What It Means to Be a Black Journalist in Pittsburgh Right Now

Michael Santiago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and one of the few people of color on staff there, stood in front of his newspaper’s building and tried to explain to reporters why his managers wouldn’t let him cover perhaps the largest protest for African American causes in history. But, he didn’t really have an explanation. On Saturday, Post-Gazette managers pulled him off of a shoot he was scheduled to do with one of the main organizers of Pittsburgh’s recent protests against racism and police violence, but they haven’t told him why.

“I haven’t gotten a reason yet,” he said today at a press conference for the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which is defending him and another Post-Gazette staff journalist, Alexis Johnson, who was also pulled from protest coverage. “It’s been two days and I’m still waiting for that answer.”

Newspaper Guild President Michael Fuoco, a reporter at the Post-Gazette, said that the paper pulled the Santiago and Johnson from protest coverage over a tweet that Johnson sent where she jokingly compared looting with pictures of trash and damage from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. The post went viral, and Johnson says Managing Editor Karen Kane told her that her tweets showed bias in her coverage. Fuoco and Guild members disagree, as does Johnson, vehemently, and have filed a grievance on her and Santiago’s behalf, saying they were denied due process. Kane didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, other Post-Gazette staffers who tweeted last week in support of Johnson under the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis were also pulled off of protest coverage. In one case, two protest stories that were written by reporters who publicly proclaimed support for Johnson were temporarily pulled from the site and then republished with words and photos modified, and without the reporters’ bylines. Fuoco said the Guild is now asking the Post-Gazette’s advertisers and the public to “exert pressure”on the newspaper over how Johnson and Santiago are being treated.

“Of course, I want to go back to work, and I want to pretend none of this ever happened because it shouldn’t have, but the reality is that it did,” Johnson said at the press conference. “To say that it didn’t make me uncomfortable, and to just sweep this under the rug would be a lie. I can’t say that I’d be jumping for joy, ready to go work under these people again.”

Black journalists across the nation are publicly struggling with how to maintain their professional composure amid widespread protests, ignited by the viral video of a white Minneapolis police officer killing African American George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. They are also publicly vexed about being targeted, harassed, and injured by police and military at demonstrations while trying to adhere to editorial rules about staying objective.

“I was taught the importance of the so-called balanced take like every other journalist, but early in my career I noticed the bar was always higher when black reporters were writing black stories,” said Deborah Todd, a former Post-Gazette reporter, in an interview. “The credibility of my sources, the accuracy of my stats and the overall news value of the topic were all picked apart in ways that felt like sabotage. For Alexis and Michael, who have to swallow their opinions and participate in this uprising as observers to do their jobs, being taken off the story is being taken out of this moment in history altogether.”

Johnson and Santiago’s trials with the newspaper have garnered the attention and support of elected officials and journalists nationally (including this journalist, who is a native of Pittsburgh and has voiced support via social media). The Guild backing them is demanding that the Post-Gazette apologize to them, reinstate them back to protest coverage, and stop retaliating against reporters. The Guild and the reporters said they have yet to hear from the paper’s management team. These black journalists are essentially working for a newspaper that won’t work for them, in a city that hasn’t worked for black people since its beginning.

The problems between the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and black journalists long predate coronavirus and the current protests against police violence. The Post-Gazette’s op-ed page is known nationally and disgracefully for unapologetically running racist editorials — ”Racism as Reason” and “Remnants of Slavery” are two stand outs — and for its lack of diversity. But it’s hard to separate the racism of the newspaper from that of the city at large — if anything it’s a reflection.

Letrell Crittenden, a black media scholar, detailed the unique pains of being a black journalist in Pittsburgh in a 2019 report he produced for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. For that study, he interviewed 20 former and current journalists in the city to document how they felt about their treatment in newsrooms and in the city.

What he found was that journalists’ ideas and pitches for stories related to black and non-white communities “often fell on deaf ears,” that newsrooms did not cultivate environments where black journalists could express their concerns, that they did not receive “the same level of mentorship or advancement opportunities” as white journalists, and that the city itself is “unwelcoming to people of color.”  The report is clear throughout that it’s not just a Post-Gazette problem, but a “Pittsburgh problem,” that keeps African Americans from living their best life. The report reads:

The city, due to a multitude of factors, is not a place where people color can thrive. Compared to whites, they have significantly less wealth, fewer social spaces and feel less respected in their workplaces.  One under-appreciated impediment to recruiting and retaining diverse talent is that many people of color have no desire to live in areas where they believe they will not be able to thrive—even if that place has a large population of color. If a newsroom is in an area that people of color do not find appealing, many potential journalists will not be inclined to seek employment in such areas. If they do arrive, fail to plant roots, and perceive the area to live down to low expectations, they likely will not stay long.

Santiago arrived in Pittsburgh in 2018 after shooting for several national media publications including The New York Times, The Undefeated, and BuzzFeed News. One of his first big assignments landing at the Post-Gazette that year was covering the protests after Antwon Rose was killed by a police officer. He also covered protests when Rose’s killer, former East Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld, was acquitted by a jury. His photos from the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 won him a Pulitzer. And despite having a job with a steady, livable income he says he immediately felt the sting of racism in Pittsburgh

“I got the illest crash course in journalism here,” says Santiago. “When I moved here I was able to move into an area that is now considered one of the best places to live, East Liberty — but I’m hyper-aware that it’s considered this only because black people got pushed out of here. There are people who grew up in this neighborhood, who now can’t move back because they can’t afford to move here.”

Johnson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and she also joined the Post-Gazette staff in 2018, after receiving a master’s degree in journalism from Temple University. Her father is a retired state trooper and her mother is a retired probation officer, which as Guild members pointed out at the press conference, makes her perhaps one of the best-qualified reporters to cover protests against police violence.

“I felt like my voice was silenced,” says Johnson. “Black journalists have been covering these stories since the beginning of time. Racism is in the fabric of our country. So whether we tweet our sentiments or how we feel, we still have to experience that trauma in real time and then show up to work and be able to report the news fairly and accurately.”

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