Newsroom editors can cripple or embrace reporters

Stories you want: Holding local and national news accountable

Baltimore, Maryland (Photo credit: Pixabay)

Please do not give me Florida. Please do not give me Miami or Orlando or Tampa. I’m begging you. I don’t give a damn what Florida Man has to say.

That was what I was thinking when I was hired for my third newsroom job. The company walked the line between a content mill and an aggregation news site, but the one thing it had going for it was allowing new and veteran writers to write a couple of pieces a week that we cared about.

However, we also had select cities (in trios) that we were assigned to cover. I was hired at the same time as one other writer. The only available, local beats at the time were Miami/Orlando/Tampa and another one for three East Coast cities, including Baltimore. I cannot remember what the other two East Coast cities were, but I wanted this beat badly because Baltimore was in it. I’d been quietly watching the progress of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, and respected what they’d done after founding the Black Lives Matter movement. And my hire date was April 2015, the same timeframe that Freddie Gray was beaten to death by police officers. Having the opportunity to cover Black Lives Matter and Freddie Gray was indescribably important to me.

Instead I was given Florida — and lots of idiotic “funny” stories to write about. Meanwhile the 20-something white guy who had minimal interest in Black Lives Matter got the East Coast cities. There was no grumpier person on the planet than me being told to write about Disney World while fully aware that a black man had been beaten so bad that his “spine was 80% severed at his neck.” Even worse, I was contracted to not write for competitors, so I couldn’t cover a topic I was far more passionate about than Mickey Mouse and Buccaneers hockey games. But I knew I was given this beat on purpose. During the initial online training days, before we were given a beat, I ran off some accomplishments of Black Lives Matter.

The editor (a 20-something, white, blonde female) responded, “Yeah, we’re not going to write about that. We don’t even know if that small group will stick around.”

I was dumbfounded. Five years later, Black Lives Matter is stronger, better and quicker — and worldwide. I hope the editor who dismissed “that small group” eats crow every day for the rest of her life.

If you have not watched this past week’s episode of Netflix’s “Patriot Act,” I strongly advise you to do so. It breaks down why your local newspapers are so much more significant than you may think they are. While everyone has their favorite national news platform (CNN, MSNBC, etc.), local news organizations do not often get the credit they deserve. Far too often, “the news” or “the media” is blamed for not covering a story the way readers (and usually non-readers who don’t vote) want it to be covered. While they are very rarely going to win that battle — at least with justifiably stubborn reporters who refuse to be biased — there’s also the matter of supporting publications that do.

I’ve heard time and again the complaints of “the news” that makes [insert demographic here] look bad. But whenever I ask the same folks who complain what newspapers they support, I’m met with silence or excuses about how they don’t have “time” to read. Or, even worse, they just go to someone’s blog who spends the entire time aggregating other reporters’ work (clearly I am guilty of aggregation, too). Then after they’ve read an entire aggregated story, they give credit to the blogger who read it from a news site and complain that “the media won’t cover this.” It makes as much sense as complaining about how all your clothes are wrinkled but never buying an iron.

Photo credit: Ashutosh Sonwani/Unsplash

But the news complainers aren’t all-the-way wrong. Too often journalists who pitch ideas and can really dig into a story are re-assigned to other beats because some editors don’t want to ruffle any feathers. The people who own the paper and a certain population of readers would be upset, knowing that particular topics are being covered too often or at all.

Been there, experienced that too. In a second newsroom, I received a work email stating that reporters and editors were not to share our political opinions on social media unless it was “unbiased” like [insert ridiculously conservative-leaning columnist writer’s name here]. I raised an eyebrow and looked for even one “unbiased” story from this columnist. I found none.

A similar incident occurred when I put up a travel piece on the MLK Memorial being open during the 2012 inauguration, but an editor wanted me to take it down because an alligator story in Australia would “get more clicks.” I gazed at the editor, who was drinking from a St. Patrick’s Day mug, as he told me that the homepage was “over-saturated” with presidential content — for the first black president to be re-elected ever in the history of America. I stared at his mug. He mumbled about “not even liking St. Patrick’s Day that much.” I stared at his mug again. The MLK monument story stayed in the travel section. Alligator attacks would have to wait another day.

So readers, who actually read and support newspapers and online columnists, are not wrong when they call publications out for not covering certain stories. There are entirely too many circumstances in which an op/ed columnist or journalist has her hands tied, trying to satisfy the editor’s opinions of the facts, the newspaper owner’s opinions of the facts, his/her own opinions of the facts and the actual facts. Too often, these four categories do not align.

But “that small group” I wanted to write about is being influential once again. Black Lives Matter is now influencing the media landscape. In fact, four top editors have resigned from their positions in the past few days, according to CNN. Questions are coming up about whether reporters can march in anti-racism rallies, speak out about them on social media and be bailed out if arrested while covering the events.

While I understand how two of three of these actions could clearly be a conflict of interest for “unbiased” journalism, I’ve always had more of a concern with the stories that get ignored for being less important in the first place. Until there are more editors and writers in a newsroom who fully understand that topics like Black Lives Matter and police brutality are more relevant than Disney World and hockey games, we’ll always have this problem. In the meantime, support local publications who you know are covering stories that you care about — not just the blogs that keep aggregating their content.

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Shamontiel L. Vaughn

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