The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is under fire this weekend after two black reporters disclosed that they have been barred from covering the George Floyd protests, and the union representing the city’s journalists said that editors retaliated against staff who publicly expressed support and solidarity.
The matter began on May 31, when reporter Alexis Johnson tweeted a mild joke that criticized complaints about the looting that has occurred alongside the protests by pointing out similarities to litter and vandalism associated with professional sports fandom. “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!” read Johnson’s tweet with pictures of a trash-strewn parking lot. “Oh wait, sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”
Johnson says Post-Gazette editors soon told her she was no longer allowed to cover the protests because, in their view, that tweet displayed “bias.” After filing a complaint through the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh that apparently fell on deaf ears, Johnson went public about the issue on Twitter on Friday, prompting a show of support from colleagues and other journalists who tweeted the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis.
However, in a statement released Saturday, the guild laid out a disturbing series of ethical lapses it says the paper’s management committed in order to retaliate against staffers who expressed support for Johnson. This included deleting protest-related stories that had already been published from the paper’s website, and then in response to complaints about that move, telling staff that the paper would simply cease all protest coverage.
The paper reversed that decision, the guild says, but assigned a reporter who did not tweet in support of Johnson to cover the protests. The paper also re-posted the deleted articles by reporters Ashley Murray and Lauren Lee, but heavily edited them and removed bylines without disclosing this to readers.
“The PG simply does not remove stories, ever, for any reason,” the guild said. “It is a longstanding policy in journalism and at the PG that you do not remove published material; it is simply unethical to do so. But in this case, we believe that Ashley’s and Lauren’s stories were purposely removed. The PG’s latest assault on our union is possibly the worst yet because it strikes at the very heart of journalism: truth and transparency. Guild leaders are not entirely sure yet what is happening, but we are dedicated to finding out and correcting it.”
The guild also said that a black reporter who showed support for Johnson was himself barred from covering the protests, and responding to the guild’s statement, photographer Michael Santiago confirmed he was the reporter in question. “Just like @alexisjreports, I have been barred from covering any protest related stories. @PittsburghPG has chosen to silence two of it most prominent Black journalist during one of the most important civil rights stories that is happening across our country,” Santiago tweeted Saturday.
“It is abundantly clear to the Guild that PG managers are trying to gaslight us,” the guild’s statement reads. “We have no doubt that [Post-Gazette owners] the Blocks and their top lieutenants are doing their best to crush our union, stamp out free thought and punish our members for exercising their federally protected rights.”
The union says it is “dedicated” to finding out why the paper’s leadership has taken these actions, and to correcting the situation. It is also demanding that the paper apologize to Johnson and allow her to cover the protests, and cease interfering in the newsroom’s reporting.
The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation and the National Association of Black Journalists also spoke in support of Johnson, with the Federation saying that removing Johnson “removes an opportunity for the Post-Gazette to present a more fair, nuanced, and informed portrait of what is happening in local communities.”
“NABJ is strongly against silencing the voices of those who bring unique and objective perspectives to coverage,” said NABJ President Dorothy Tucker.”We believe that hiring and supporting a diverse group of employees are critical steps that all media organizations should be taking in practicing excellence in journalism.”
A spokesperson for the Post-Gazette declined to comment.
Read the union’s full statement below:
Yesterday, dozens of our members shared this post, word for word, in a showing of solidarity with @alexisjreports. By Friday night, in our view, the Post-Gazette’s retaliation began. https://t.co/e5zV2EXmPi pic.twitter.com/DTf20kBqPR
— Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh ???? (@PGNewsGuild) June 6, 2020