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Coverage of protests illuminates journalism’s race problem

George Floyd's death and the ensuing protests have reignited the American conversation on race. That includes inequities and discrimination in news reporting, where several recent incidents have highlighted the different experiences of black and white journalists. Judy Woodruff talks to Dorothy Tucker of the National Association of Black Journalists and Norman Pearlstine of the Los Angeles Times.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The death of George Floyd and the protests since then have reignited enormous questions about race and racism, inequality and discrimination in America.

    That is true as well for the work that we do, news reporting. There have been a number of developments on that front of late, including a decision by editors at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to initially pull an African-American reporter off protest coverage following her tweet. Her white colleague also was warned about a tweet he made, but was not pulled off coverage until later.

    That and other incidents have crystallized some of the differences in the experiences of black journalists, as contrasted with their colleagues.

    We explore this and some of the larger issues behind all this with Dorothy Tucker. She's president of the National Association of Black Journalists. And Norman Pearlstine, he's the executive editor of The Los Angeles Times.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Dorothy Tucker, you told one of my colleagues this afternoon, you said, this has been a difficult time for black journalists. You described them as frustrated and tired, angry and scared.

    That's a lot to carry around at a time when reporters are being asked to cover all of this.

  • Dorothy Tucker:

    Well, Judy, quite honestly, some of that is what we carry all the time anyway.

    But it definitely is harder these days. You know, from my own personal experience, I can tell you, in covering the protests, I worked over the weekend. I have worked three or four days in a row. And I'm asking questions of people, and I'm interviewing people on this side of the brain.

    But, on the other side of the brain, I'm thinking of my 28-year-old son, who was traveling from Atlanta to Chicago driving, and praying the entire time that he arrives home safely, that he doesn't get stopped by a police officer, that something doesn't happen to him when he stops at a rest stop.

    So this is something that we carry with us, when you're covering a protest like this, and you have had experiences of racism, you have witnessed it, you know someone who has had a negative exchange with a police officer.

    So, you know, this is what we live. And to have to now be — wear both of those hats, it's frustrating, it is tiring, and, at times, because you're in the middle of it, it's scary.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Norman Pearlstine, what are you hearing from reporters you know, reporters who work for you who are African-American?

  • Norman Pearlstine:

    Well, they are speaking very much about the same kinds of pressures and tensions that you were just hearing about.

    They are also commenting quite passionately about the fact that there are not nearly enough black journalists working at The Los Angeles Times. And that puts an additional burden on those who are here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Norm Pearlstine, are there enough? And, if not, why not?

  • Norman Pearlstine:

    Well, I think there has been a pattern of underrepresentation for a very long time in all of our publications in the U.S., but it has been especially true at The Los Angeles Times.

    We live in a progressive community. We live in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic that has a very active black population that is represented in politics much more than it is in journalism.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dorothy Tucker, how much difference — I know you have these discussions with colleagues. You certainly discuss it at the National Association of Black Journalists.

    How much difference is it believed that it would make if there were more journalists of color and more journalists of color in positions where decisions are made?

  • Dorothy Tucker:

    And that is the key, Judy. It's not just about having an increased number of journalists there. It is important that we see blacks in management positions, so that the stories that we cover, I think you would see more equitable reporting in the stories that we cover, in the kinds of stories that we cover.

    I think, for African-Americans who are reporting, they come to the editorial meetings with ideas, they come with pitches, and, oftentimes, they're just not accepted. Perhaps, if there were black managers there, there would be a better chance of some of the ideas that they're having, the kind of stories they would like to do, you know, I think those managers would be more sensitive to that.

    You know, I think just having someone, having more black managers would mean that some of the missteps that we have seen, you would not see. You wouldn't see the case of what happened in Pittsburgh. You wouldn't see the headline that we saw in Philadelphia. You wouldn't necessarily see what we saw at The New York Times.

    The list is long. You need someone of color, an African-American, at the table when decisions are made to prevent the kind of missteps that we have seen in the media recently.

  • Norman Pearlstine:

    One of the active debates we had over the past week was about the use of the word looting to describe the destruction of property, and very much the feeling among the black journalists at The Los Angeles Times, who, frankly, educated the rest of us to the fact that looting had a pejorative, racist connotation, and that comparing it to the kind of behavior of the police and the kind of behavior that we witnessed really was a false equivalency.

    And yet it was one we were making as journalists, if you picked up a copy of our paper.

  • Dorothy Tucker:

    And so that's a great conversation to have. I mean, the word riot is very similar.

    You know, there is concern that it is automatically labeled as a riot if it is African-Americans who are protesting, but it's not labeled as a riot when you see the same kind of destruction after a concert or after a sporting event. So there are words that have that association.

    So I appreciate the fact that you're having that kind of discussion at The L.A. Times.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a conversation about words.

    It's also — we're increasingly hearing this conversation about this idea, this traditional idea in the press of neutrality vs. what some are saying now when it comes to subjects like race, where journalists are called on to speak with what they are calling moral clarity, Norm Pearlstine, even if that means they step from pure neutrality into expressing an opinion.

    I mean, is — I guess my question is, is journalism changing in that regard?

  • Norman Pearlstine:

    Well, I think it's changing only in the expansion of the definition.

    We don't think twice about saying that anti-fascism would be part of our mandate as a journalistic institution. Anti-racism certainly should be similarly central to our core.

    I think that the danger is that we not only recognize the need to tell stories, but that we also need to have a moral purpose. Otherwise, I think that the freedoms that we get with the First Amendments are not deserved.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dorothy Tucker, is what's going on today calling on us to reexamine, again, that traditional definition of journalism as all about neutrality?

  • Dorothy Tucker:

    You know, I think what is happening today is, more than anything, calling on news managers and news outlets to just really pay attention to the very voices in their newsrooms.

    You know, when it comes to just whether we should, you know, step over a line, I don't think anyone is asking for that. I mean, we're journalists, and we're going to be fair and we're going to be accurate. But, at the same time, if the information that someone is putting out there is wrong, you know, I think, as journalists, as you well know, it is our job to point that out.

    If what somebody is saying to you is unfair and racist, as journalists, it is our job to point that out. And I think what you're seeing more today is that journalists are more comfortable in doing that. So, I think that's where the change may be.

  • Norman Pearlstine:

    I think there is some parallel to, during the Vietnam period, when journalists like David Halberstam were certainly letting their opinions into their journalism, and I think it was for the better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a big subject.

    And we so appreciate both of you talking with us today. Norm Pearlstine, Los Angeles Times, Dorothy Tucker, reporter in Chicago and president of the National Association of Black Journalists, thank you both.

  • Norman Pearlstine:

    Thank you.

  • Dorothy Tucker:

    Thank you.

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