Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Heavily Criticized For Defense of Decision to Ban Employees From Protest Coverage

Liam McKeone
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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has come under heavy fire in recent days over an editorial decision to prevent two of its black employees from covering the George Floyd protests: reporter Alexis Johnson and photographer Michael Santiago. Executive editor Keith C. Burris posted a defense of the decision and the newspaper today.

The decision to not allow Johnson to cover the protests stemmed from the below tweet she sent out on the last day of May.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh posted a letter condemning the Post-Gazette's decision. The union said the newspaper banned Johnson from all protest coverage because of her tweet, took Santiago off his protest assignments because he tweeted in support of his colleague, and management removed stories written by reporters Lauren Lee and Ashley Murray from the newspaper's website after they did the same.

In his defense article, Burris claimed the tweet compromised Johnson's objectivity. He also argued that she wasn't "taken off" protest coverage, but rather that she was never on it.

Several Pittsburgh-based reporters from The Athletic did not agree with Burris' argument, and voiced that disagreement on Wednesday morning after Burris published his defense.

The union letter said the newspaper attempted to hastily remedy the situation in response to the backlash they were receiving by offering Johnson the opportunity to cover Floyd's funeral in Texas. Johnson posted the below explanation of that situation:

Following the publication of the Post-Gazette piece this morning, Johnson replied and said it only further proved the newsroom was "entirely capable of missing the mark when it comes to race-related issues in the newsroom."

Here are some more key excerpts from Burris' piece:

"Let’s start with this: Editors at this newspaper did not single out a black reporter and a black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd. And we certainly did not single out two people and keep them from covering local protests because they were black. That is an outrageous lie — a defamation, in fact."

"What our editors did do was remind colleagues of a longstanding canon of journalism ethics: When you announce an opinion about a person or story you are reporting on you compromise your reporting. And your editor may take you off the story. This is a long-held tradition at this newspaper and at every good newspaper. You can disagree with that ethic, or dismiss it as passe. But you cannot, fairly, call it racism."

"It was called racism as a tactic in a labor dispute, and that is repugnant. Post-Gazette guild leaders have the right, indeed the duty, to seek the best for their members. But characterizing an editorial decision as racially motivated helps no person and no cause."

"We believe we too stand with Alexis Johnson. We value her and her life experiences as we value all colleagues. We have and will continue to give her important assignments. But we must do so within the context of solid journalistic values.If we abandon those values, we are lost. If we are driven by the half-truths and mobs of social media, we are no longer journalists."

"The Block family has a long and distinguished history on civil rights. And no newspaper in America, whether considered over the past 100 years or 100 days or 100 hours, has devoted more time, words or space to questions of discrimination, race prejudice, or justice than the Post-Gazette. That’s because justice and fair play are indivisible. Balanced reporting and decent treatment of fellow human beings go hand in hand. You can never get to social justice without basic fairness."

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