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Editor’s note: We’re pleased to publish the first in what will be a semi-regular column by Tauhid Chapell, the project manager for Free Press’ News Voices project. Chapell, who has written guest columns for Generocity since 2020, will focus this new column on examining how local media organizations are addressing issues of bias, discrimination and racism in their coverage and in their workplaces — as well as how their challenges and solutions can inform (or be informed by) the processes at other nonprofits, in order to create a more equitable Philadelphia.
In the summer of 2020, amid the uprisings for Black lives following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery, The Philadelphia Inquirer — the city’s paper of record for almost 200 years — published a story with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too”.
The headline was so divorced from reality and baked in such deep institutional racism that it prompted a digital “sickout” from at least 34 staff members and a call for radical and transformative change from more than 60 racial-justice, social-justice and media-justice organizations.
Responding to intense public and internal demands, the Inquirer partnered with Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication professors to launch a major diversity-and-inclusion audit of its newsroom. In a Zoom virtual gathering on March 22, university employees discussed their findings — and in their 125-page report, confirmed what many in the city had known for generations: that the Inquirer is a white-led, white-majority media institution that centers white values and perspectives. As Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists President Ernest Owens said more bluntly: The Inquirer is long overdue for a racism intervention.
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But we know it’s not just the Inquirer.
Cultural incompetency, lack of diversity and equity, and disregard for people’s dignity and humanity run deep within the Philadelphia media ecosystem. You don’t have to look far back in history to see the string of controversies at outlets including CBS Philly, Fox29, Philly Weekly, The Philadelphia Tribune and Philly Mag. These examples not only show the ongoing cycle of harm that permeates our city’s media ecosystem, but also how racism directly damages the lives and trust of Black and brown communities.
As the Zoom conversation over the Inquirer’s audit progressed, Inquirer journalists who were involved in the work emphasized that there needed to be more accountability from leadership, and said they were looking to the public to help hold their leaders accountable for implementing the audit’s recommendations.
Accountability from the public is sorely needed, and journalists can actively work in unison with community members to demand change..
Accountability from the public is sorely needed, and journalists can actively work in unison with community members to demand change. Both groups should come together to call in and call out media companies that produce harm. In the past, greater numbers of newspapers had public editors who worked on behalf of the public, holding media institutions accountable and investigating readers’ grievances about coverage. Their presence and service have been greatly diminished by media companies, but I believe that in a city like Philadelphia, we need to have more public editors that hold media corporations accountable for their actions and move them to directly address racism within their organization, and within their news products.
As a Black journalist I’ve spent nearly a decade in audience and community-engagement roles within the media, from local TV stations to The Washington Post. As it so happens, I worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer until 2020. Throughout my career in the industry I’ve personally seen, heard, witnessed and experienced the levels and layers of racism that fester within all types of newsrooms: from unwanted hair touching because a white TV anchor “wanted to know what Black hair feels like” to being called “too emotional to trust” by a white editor.
I also observed countless editorial decisions that impacted the way stories were elevated and delivered to the masses: from the kinds of stories that led the top of TV newscasts (often focused on crime or conflict), to the way white reporters’ stories were often selected for the front page.
I believe together, the public can unify and work to change how our news is created and distributed to our communities.
I recognize that these issues inside newsrooms bring real-world harm and put Black lives in danger — and I think it’s time we have an open dialogue about it. As part of my work transforming newsrooms for the media-policy organization Free Press, I’m offering a periodic column here at Generocity to revitalize the role and mission of the public editor. I believe together, the public can unify and work to change how our news is created and distributed to our communities — and how journalists shift their coverage to align and address our community information needs, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of the most marginalized and disenfranchised communities in this city.
I propose we examine how l media organizations in Philadelphia transform themselves into entities that address their internal and external racism. How will these institutions begin to work in solidarity with communities they’ve traumatized to produce coverage that actually informs, protects and supports Black and brown communities? How will news organizations commit to the commonsense recommendations outlined in the Temple audit?
The public deserves to know.
Since the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report on the role white-owned media companies played in inciting race riots and distrust between Black and white communities, news organizations have been mum and ambiguous in explaining how they’re addressing issues around bias, discrimination and racism.
It will take collective pressure, voices, action and education to make these vital changes. Let’s talk about it.
It’s critical that Black, Indigenous and people of color within institutions have safe lines of communication where they can flag ongoing instances of racism, discrimination, bias and inequity in their workplaces. If you’d like to talk or leave a tip, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.-30-
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