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June 4, 2020, 2:16 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s journalists of color are taking a “sick and tired day” after “Buildings Matter, Too” headline

“We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age.”

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a city whose population is 42 percent black, the journalists of color at the Philadelphia Inquirer are protesting that the news outlet is eroding their trust with the communities they cover. (They are not the only newsroom staffers protesting this week.)

On Tuesday, the Inquirer published a column by architecture critic Inga Saffron under the headline “Buildings matter, too,” a headline essentially equating the damage to buildings caused by looting during Black Lives Matter protests to the loss of black Americans killed by police.

On Thursday, 44 of the newspaper’s journalists of color called out sick after sending an open letter Wednesday night to upper management. The journalists who signed the letter include both union and non-union employees, as well as reporters, photographers, editors, digital producers, social media editors, and designers.

Staffers shared the letter in an internal Slack channel and made it public in a Google Doc. It reads, in part:

We’re tired of hasty apologies and silent corrections when someone screws up. We’re tired of workshops and worksheets and diversity panels. We’re tired of working for months and years to gain the trust of our communities — communities that have long had good reason to not trust our profession — only to see that trust eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions.

It’s no coincidence that communities hurt by systemic racism only see journalists in their neighborhoods when people are shot or buildings burn down. It takes commitment to correct and improve that relationship. It is an insult to our work, our communities, and our neighbors to see that trust destroyed—and makes us that much more likely to face threats and aggression. The carelessness of our leadership makes it harder to do our jobs, and at worst puts our lives at risk.

We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age. We’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about “diversity and inclusion” when we raise our concerns. We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.

Things need to change.

On June 4, we’re calling in sick and tired. Sick and tired of pretending things are OK. Sick and tired of not being heard.

The Inquirer’s journalists attended a two-hour Zoom meeting on Wednesday in which they discussed how they felt about the headline, as well as race-related issues that they said had existed in the newsroom for years. After the letter was posted on Slack, an editor wrote that if any journalist of color lost a vacation day due to the sickout, she would share her days off. Then 70 other colleagues said they would do the same. According to Vice, seven staffers of those who signed the letter are also withholding their bylines today.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, a for-profit newspaper, is owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The 2019 American Society of Newspaper Editors Diversity Survey showed that leadership of the 213-person Philadelphia Inquirer is 79 percent white. Fifty-seven staffers are people of color. A staffer at the Inquirer who asked to remain anonymous said that the organizers only asked journalists of color to sign the letter, and that while the list of those who did will not be made public, it was shared in the organization’s Slack channel on Wednesday.

The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists tweeted that it stood in solidarity with the Inquirer’s journalists of color participating in the sickout.

“By co-opting the activist battlecry ‘Black Lives Matter’ for a tone-deaf headline, Philadelphia Inquirer antagonized an already intense national conversation on race,” Ernest Owens, PABJ’s vice president of print, said in a statement. “Sensitivity for Black communities and readers right now in the middle of protests against racial injustice should weigh more than ignorant editorial punchlines.”

In 2017, metro columnist Helen Ubiñas wrote a column titled “I am not your brown reporter,” in which she discussed how journalists of color all over the country are fed up with being subjected to racism in their newsrooms, or asked to have the same conversations about diversity and inclusion that don’t lead to change.

“I’m done being burdened by the obligation, the responsibility, the time-consuming expectations that most of my white peers don’t have to think about,” Ubiñas wrote. “No one is calling them away from their jobs to join these conversations. Why not? Shouldn’t diversity be a priority for everyone who loves journalism, who wants to make it better?”

Executive editor Stan Wischnowski, managing editor Patrick Kerkstra, and editor Gabriel Escobar published an apology to staff and readers on Wednesday, saying that “intent is ultimately irrelevant” and that “an editor’s attempt to capture a columnist’s nuanced argument in a few words went horribly wrong, and the resulting hurt and anger are plain.”

The story’s headline online was updated to “Damaging buildings disproportionately hurts the people protesters are trying to uplift” and now includes an editor’s note that says, “A headline published in Tuesday’s Inquirer was offensive, inappropriate and we should not have printed it. We deeply regret that we did. We also know that an apology on its own is not sufficient. We need to do better. We’ve heard that loud and clear, including from our own staff. We will.”

The apology, which also ran in Thursday’s print edition, detailed the editing procedure and said that the current process was followed correctly but requires review.

This incident makes clear that changes are needed, and we are committing to start immediately.

We will review the editing process above and implement safeguards to flag sensitive content and prevent single-person publication. We will continue training and discussions around cultural sensitivity, including a previously scheduled program that will begin this week. We will expand on our commitment to build a newsroom that better reflects the community it serves, with more recruiting resources and requirements for diverse finalist pools. And we will define a process for flagging, discussing and publicly disclosing lapses in editorial judgment that aren’t addressed with a simple factual correction.

On Wednesday night, the Inquirer’s publisher, Lisa Hughes sent a statement through Slack saying that none of the journalists participating in the sickout would lose a sick day or a vacation day. The statement was shared with Nieman Lab, and this is part of it:

As the first female publisher in the 190-year history of The Inquirer, I can tell you firsthand that we have been too slow to change to reflect the community we serve, not only in the newsroom but across the entire organization. Since my arrival in February, I have all too often heard stories of hurt, anger and frustration at not being heard, and even worse — years of empty platitudes with little action. You are right. We need to do better, and we will do so together.

Black lives matter, and we know that we have a critical role to play in making sure that the work we do every day reflects the community we serve. We know that we — as a news organization and as a community — have lot of work to do. I could not be more proud of the work our journalists do every day, often at great personal risk. But we are not a perfect place. We are striving to be an organization where every employee knows they are valued and heard. We have much more to do.

Tomorrow, a number of our colleagues are planning to call in sick and tired. I understand and respect that people are sick and tired, just as I know how serious and deeply upsetting this is. No employee will be charged a sick day or PTO for this action. I have a deep appreciation for your work and sincerity, and I hope this will help lead to some modicum of healing.

POSTED     June 4, 2020, 2:16 p.m.
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