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Pittsburgh paper accused of barring black reporters from covering protests, censoring stories

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette office in Pittsburgh. (Image via WTAE) (screencap via WTAE)

Photojournalist Michael Santiago was part of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette team that in 2019 won the paper a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest accolade, for its breaking news coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre. The Pulitzer judges praised the staff’s reporting as “immersive, compassionate coverage … that captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief.”

Only now, Santiago says the paper has barred him and at least one other reporter from covering anti-racism protests in Pittsburgh because they are seen as biased for being black. Journalists are also accusing the newspaper of removing and censoring at least two articles published online Friday that reported on protests over George Floyd’s death and police abuses, as well as of penalizing reporters who supported their black colleagues.

In a tweet Saturday, Santiago said the Post-Gazette “has chosen to silence" two of its most prominent black journalists "during one of the most important civil rights stories that is happening across our country!” He referred The Washington Post to the head of Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh for comment.

With the country gripped by an anti-racism uprising, what’s been unfolding inside the Pittsburgh newspaper has underscored one of the fundamental challenges American media faces with its coverage: a lack of diverse voices, including of black journalists, in newsrooms. It has also laid bare the challenges of trying to change that.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editors did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

The controversy publicly kicked off Friday when Alexis Johnson, another black Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalist, reported that the newspaper’s management had barred her from covering local protests Monday after a tweet from her went viral. Her May 31 tweet pointed out “horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS … oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate,” referring to the American country singer.

Michael A. Fuoco, another journalist at the Pittsburgh paper and president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, told The Post that editors rejected several of Johnson’s pitches for protest-related coverage Monday. They then told her she could not cover them at all because her tweet showed bias, Johnson told The Post.

Management told her that her byline on a protest-related article could lead “the credibility of the newsroom [to] be questioned and people might question if I was biased,” Johnson recalled.

The newspaper does not have an official social media policy, Fuoco said. Johnson said she had never before had any issues about her social media presence or a race-related incident at work.

“I thought it was a funny tweet and something to think about, as we’ve seen destruction in the city over the years for different motivations,” Johnson told The Post.

She described management’s response as a “punishment.”

“Journalists of color have been covering these issues for years, for generations,” she said. “Our communities were being attacked and we were still able to report the news fairly. And it’s unfortunate that opportunity was taken away from me.”

Johnson took the issue to the guild, and Fuoco participated Wednesday in what he described as a “rather hostile” discussion with the newspaper’s management. Fuoco described the impasse as a “contractual issue, racial issue and moral issue” and that the guild wanted the paper to “apologize to her, remove the ban and let us just do our job, serve our community.” They did not, he said. Johnson filed a grievance.

By Friday, Johnson’s case became public, and staff and guild members launched a social media campaign in solidarity with her: They all sent the same tweet she had been reprimanded for, along with #IStandWithAlexis. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers and guild members weren’t the only ones outraged: The city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, tweeted in support of Johnson’s professionalism.

“We feel taking a black woman off the most monumental national story about civil rights in the last 50 years is punishment,” Fuoco told the Associated Press. “We have very few black journalists. Someone who has the contacts and the insights for this story, that is what you want.”

The city of Pittsburgh is 23 percent black, while the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s staff is roughly 10 percent black, Fuoco said. A 2019 report by the Columbia Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that “that reporters of color working within the Pittsburgh media ecosystem have a much lesser quality of life both inside and outside of the newsroom.”

This week, it kept getting harder, said staffers interviewed.

Post-Gazette journalist Ashley Murray tweeted Friday night that the link to an article she had written earlier was not working, and she had informed the newspaper, according to the Pittsburgh City Paper, which first reported on the incident.

“I filed a story today about Pittsburgh City Council members' reaction to and discussion about police brutality and reforms,” she tweeted. “Some readers have brought it to my attention that the link is broken. I alerted the newsroom at 8:40 about the issue.”

A follow-up tweet that night reported she still had not heard back.

Alyssa Brown, a content editor at the paper, told The Post she also was receiving comments from readers about links to Murray’s and another story not working. So she went into the system to investigate. She said she found the two stories in question deleted from the system. They also weren’t scheduled for the print newspaper, she said.

“That’s very rare,” she said. “We rarely [delete stories].”

Soon after Murray’s first tweet, Fuoco seconded the report by his colleague that the paper had removed two stories published online earlier Friday. He alleged it was related to the authors of the articles supporting Johnson.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette “management has apparently pulled 2 stories — today’s protest and city council discussing police brutality — off the PG website after the reporters tweeted support for [Alexis Johnson],” Fuoco tweeted. “A journalism cardinal sin. #IStandWithAlexis.”

By Saturday morning, an article with Murray’s original headline but no byline had been reposted to the paper’s website with the images and content reportedly changed. Fuoco said it was unclear who had reworked the story, but he suspected it was management.

“It is a long-standing policy in journalism and at the PG that you do not remove published material; it is simply unethical to do so,” the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh said in a statement Saturday criticizing the paper’s management.

Speaking Saturday afternoon, Fuoco said it is unclear if any Gazette journalists were allowed to cover protests.

“Not only were they muting the voice of a black woman, but muting the voices of the black protesters that we were covering,” he said of the paper’s management.

“We wouldn’t imagine that [management] wouldn’t allow any of us to cover it,” Brown said. “I think that it was definitely a retaliation” for supporting Johnson, she added. “It seems like they are taking it as us being biased in some way, which I don’t think is fair. … We are on the side of right here.”

Speaking Saturday evening, Johnson had this message for both journalists of color and their white colleagues facing a similar situation: Speak up.

She praised her Post-Gazette colleagues for showing “what true ally-ship looks like and what true support looks like.”

She continued, “For the journalists of color, speak up because you’ll be surprised by how many people will support you. … Don’t let your voice be silenced. It’s not worth it.”