expressions of opinion.

“The question is, how we can take the best of this new thinking to expand and strengthen our work,” says Mark Sappenfield, editor of the Monitor. “This can be a moment to build and do better.”

Some argue that, as newspapers work to hire journalists from more diverse backgrounds in an effort to better understand those communities, it makes little sense to then effectively muzzle those writers’ points of view. 

At the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, professors Jeff Jarvis and Carrie Brown recently launched a degree in social journalism. The idea is to develop a relationship with self-identified communities and then figure out how best to serve them as journalists. But Mr. Jarvis admits, the question of what the proper distance is between journalists and their subjects doesn’t have an easy answer – as he discovered while talking to his class right after the 2016 election.

“We talked about empathy. And African American students in particular in that class said, ‘No. If you’re asking me to be empathetic to these people who’ve never been empathetic to me and mine, no,’” recalls Mr. Jarvis, a renowned media analyst and creator of Entertainment Weekly. “I said that as a human being, I understand and agree. As a citizen, I understand and agree. As a journalist, however, you have the need to attempt to understand even those people.”

Those who champion the elusive ideal of objectivity, or at least fairness, contend that citizens seldom agree on what constitutes morality. For example, feminists of different stripes may broadly agree on the need to advance the interests of women, yet disagree on how best to do so.

DePauw’s Mr. McCall says mainstream media outlets should first strive to fulfill the democratic function of providing information in as detailed and fair a way as possible. Then, second, offer clearly labeled analysis or interpretation of the news. 

For all the disagreements, journalists on both sides of the debate can still find common agreement around certain principles: serving communities, watching out for the little guy, holding the powerful to account, and being fully transparent. 

The journalistic value that Mr. Wallace prizes above all is curiosity.

“There’s a funny way in which objectivity and impartiality actually foreclose curiosity,” he says. “What that often ends up doing is restricting or limiting the debate to ‘left’ versus ‘right.’ Or the parties who are already assumed to have a stake. I think curiosity can be quite radical and can blow up an idea of what reality and what voices might need to be included.” 

Note: This piece was updated to correct the title of the uniform crime report. We regret the error.