New era of change hits newsrooms

New era of change hits newsrooms
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The civil unrest wracking the country has ushered in an era of activism in the news media, with a new generation of reporters advocating for social changes that have forced newsrooms to confront long-held newsgathering traditions.

The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer ousted senior editors after their newsrooms revolted against controversial opinion pieces that ran in their papers.

Axios has given permission to its reporters to march with Black Lives Matter protesters as demonstrators, rather than observers.

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And senior editors at boutique outlets, including Refinery29 and Bon Appetit, have lost their jobs over allegations from reporters that they oversaw a culture of racial discrimination in the newsroom.

Some newsrooms already had moved to loosen strictures requiring objectivity from their reporters. Under President TrumpDonald John TrumpTeachers union launches 0K ad buy calling for education funding in relief bill FDA head pledges 'we will not cut corners' on coronavirus vaccine Let our values drive COVID-19 liability protection MORE, some reporters have become media stars for publicly clashing with his administration.

But the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police two weeks ago has hastened the move toward advocacy journalism, with many in the news media believing it is past time for neutrality in coverage of issues like racial justice and police brutality.

“I’m talking more and more to reporters who grew up using these online platforms and they’re used to being more engaged with their communities,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, the senior campaign director for the progressive nonprofit group Color Of Change. “They’re bringing to the table a shift in how we think about the news and what reporting is… that might be different from what they learned in journalism school. It’s an exciting new time for the media… and I think it is very much needed.”

Republicans interviewed by The Hill expressed concern that the media is going too far. They said there are political aspects to the protests roiling the nation, and many are worried that the door has crept open for left-wing advocacy from liberal reporters on issues from health care to immigration.

Michael Steele, a fierce Trump critic and the first black man to lead the Republican National Committee, said he has a “healthy respect” for how racial minorities in newsrooms are impacted by the events they have to cover.

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But he said reporters risk undermining their credibility if they do not remain objective and neutral by drawing a distinction between reporting and commentary.

“I think what you see happening is confirmation for a lot of us conservatives that, just as Trump has allowed the baser elements to come out and express their white nationalism, these events seem to have freed up members of the press to express their biases,” Steele said.

The shift has largely been driven by younger reporters at newspapers who have leveraged their massive social media followings to push for changes within newsrooms. 

“It’s an extension of history,” said Collins-Dexter. “The next generation pushes the former generation to a place it’s never been before and this is another example.

Media watchers interviewed by The Hill said millennial reporters have been instrumental in drawing attention to racial disparities within their newsrooms. They say the lack of diversity creates a blindspot for newsrooms in the way they write about culture and race.

A 2018 Pew Research study found that 77 percent of newsrooms are white, compared to 65 percent of the U.S. workforce overall. Those disparities are particularly evident at the top ranks of newspapers, where senior editors are predominantly white and male.

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, the host of FYI on Instagram said newspapers that lack diversity have less capability to report on the “complete picture” of a story.

“They should have people salted through the newsroom, not just in certain, identifiable positions that have to do with race or gender,” Simmons said.

Last week, The New York Times published an op-ed from Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonChina sanctioning Rubio, Cruz in retaliatory move over Hong Kong The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Negotiators signal relief bill stuck, not dead On The Trail: Pence's knives come out MORE (R-Ark.) entitled “Send in the Troops” that has become a flashpoint in the debate about the new dynamics coursing through newsrooms.

The opinion piece called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would give him the authority to deploy troops into U.S. cities that were dealing with escalating protests over the killing of Floyd. 

The paper’s reporters revolted, making the case that the op-ed endangered the lives of their black colleagues. Editorial page director James Bennet resigned under pressure.

The Times was pushed to address the op-ed by its younger reporters and people of color, who took to social media to warn that it put their colleagues in harm’s way. They argued that as a GOP senator, Cotton has plenty of platforms to get his views out and that the Times shouldn’t be amplifying his message.

“When you allow things like that to be disseminated, you run the risk of people using that as an insurance policy to say it’s ok to react a certain way and respond a certain way,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist.

Critics accused the Times of caving to pressure, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent to censor speech that a paper’s political reporters or readers might disagree with. Conservatives were alarmed that a top editor at a mainstream outlet would lose his job for signing off on an opinion piece written by an elected Republican official.

“There’s always the option to not click on it or to disagree with it,” said Gianno Caldwell, a prominent conservative political analyst.

A similar scenario played out at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where an op-ed called “Buildings Matter, Too” was met with intense backlash. The opinion piece argued against the destruction of property, but was met with criticism for equating property to lives. Executive editor Stan Wischnowski resigned.

“There should be a heightened level of scrutiny and care that goes beyond the conversation around free speech and censorship to look at social constructs and what responsibility you have over what you’re putting out into the world,” said Collins-Dexter.

The disagreements drive at broader forces at work within the news industry.

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Social media encourages opinion sharing, which has lifted the veil on the views reporters have about events as they unfold.

And many have become political celebrities in the age of Trump, landing big book deals and cable news gigs for their aggressive coverage and commentary on the administration.

“This is a potentially dangerous path,” said Jeffrey McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University. “Journalists have long functioned as surrogates for the public, to observe and report on events as stand-ins for the citizenry. Journalistic crusaderism, however, is designed to push public sentiment in a direction that fits the reporters' personal attitudes and opinions, presuming that citizens can't figure things out for themselves. It also suggests that journalists have some sort of inside track on wisdom, which they really don't.”