Racism wears down Pittsburgh’s reporters of color

Homewood, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh | courtesy Golden Sky Media

On October 27, 2018, Robert Bowers, a white supremacist who lived in the Pittsburgh suburbs, drove into the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which has been home, since the 1920s, to a large Jewish population. Armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and several handguns, Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 people.

The murders united Pittsburgh’s media. The city’s newspapers, news sites, and radio and television stations explained how Bowers carried out his heinous act; asked who Bowers was and how he had been drawn to white supremacy; attended the funerals of his victims; conveyed Pittsburgh’s response to such a tragedy. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage. For some, the press solidarity in the wake of the murders affirmed their pride in their city. “After a long, emotional several days for my city, my family, my friends, my coworkers and myself, I decided to walk to work, take a few deep breaths and remember why Pittsburgh is the greatest place on Earth,” one local journalist wrote on Facebook.

For many residents of color, the city’s response—and its media—raised questions. Writing for Public Source, local artist Tereneh Idia was blunt: “This is the city where its football team has decided to ignore players’ right to protest police violence but readily emblazons ‘Stronger than Hate’ on their cleats to honor the synagogue victims.” She continued, “Yes, the entire community should grieve over this tragedy. But why is there such a double standard? If all lives matter, why aren’t Black lives mourned this way?”

It was a fair question. On March 6, 2016, five people were murdered attending a cookout in the borough of Wilkinsburg, which borders Pittsburgh. The victims were African American. No one who covered the shooting earned a Pulitzer. Wendy Bell, a longtime anchor at WTAE, the local ABC affiliate, wrote on her WTAE Facebook page that she already had a “mental sketch” of the shooters. “They are young black men, likely in their teens or early 20s,” Bell wrote. “They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs.” 

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Bell was fired for the comments the following week, after a rebuke from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation (PBMF), a local affiliate of the National Association of Black Journalists. Bell, who is white, sued the station the following June for racial discrimination; the suit was settled out of court. PBMF called Bell’s remarks “emblematic of an institutional problem across the news media in Pittsburgh, a media that employs few individuals of color, has become less racially diverse and continues to over-represent African-Americans as criminals and derelicts as opposed to engaging in more balanced and nuanced discussions of their everyday lives.”

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Pittsburgh is ranked among the world’s most “livable” cities by The Economist’s economic research division, but many argue that the city’s racial tensions make it anything but hospitable to people of color. This includes journalists who struggle with discrimination professionally and personally. This problem—the double-consciousness of a person of color who must incorporate white understanding into self-perception—is arguably the most underestimated challenge facing efforts related to improve newsroom diversity. 

The purpose of my study, “The Pittsburgh Problem: Race, Media and Everyday Life in the Steel City,” published today by the Tow Center, is to examine racial disparities in Pittsburgh’s media ecosystem from the perspective of its journalists of color. Based on data obtained from 20 interviews with journalists, 16 of them African Amercian, I argue that Pittsburgh’s newsrooms fail to fairly represent communities of color, and to give necessary agency to its journalists of color. As a means of allowing the participants to speak freely, all journalists were given the option of speaking anonymously. It should be noted that the author of this piece served as a board member of PBMF from 2015 to 2017.

Among my findings:

  • Journalists believe that newsrooms in Pittsburgh need to improve coverage of and engagement with the African American community, but pitches about communities of color and suggestions to improve existing coverage often fall on deaf ears.
  • Journalists experienced backlash when they voiced concerns about coverage and lack of diversity. Sometimes they were simply ignored. This led many individuals to stay quiet on issues of diversity and inclusion.
  • Journalists of color reported less sustained mentorship and fewer advancement opportunities than their white colleagues.
  • Several journalists said they found they city itself unwelcoming to people of color. These reports are supported by larger studies of African America quality of life in the Pittsburgh area—worse than any other major city, one recent study noted.

If newsrooms truly seek to racially diversify and improve coverage of communities of color, they must do more than simply hire more people of color: They must allow journalists of color to thrive, and they must also directly challenge institutional systems of racism within their organizations. The larger community may not welcome people of color, but developing ways to train individuals with roots in Pittsburgh could promote retention, and so could improved coverage of communities of color in a city that is nearly one quarter African American.

Those who stay

Too often, the question of how to end systems of racism rebounds onto the victims of racism themselves, not just as blame, but as an exhortation to be tougher. The use of “grit” to defeat racism is the subject of much research—and much controversy. College students who have grit have soft skills that allow them to overcome obstacles: networking, stress management, tenacity. But the instruction to develop grit may not be a useful one—indeed, it may be “inherently anti-black, as one education scholar puts it” Many of my interviewees told me that everyday life presents them with challenges that demand the development of coping mechanisms.

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Chris Moore, a 30-year veteran radio and television commentator, does not consider himself a journalist, but he has served as a mentor to journalists who come through the Steel City, and founded a summer program to teach high schoolers reporting skills.

In my interview with him, Moore did not mince words. Pittsburgh, he said, is hostile to black residents, and as a result its journalist population is largely transient. “What happens is folks like you come to town and the opportunity [to leave] comes and they’re gone,” he said. “Nobody stays here.” 

Without black voices, Moore believes, the city won’t change. “You find a way to do it,” Moore said. “Otherwise, you just get frustrated and mad and stomp off. And then everybody thinks you got a chip on your shoulder about race.”

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Letrell Deshan Crittenden is program director and assistant professor of communication at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. His research focuses on issues related to diversity and inclusion in media, and community and engaged journalism.