death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Keith Srakocic/AP hide caption

toggle caption Keith Srakocic/AP

Demonstrators raise fists in the air during a march in Pittsburgh on Saturday, May 30, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.

Keith Srakocic/AP

The fight over racial justice that has sparked protests across the country is also upending some of the country's leading newsrooms.

At the New York Times, editorial page editor James Bennet stepped down on Sunday, yielding to hundreds of colleagues who had protested the posting of a column by Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in which he advocated for the military to help quell civil unrest.

The day before, the Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski resigned. Controversy had erupted both in and outside his newsroom when the paper published the headline "Buildings Matter Too" atop a column on rioting. Reporters there argued it equated property damage to human life.

And at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, rank-and-file journalists are fighting back after editors banned a black reporter from covering local protests. It was retribution for writing a flippant tweet comparing looters to country music fans after a concert.

NPR has learned that a white reporter at the paper who had tweeted a vulgar disparagement of a man accused of looting also received a warning on the same day as his black colleague. But the white reporter kept covering issues related to the protest. He was banned from covering protests two days later, only after the newspaper's union raised the issue of disparate treatment.

Post-Gazette Managing Editor Karen Kane and Executive Editor Keith Burris did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

The Post-Gazette newsroom has a tense relationship with its owners. Staffers have worked without a union contract for more than three years. Post-Gazette journalists have previously objected to the firing of the liberal editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers over several cartoons, including ones satirizing President Trump. Co-owner John Block, who serves as the paper's publisher and is also listed as editor-in-chief, had his photo taken in 2016 with Donald Trump aboard the candidate's private jet during the height of the campaign season. Burris was also present, according to contemporaneous accounts.

Editors sideline a black reporter for a flippant tweet

In this case, Alexis Johnson remembers coming into the newsroom one week ago full of story ideas about the protests. She is 27 years old, African-American, and a Pittsburgh native.

"These are very much my friends and family and community members that were out there in the streets, protesting against police brutality in the black community," she told NPR.

Editors did not respond to her pitches. Instead, she says, she was called by the paper's managing editor and two other top editors. They pointed to a tweet she had sent out the night before.

"Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don't care about this city!!!!!" she wrote. ".... oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops."

The pictures showed the debris-strewn aftermath of Chesney's concert at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.

"It's almost a running joke in Pittsburgh," Johnson said. "It's infamous — what happens after these Kenny Chesney concerts when he comes into town."

Johnson said she asked the editors to describe the bias they said she had shown.

"They kept doubling down, saying I gave my opinion through the tweet and that my opinion came through in the tweet," Johnson said. "And I don't think that's the case at all. I think people made their own opinions of what I was trying to say. I thought it was kind of clever."

The paper barred Johnson - the daughter of a state trooper and a probation officer- from covering a story in her hometown about police and racial justice. Editors subsequently sidelined a black photographer, Michael Santiago, as well. The two are among a small number of black journalists at the paper. Of the 140 members of the News Guild, 13 are African American.

Colleagues took to social media to denounce the newspaper's moves and to rally support for Johnson and Santiago. Scores retweeted Johnson's original remarks. Since then, the paper has removed links to stories about racial justice written by several reporters who have voiced support for the pair, according to the union.

The controversy lays bare the tension between a pursuit of impartiality that has been a journalistic tenet for three quarters of a century and a new urgency, felt especially keenly among younger journalists and journalists of color, to bear witness to what they're seeing.

Two years ago, as editorial page editor, Keith Burris wrote an editorial arguing that Trump's remarks should never be characterized as racist, even, he wrote, after describing African nations as "shithole countries." It sparked an outcry, including from some of John Block's relatives and shareholders in the paper's parent company.

Now one of Burris' reporters, Alexis Johnson, says she believes her editors discriminated against her because of her race. And the gentler rebuke meted out to a white colleague for a related transgression appears to buttress her case.

Editors respond differently to white journalist

Like Johnson, digital sports reporter Joshua Axelrod is in his late 20s - 28 years old to be exact - and less than a year into his job.

A week ago, Axelrod reported on a man accused of vandalizing and looting stores in downtown Pittsburgh. He tweeted about it, calling the suspect a vulgar slang word.

"Not a very sound journalistic decision, admittedly," he told NPR in his first public comments on his actions and how the paper handled it.

"It felt like the nation and my city were undergoing a very tough time and it was tough to separate myself as a journalist and just a person in the world," he said. "And I recognize the mistake I made. But it came from a place of emotions running high."

His editors reprimanded him - on the same day that Johnson received her editors' calls. Axelrod subsequently deleted the tweet.

Unlike Johnson, however, Axelrod says he did not receive a directive preventing him from covering stories involving the protests. Indeed, he says he asked whether he was being punished, and was told he was not. Axelrod posted an article related to the protests the very next day.

The news guild soon weighed in, noting that Johnson had been treated more severely than Axelrod. Faced with the seeming contradiction, the paper didn't relent against Johnson. Instead, the Post-Gazette banned Axelrod from protest coverage too.

Axelrod tells NPR he supports Johnson and Santiago.

"I made a legitimate journalistic mistake," Axelrod says. "I do not think either of them did."

In a press conference on Monday, the union denounced the newspaper for what it contended was racial bias and called for advertisers to pressure the Post-Gazette to reverse its decisions.

In a series of tweets, Post-Gazette reporter Andrew Goldstein noted he had been encouraged to cover the mass killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 despite his own ties to the event: He is Jewish and lives near the synagogue. Further, he argued that the paper's black journalists propel its knowledge of its communities.

"Diversity brings strength to newsrooms," Goldstein wrote. "I've seen it in action."

Goldstein, like Santiago, was part of the paper's large team honored with a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage of that massacre.

Pin it

Racism in America

NorCal News

  • injection 5722329 1920
    May 13, 2021

    Small uptick in cases keeps Sonoma County in orange tier

    Although the county was eligible to move into the yellow tier last week, a small increase in cases keeps Sonoma stuck in the second least restrictive orange tier for at least a couple more weeks, along with the majority of other Bay Area counties. The county’s adjusted case rate is currently 2.4…
  • thumb kids 1093758 640
    May 13, 2021

    Each Sonoma County school district reopens differently

    As state guidelines have shifted to allow schools to begin reopening, officials said nearly every district in Sonoma County is offering either hybrid or in-person learning. But each district is making their own decisions about how many days and hours children are at school for the few weeks before…
  • IMG 8194
    May 07, 2021

    Santa Rosa residents call for more police accountability

    During this week’s special Santa Rosa city council meeting, spanning almost two full days, the public heard three reports interrogating Santa Rosa officers’ responses to the 2020 protests. They say Santa Rosa police used an unparalleled amount of tear gas and four unauthorized barricade rounds…
  • syringe 3902915 640
    April 30, 2021

    Context is important when choosing J&J vaccine

    Before the Johnson and Johnson vaccine was paused, Dr. Brian Prystowsky, a pediatrician and vaccine expert at Sutter Health in Santa Rosa, was excited about the one-dose shot. "I think that two weeks ago, I was primarily recommending Johnson and Johnson vaccine to everybody, literally before this…
  • nurse 4967171 640
    April 27, 2021

    Sonoma County resumes use of J&J vaccine

    In accordance with recommendations by federal and state health officials, Sonoma County is once again distributing the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine after a two week pause. In a statement Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the vaccine is safe and the risk of developing blood clots is…
    April 22, 2021

    County holds its first COVID-19 briefing in Spanish

    Instead of offering Spanish translations online during the meeting, like they’ve been doing for the past year, officials switched to Spanish as the primary language this week, with English translations available on Youtube. The change is an effort to reach the county’s Latinx communities, who have…
  • Screen Shot 2021 04 22 at 1.45.10 PM
    Apr 22, 2021

    Residents react to the Chauvin verdict

    Photo of a Black Lives Matter Protest in 2020. (Photo by Adia White)Santa Rosa Jr. College student and activist Caitie Ferro cried when she first…
  • i am a student 1412778 640
    Apr 16, 2021

    Santa Rosa parents ask district to fully reopen

    At least 250 parents in Santa Rosa city schools this week signed a letter asking the district to open full time, in accordance with the state’s…
  • Screen Shot 2021 04 14 at 5.52.45 PM
    Apr 15, 2021

    As vaccine eligibility opens, hesitation is the next hurdle

    As of today, all adults in Sonoma County are eligible to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine, but there’s still a lot of hesitancy about whether to get…
  • injection 5722329 640
    Apr 14, 2021

    J&J pause slows down vaccinations of vulnerable residents

    Because the new J&J vaccine didn’t arrive in the county until March, so far it only makes up about three percent of those administered. But the…
  • Default Image
    Apr 13, 2021

    Businesses have more options in orange tier

    After spending six months stuck in the state's most restrictive purple tier, Sonoma joined the majority of the Bay Area in the second least…
  • Apr 12, 2021

    Windsor mayor under sex-crimes cloud

    Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli is refusing to step down despite sex-crime allegations from half a dozen women, including a fellow city council member.…
    Apr 07, 2021

    Sonoma County enters orange tier

    Sonoma County's virtual community COVID-19 briefing.Less than a month after moving out of the state’s most restrictive purple tier, the County made…
  • IMG 7932 3
    Apr 06, 2021

    Health Fair vaccinates hundreds of residents

    Art about the COVID-19 vaccine by Santa Rosa art nonprofit Raizes Collective at the Cesar Chavez Health Fair. People waited in line starting at 9…
  • Document
    Apr 01, 2021

    Santa Rosa hands out weather radios to boost alert system

    A NOAA Weather Radio. (photo courtesy of the City of Santa Rosa's website)Santa Rosa is boosting its ability to notify residents when a fire breaks…
  • Screen Shot 2021 03 31 at 10.19.40 AM
    Mar 31, 2021

    Sonoma County teens design quarantine mural

    Santa Rosa-based art organization Artstart's Shelter in Place Mural. (photo courtesy of Jennifer Tatum). COVID has affected everyone, old and young.…

National News

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.