Subjectivity, diversity: protests stir up in American newsrooms

NEW YORK | The protests that have rocked the United States since the death of George Floyd are also shaking up the editors of many American media, forced to question their coverage of the racial question and, at times, their lack of diversity.

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A few days ago, a platform that suggested mobilizing the army to manage the demonstrations unleashed a storm in the ranks of the New york times, to push the person in charge of the Opinion section to resign.

At the Philidelphia Inquirer, a title (“Buildings Matter, too”), comparing material damage during protests to African-Americans killed by police, was enough for part of the drafting, there too, rises.

“The struggle that we see in the streets is invited in the American newsrooms, because journalists are outraged by the cover or because they are prevented from covering these subjects because of their ethnic origins,” summarizes Martin Reynolds, co-director of the Maynard Institute, an institute that promotes diversity in the media.

A black reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said she was left out of the protests after a provocative tweet.

Dozens of colleagues stood up for him, but editor Keith Burris justified his decision in the name of respect for objectivity.

“There is a tremendous reluctance to accept that non-white journalists are not biased,” said Akela Lacy, a Métis reporter for the online news site The Intercept. “It is painful to see that those who set the rules are systematically given the benefit of the doubt,” that is, the whites.

“No one is objective,” regardless of skin color, says Martin Reynolds, for whom objectivity is an “illusion.” “But everyone can be honest, especially if you are aware of your biases. “

“A journalist can cover everything (…) if he is trained,” he said, calling for more reflection and internal pedagogy in the media on the treatment of race issues in the United States.

“Put everything on the table”

Internal tensions in many media and the general atmosphere in the United States since the protests began have made dialogue difficult, said Akela Lacy, who said she was the only color journalist in her editorial staff.

“There’s a real fear of saying something stupid, or of giving in to the crowd that demands awareness,” she said, but “you have to put everything on the table.” There is no silly question. “

The debate refers to the lack of diversity in newsrooms, at 77% white according to a study by the Pew Research Center published at the end of 2018, while the proportion is 65% in the overall working population.

Former editor-in-chief of the American national daily, USA Today, Ken Paulson sees it as a regression, after progress during the 80s and 90s.

Owner of USA Today, the Gannett group had in particular linked executive compensation to the diversity of their teams, but also to the representation of minorities in the pages of the newspaper, he recalls.

But the crisis the press has been going through for more than a decade and the massive layoffs have eroded diversity, he said.

Now director of the center for freedom of expression at Middle Tennessee State University, Ken Paulson is not so worried about the coverage of the “dominant”, like the coronavirus or the demonstrations, which he considers “very good” “

“The challenge is to tell the little stories, which describe what’s really going on” in American society, he says. “Journalists and diversity are therefore essential”.

In addition to the problems of representation and diversity, there is that of the omnipotence of the image and news channels, often accused of undermining the complexity of racial issues.

The images of burned buildings and thugs, which briefly punctuated the demonstrations, notably turned in a loop and “diverted part of the debate for a time”, observes Martin Reynolds.

“Everything must be visual,” regrets Ken Paulson. “No one is going to send a team to film a civil rights hearing. (Television) does not lend itself to thoughtful thinking, and yet that is what the United States needs today. “

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