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Video & recap: Newsroom leadership in the age of Black Lives Matter

‘How do we reflect our community?’ Black editors on managing in the age of Black Lives Matter 

The pandemic, economic struggles and demands for social justice have forced newsrooms to account for their own failures at diversity, inclusion and representative coverage. 

The News Leaders Association and the National Press Club Journalism Institute hosted a conversation with executive editors Katrice Hardy of the Indianapolis Star and Mary Irby-Jones of The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger on how they are leading their newsrooms in light of Black Lives Matter. Gannett executive Mizell Stewart III moderated the program.

Here are some takeaways.

On confronting challenging moments

Irby-Jones: It’s been challenging in some ways and rewarding. For instance, we had an elected official basically say that Black people in this country have nothing to complain about because when they were slaves, their owners took care of them, fed them, clothed them and gave them a place to live. So he didn’t understand what the complaints were about. And that was a moment when I had to be calm and really guide the reporter — direct that person to reach out to the elected official who said this and really see if he really meant that. And unfortunately, he did mean it. And so you know, having to remain calm and professional when someone makes a remark like that really does challenge you. I’m glad to know that I was able to step back and push the reporter to really try and reach out to him and engage him in a conversation to understand exactly what he meant.

Hardy: When I first started, before the protest started actually, we had a fatal police shooting in Indy, where a young man had Facebook Live shooting. And right after that, days of protests started. One of the first days of the protest after his death, there were a couple of people at protests that told some of our Indy Star staff that they weren’t welcome there. And instantly I thought, ‘oh wow this speaks volumes.’ And it was one case, but it spoke volumes to how we were viewed and maybe what we weren’t doing. So it was a wonderful opportunity to kind of reset and have those conversations. We have not figured it out yet. I wish we had, but we’re having really good conversations about what we do, how we approach it.  

On the importance of self-reflection

Irby-Jones: The Black Lives Matter movement created an opportunity for me to examine, and for our newsroom to examine, how we’re actually focused on covering Mississippi. I came back to Jackson, Mississippi, last year after being away for a while, and one of the things that became very clear to me quickly is that we have a huge disconnect from our community. … We’re not connected to the daily lives and what people are doing, and Black Lives Matter has given me the perfect opportunity to talk to this staff and also to ask myself the question of how do we reflect our community? Are we really covering the people in the community and giving people an insight into the quality of lives in our community?

Hardy: Indy has a really active Diversity Committee. And they run a lot of things by each other,  the stories that they’re working on. We’ve got a story in the works about things being named across the state after soldiers and people who basically owned slaves, and that’s the same story across the country. But they pitched each other those stories and said, “Hey, how can I make this be more nuanced than just the list? Who should I talk to? Or what are the landmines that I need to face?” …

We had an intern last week raise a question about a story she was covering, a protest, and she didn’t get a chance to talk to the person, and she goes, “Well, I don’t know if that’s a he or she because I didn’t ask, and shouldn’t we be asking those questions?” And so I think by putting yourself out there, being authentic, saying what you struggle with allows others to open up and do so. And I don’t think we would have had that conversation, probably if the intern hadn’t raised it. It was a very good question to explore and this new age, you know, of things that we cover as journalists.

On objectivity, fairness and nuance

Hardy: As a part of our leadership team, we meet twice a day to discuss many of these issues. But it’s also making sure that in those conversations, I’m making it clear that we want to be balanced and fair, but a lot of this is nuanced. It’s not this person is this way or that way. It’s kind of in the middle. And so how do we talk to all of those voices? How do we make sure that everybody’s opinion is expressed, but that we’re doing so accurately? 

Stewart: I don’t think that objectivity is as much the goal as fairness. In part because I believe that one of the major reasons behind our push as an organization, the News Leaders Association, and others in journalism, to truly diversify the nation’s newsrooms and help them reflect America is to provide news content and coverage that truly reflects the community. And you can’t do that unless you have a diverse newsroom and we’re giving people the opportunity and the encouragement to bring their whole selves to work. 

On journalism and activism

Hardy: I shared this with the Diversity Committee yesterday: I get it. I feel it. For me, it comes down to a T-shirt that I want to purchase. Should I actually purchase this T-shirt that says Black Lives Matter? It’s down to that level. … I understand you wanting to be there. I understand that, but it’s the perception, and we cover perception all the time. When you think about politicians and government officials, we have to be careful about that. 

Irby-Jones: It is really hard, and we do have very passionate people in our newsroom. They want to do things; we all do. But I know that our obligation as a media entity is to try and reflect what’s happening in the community. That’s the best thing we can do in this time. That’s how we can advocate — advocating for our ability to show stories and show this fairly, that’s the best way.

On the business case for diversity

Irby-Jones: I would just say from my personal personal experience, as someone who’s been in this business for a long time, I feel like it’s always been a misnomer that people of color aren’t going aren’t willing to read us or subscribe to us. And I think we left these communities, and that, you know, having the ability and the opportunity to really return to these communities is very exciting for me. … I feel like we have to cover our entire community. And part of it is having the staff who understands that he’s engaged in the community, and having a diverse staff ourselves.

On taking care of yourself

Hardy: I’ve always been a big fan of working out, and that has definitely been a big help for me. When we didn’t have gyms, I started running more and I found myself up to five miles and was like, what happened to me? I never do that. So making sure that most mornings I get up and do that because that sets the tone for me. One other thing, frankly, is having really good friends and colleagues around the industry who I can reach out to. Mary has been someone who I’ve known off and on for many many years, and so she started arranging these Zoom virtual happy hours for myself, and I’m so proud to say this, four other top African American leaders within the company, female leaders who are running news. … When I started, I was one of the only ones, and so it’s nice that we have that outlet. 

Irby-Jones: I try to get a walk in every now and then. I spend way too much time — if we thought we didn’t work enough hours — now we don’t even have to stop to drive home, so we just keep at it until 8 or 9 o’clock at night. But the happy hours with my Gannett colleagues have been great because it’s connected us more. If I have a quick question about something now, I know I have that immediate pool of people that I can just shoot off a quick team’s message or email to and they respond right away. And so those virtual happy hours have become something that I look forward to, and so it’s just great to be able to share with other female colleagues in the company or to talk about stories, … And if nothing else works, move back to Mississippi, move closer to your mom so that she can feed you and take care of you. That works too.

This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch a recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.

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