‘A reckoning moment’: Newsrooms face their own shortcomings

Alfredo Carbajal is editor of The Dallas Morning News Spanish-language newspaper, Al Día

Newsrooms have become part of the story. As protests over the death of George Floyd, police violence and racism draw national attention to issues of social justice, journalism is confronting its own blind spots.

The tremors of change already have manifested themselves. An op-ed cost James Bennet his job as the editorial page editor of the New York Times. An insensitive headline forced the departure of the executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stan Wischnowski. The news staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette fought back over a management decision to pull a Black reporter from covering protests. Arizona State University rescinded its selection of a new journalism school dean amid questions about the appointee’s relations with students of color.

“It’s a reckoning moment for us,” said Alfredo Carbajal, editor of The Dallas Morning News Spanish-language newspaper, Al Día, and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The main value to pursue in journalism is “comprehensiveness of reporting and the ability to connect dots,” said Todd Gitlin, Columbia University professor and author of 16 books, including “The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.” Journalists who are women, people of color, gay or representative of other underrepresented groups “are on the face of it more able to come to these reports deeply and comprehensively. Diversity is a means to that end.”

We reached out to Carbajal and Gitlin to put this wave of journalism changes in historic perspective and to understand what’s next. 

“Police attacks on journalists are of course horribly common in recent days. We saw a more concentrated, systematic assault on journalists at the hands of the Chicago police in August 1968, of course, and there have been other precedents,” Gitlin said. “But the current wave of press-bashing is, to my memory, without precedent. So far as I know, journalists have not been cowed. More power to them.”

Todd Gitlin is a Columbia University professor and author

And how do we address journalism’s blind spots? “In a way, it is a reckoning moment for our society and also for our news media industry and newsrooms and the relationship that we have with journalism schools,” said Carbajal. “The same way that they teach students how to write, how to interview, how to process data, how to do ethics — cultural sensitivity should be on the curriculum. And if it is not in some places, it should be now. It should be made core as well, for all people, of all backgrounds.”

Is coverage of these social justice protests different from what you’ve experienced and studied, or do you see old patterns and norms repeating themselves?

Gitlin: The coverage has largely been good, from what I’ve seen (mostly in newspapers and magazines, I don’t generally watch TV or listen to the radio; life is too short). There could always be more interviews with demonstrators, but I’ve seen quite a few. The attention paid to looters, arsonists, etc., is about the usual but, in the papers & magazines I see, not overboard — certainly reminiscent of the good press that many antiwar protests got in 1969. (I’ve just filed a piece with the Washington Post that touches on the good press received by the 1969 October and November anti-war Moratorium [Day] protests, and I’ve looked at a lot of local press coverage of BLM marches over the last two weeks. It’s extremely thorough, and good.) I recall that Walter Cronkite devoted a lot of attention to the Moratorium. Comparably, as I type right now, I’m watching the George Floyd memorial in Houston — on NBC.) Offhand, I would say that, overall, the coverage is superior to what we saw in 1965 Watts, 1967 Detroit and Newark, 1992 LA.

Police attacks on journalists are of course horribly common in recent days. We saw a more concentrated, systematic assault on journalists at the hands of the Chicago police in August 1968, of course, and there have been other precedents; but the current wave of press-bashing is, to my memory, without precedent. So far as I know, journalists have not been cowed. More power to them.

What do the changes and pushback we are seeing in newsrooms mean for long-term adjustments in newsroom culture?

Carbajal: After the death of George Floyd, and the outcry in the nation, it’s not only putting the spotlight on an issue of racial justice and also the state of racial relationships in the U.S. … For many decades when we talked about diversity, the default has become the representation of the numbers. The numbers for the appropriate representation is just one data point. But I think what we need to do is to take it to the next level, to a better understanding beyond the surface of the nuances and issues that data points may not capture.

How can you elevate diversity to a fundamental journalistic ethical value?

Carbajal: There are a few tactics that probably we need to intensify. One of those is, for sure, we’re going to have to do a lot more, in quantifiable ways, about cultural sensitivity and education inside our newsrooms. So it’s not just the proper representation of people of color or underrepresented groups, but also understanding the intricacies of each of the constituencies that we serve. …

And how do I see that happening? Well, the same way that we do almost in every newsroom: sessions, training, programs on basic core skills like writing, news writing, headline writing or editing or feature writing. Those things are mechanical skills. We need to also incorporate cultural sensitivity as part of the everyday training that we do for everybody, regardless of their ethnicity or race or background. … 

In a way, it is a reckoning moment for our society and also for our news media industry and newsrooms and the relationship that we have with journalism schools. … The same way that they teach students how to write, how to interview, how to  process data, how to do ethics, cultural sensitivity should be on the curriculum. And if it is not in some places, it should be now. It should be made core as well, for all people, of all backgrounds.

Local newspapers are shedding staff. How do newsrooms ensure that the push for change and diversity survives in an industry beset with financial pressures?

Carbajal: Diversity is part of the core tenets and values of the newsroom. I think we should be there even as newsrooms continue to evolve and change.

The way you’re framing the question is newsrooms will continue to shed numbers of staff. And that is correct, but at the same time the industry is creating a lot of new jobs and a lot of new positions in digital. Understanding the complexities, nuances of diverse communities should be incorporated into that area as well.

So I think it’s an issue about incorporating the value of diversity into every strategic decision of every newsroom … as they are pivoting to newer ways of connecting with audiences, mainly through digital technologies.