Event recap: Diversity, Objectivity and Representation in the Newsroom

Insights from the SPJ 2020 Conference

By Grace Del Vecchio

The first day of the 2020 SPJ conference brought a host of informational panels, including “Beyond the Protests: Inclusive Newsrooms/Inclusive Coverage.”

The panel itself was diverse not just in racial, gender and sexual identity but also in medium and specialty. Moderated by professor of professional practice, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Robert Hernandez, the panel featured Director of Audience Innovation at Arizona Republic Kim Bui, photojournalist with Getty Images Michael M. Santiago, journalist with Navajo Times Arlyssa Becenti, and journalist, freelance audio producer and host of Flyest Fables Morgan Givens. 

Before the panel began, Hernandez pointed out that all the journalists on the panel should be renowned for more than the diversity they bring but their expertise. 

“This is a diverse group and this diverse group was invited to the panel on diversity,” he said. 

As the panelists introduced themselves, they were sure to mention their beats and specializations that qualified them to be on more than the diversity panel. 

It looks less than 20 minutes for the panel to start talking about objectivity in journalism or, rather, the impossibility of it. 

The objective narrative that has been a cornerstone of American journalism has been increasingly criticized in 2020. In upholding an objective narrative or, rather, attempting to uphold it, it refuses those with lived experience of a topic the opportunity to report on it. So often, this rule impacts reporters of color. 

This issue was brought to light this summer in Pittsburgh when reporter at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Alexis Johnson, a Black woman and Pittsburgh native was pulled from covering Black Lives Matter protests. 

Santiago, who’s also Black and was her colleague at the time, spoke up about the decision of barring Johnson from reporting. Then he too, was barred from protest coverage. He later quit, Johnson remains at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. She is still barred from protest coverage. 

This narrative argued the panelists, which bars Black reporters from covering issues that directly impact them, is built on white supremacy. 

“At the end of the day, when I take off this press badge, I am no longer press, I am a Black man in this country,” said Santiago. 

While criticism of the objective standard isn’t new, it has been given new life this year, despite the rejection of the changing climate by older journalists. 

“I think a lot of editors in newsrooms will see this as a young people thing,” said Bui on how editors continue to uphold the objective narrative.

In SPJ’s code of ethics, under the section titled, “Act Independently,” there lies a clause, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” 

Upon further elaboration, SPJ states that it discourages journalists from becoming involved in political activities or movements. Despite this, SPJ invited an entire panel of journalists who rejected this notion and rather, encouraged political and social involvement. 

“Why would call me an advocate for pointing out the truth when I don’t call you an advocate for upholding the white supremacist status quo?” asked Givens. 

These panelists argued that sometimes, advocacy and journalism can’t and shouldn’t be separated. These are journalists that are not just challenging the traditional rules of journalism but breaking them down before our very eyes. 
Missed the conference? Watch the recap here.

Published by spjonadepaul

Official website for DePaul University's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.

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