February 12, 2021

For the past six months, I’ve had the honor of working with the late veteran journalist Bryan Monroe to co-lead a team from Temple University conducting a content audit of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Last June, following the killing of George Floyd, the Inquirer ran an article about the future of Philadelphia’s civic infrastructure in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests. The article’s now-infamous headline read, “Buildings Matter, Too.”

The headline sparked outrage on social media, and within the Inquirer itself, 44 journalists of color called in “sick and tired” after sending an open letter to management. The editors issued an apology, and the top editor resigned days later. The incident also sparked a larger conversation about equity and inclusion within the newsroom, and the relationship between the publication and communities of color.

It was out of this conversation that the Inquirer undertook a major diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative. This has included a steering committee and working groups involving nearly 60 members of the newsroom, including many veteran white editors. Through regular facilitated meetings planned to last at least a year, these teams have been exploring four areas: coverage, voice, newsroom culture and process.

This initiative has also included our audit of Inquirer content, where our team (a mix of Temple faculty, staff and graduate students, aided by representatives of the Inquirer) has explored both who is represented in stories, and the practices, processes and norms that undergird these stories. After analyzing six weeks of randomly selected dates over the course of August 2019 to July 2020, we coded the race and gender of everyone who appeared in nearly 3,000 stories.

To contextualize these stories, we interviewed 46 people (26 white, 20 people of color) — half editors or managers and half reporters, columnists or photographers. These interviews explored how coverage is influenced by practices around sourcing, editing, promotion/placement, and community engagement — as well as newsroom culture and norms. We also collaborated with the Lenfest Local Lab and The Brown Institute at Columbia Journalism School to map the locations of stories within the Philadelphia region.

We hope what we learned will have value within The Philadelphia Inquirer as they seek to push for greater inclusion both within their newsroom and in their coverage. But we also believe their efforts and experiences offer insights that may have value for other newsrooms striving to reflect the diversity of their communities. Ultimately, we believe there may be takeaways here for anyone interested in making journalism more inclusive.

What we found

Some of what we found reflected unsurprising truths. As one staff member said, “The problem is the newsroom is white, covering a community that’s Black.” Nearly 75% of newsroom staff were white. Some of the teams whose work was most heavily promoted (such as the investigative team) were all white, and there were only two Black news reporters and one Latinx news reporter.

This is in Philadelphia, a city that is only 34% non-Hispanic white. Like many legacy metro newspapers, how the Inquirer sets goals for representation in terms of staff and coverage is complicated by how they decide to define their coverage region. The larger suburban metro area, much of which is considered to be part of the coverage area, is nearly two-thirds white.

The makeup of the largely white staff was reflected in story content. 90% of staff stories included at least one white person. And of all the people featured in stories, 60% of them were white. Notably, when reporting teams did have people of color involved, stories were more likely to feature people of color. In terms of gender, while 55% of the staff identified as male, 76% of people included in stories were male.

The issue, however, was not a simple question of numbers. In interviews, particularly with journalists of color, concerns were raised not only about how often communities of color were covered, but how they were covered.

Reporter after reporter shared stories of feeling that they had to change how they pitched, framed, or made style choices within a story to make the story legible to an assumed white reader. Some reporters said this process left them feeling trapped between expectations of reporting for communities, and editors’ expectations that they were reporting about communities.

As one reporter lamented, “I’ve cried a lot, because it’s like I know I shouldn’t be writing this story this way but I need to do it because if not, my editor won’t let it go through. So then it’s either this or there’s no story, and then the community’s not going to have any trust in me.”

One editor acknowledged that there was a “daily gulf that exists between many of our reporters of color and many of our veteran editors, that exists at the story level, and at the relationship level.” There was a “veteran editor class” who had a fixed understanding of what made a “good Inquirer story” — an understanding embedded in unwritten traditions that sees the readership as largely white suburbia.

Some suggested that the dominance of tradition, and the lack of codified best practices around things like sourcing or editing, facilitated a culture of well-intentioned but unreflexive whiteness: It was assumed that stories about people of color needed to be explained for white people. Many also assumed that staff of color would be the ones to ensure that the publication did not make embarrassing missteps around issues of race, for example by checking a white colleague’s story that was deemed potentially sensitive.

To be clear, most journalists we spoke with, including white editors and reporters, expressed support for the Inquirer’s DEI efforts. White journalists said they wanted more diversity in the newsroom and in its coverage. But race was rarely discussed openly. It was not standard practice to talk about race when discussing stories or sources. Rather, race only came up when the story was overtly about race, as in a Black Lives Matter protest, or in cases when a lack of diversity in a story was identified as a problem (especially when this was a visual problem, as in photos showing only white men).

Some said they had tended to take a colorblind approach — for example looking for the “best” source rather than making a point to look for sources of color. The problem is, when journalists don’t explicitly talk about and seek out sources of color, they become more likely to feature the “easier quotes” from sources who are responsive and accustomed to speaking with news media — sources who are more likely to be white men.

Not naming race did not lessen the influence of whiteness. For example, reporters shared frustrations with how editors had encouraged them to alter their framing or style when writing about communities of color: “It’s extremely common to hear editors say, ‘Sure, but the reader’s not going to understand that.’” They would then have to unpack what they meant by “the reader” and how this imagined reader tended to be white, older and suburban. While this image did reflect many of the paper’s traditional subscriber base, management had expressed goals to expand readership to younger and more diverse audiences. However, there was a tension between such aspirations and assumptions made about how stories should be told for readers, particularly by veteran editors.

Despite these challenges, some journalists were taking steps to strengthen connections with communities of color. A number of journalists of color shared how they made efforts to build lists of sources of color, or how they held informal meetings or pop-up tabling opportunities to learn the concerns of community members. The newsroom also had some more formal community engagement initiatives, such as the Election 2020 Roundtable project that followed a group of 24 Pennsylvania voters through six online discussions, and Slack channel discussions.

However, several journalists expressed concerns that they didn’t think some editors and managers saw community engagement as part of the work of reporting. They said the pressure they felt to be productive meant they could not devote time to relationship-building that was not connected to an immediate story.

The lack of certainty around community engagement coincided with a larger lack of a positive framing of what a better relationship with communities of color could look like. Overall, many people discussed diversity, equity and inclusion in negative terms of wanting to avoid mistakes and embarrassment, rather than a positive frame of something that will strengthen journalism and make stories complete.

Likewise, within the newsroom itself, many noted that trust both within and between demographic groups and teams was in short supply, making the inherently sensitive and messy work of moving toward an antiracist newsroom largely out of bounds.

Our recommendations

Bearing these challenges in mind, our team offered the Inquirer a series of recommendations that may resonate with other newsrooms striving for greater inclusion.

Many of these suggestions may be familiar to Poynter readers — adapting community organizing strategies to build relationships with communities, organize advisory groups, interactive public conversations and collaborative source lists. We also recommend building a culture of accountability internally and externally by monitoring and mapping coverage and sharing progress and setbacks publicly, and collaborating with other organizations pushing for this accountability, such as Free Press or Resolve Philly’s Reframe project.

Of course, none of this will work without addressing workplace culture and equity. The numbers of staff of color are important, but so is what desk they edit or report on, and how welcome they feel and what opportunities they are afforded. And addressing workplace culture means all white journalists doing the work as well — ensuring that they work on their own cultural competency and do not create additional uncompensated labor for colleagues of color. For any of this to work, DEI work must be incentivized and not only penalized when someone publishes or does something problematic.

No singular intervention on its own is likely to add up to transformative change, but taken as a larger menu of practice shifts, we hope such recommendations may push in a more equitable direction. Pushing for an antiracist newsroom means putting policies in place of traditions, engagement in place of norms of distanced objectivity, and difficult conversations in place of colorblind politeness. Doing this work requires structures to make talking openly about race not just OK, but required and incentivized. It requires a shift from whiteness as the default, to openly grappling with a legacy of structural racism as the default.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has taken more than a first step in its diversity, equity and inclusion work. It has a whole structure in place to pick up where our audit leaves off and to continue the work through its steering group and committees.

We also hope the conversation they are having within their newsroom extends out to the entire institution — including circulation, advertising, and marketing departments. We will be checking back with them and encouraging them to continue to share what they are learning.

We hope this work can in some small way honor the legacy of our late colleague Bryan Monroe, who contributed so much to our audit project. After Bryan passed tragically and suddenly on Jan. 13, I was left reflecting on an article he had written not long after that “Buildings Matter, Too” headline. Bryan’s opinion piece called on white people to “step up” and to change culture from the inside. He wasn’t writing about journalism in particular, but he could have been. Changing the culture of newsrooms will require people, especially white journalists, to use whatever authority they have within newsrooms to push for change from the inside.

We hope this current moment of reckoning within journalism will create the space journalists need to follow Bryan’s advice — to push beyond good intentions, to stop defaulting to whiteness, and to implement the systems and structures needed to build more inclusive and equitable newsrooms.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to the team of Temple University researchers and collaborators from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Lenfest Local Lab, and the Brown Institute for making the audit possible. This audit was supported with funding from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Independence Public Media Foundation.

This article was updated to clarify that the teams whose work was heavily promoted included two Black reporters, not one. 

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Andrea Wenzel is an assistant professor at Temple University, fellow with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and co-founder of the Germantown Info Hub.…
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