On Sunday morning, I led a videoconference with our editorial team to brainstorm ideas and map a strategy for our continuing coverage of the outrage and protests sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd. The unarmed black man died after a white Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into his neck and held it there for nearly 9 minutes as he lay handcuffed on the ground. Three other beat cops at the officer’s side did nothing to stop him as Floyd pleaded for his life, saying, “I can’t breathe.”
As various story ideas were being pitched in our meeting, Angelique Jackson, a Black journalist on our staff, stopped us in our tracks with a passionate, instructive plea of her own. I asked Jackson and other reporters who had thoughts on how we could better inform our coverage to convey them to our readers. I feel it important to amplify their voices here:
“Having to speak up in front of a newsroom of your mostly white colleagues and editors is a very scary thing to do,” says Jackson. “Having to point out blind spots in the work of well-intentioned and more experienced reporters is uncomfortable, but it is also an opportunity for me to effect change in our coverage and in our industry. I am fortunate to be able to share my voice in a way where I feel safe and heard, and as a result, I’m able to use my voice to amplify other Black voices — to help frame the narrative to remind people reading or watching why Black people are standing up in the first place.
“And covering these protests has been really emotional for me because this means that while I am working, I am focusing on processing as both a Black person — and grieving for the loss of more Black lives — while also worrying for the journalists in the field of all races and creeds who are being targeted while simply doing their jobs.”
Dozens of on-the-ground reporters were assaulted, shot by rubber bullets and arrested for simply doing their jobs, as was the case with CNN’s Omar Jimenez.
There’s been a lot of discussion both at our organization and I’m sure elsewhere about how the mainstream media is too heavily focused on the violent aspects of the protests — which have been disrupted by police violence and opportunistic looting — rather than highlighting the reasons why all of the peaceful demonstrators are standing up for justice and police brutality against Black people.
But, honestly, those of us who are seeing the shocking images on social media of police brutality being played out before our very eyes have a hard time turning away from the violence that has ensued.
The explosion of widely felt anguish over the death of Floyd clearly underscores a deep-rooted rebellion against the systemic racism that has existed in our country for centuries and is evidenced in our recent history with the senseless killings of Black men and women whose lives were cut short, including those of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Eric Garner in New York, Sandra Bland in Texas, Stephon Clark in California and Michael Brown Jr. in Missouri, to name just a few.
The current crisis that has erupted comes at a time when we are also battling a global pandemic, which has claimed more than 370,000 lives — of which more than 100,000 are in the U.S. — and has caused rampant illness and unemployment among a disproportionate number of Black and Brown Americans.
Our Artisans editor Jazz Tangcay recalls that the summer she moved to L.A. from London in 2014, the murder of Brown, an 18-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., was consuming the news.
“It was a story I would see over and over again,” she says. “Systemic racism was prevalent. As soon as the news of George Floyd’s story broke, I checked in on my friends. I asked them, ‘What can I do?’ I didn’t go out and protest. But I did sign petitions. I did donate. I used my platform to not be complicit by remaining silent. I encouraged people to seek out Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary ‘13th’ so people can understand the deep-rooted systemic racism. I asked what books to read, and people recommended Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘How to Be an Antiracist.’
“I don’t know what America needs to change, but it starts with the individual. We can look at ourselves and ask ourselves, ‘What have I done, and what can I do?’ I’ve also had to be more supportive than ever to elevate minority voices whenever and wherever I can. I have made the effort to tell their stories. One of the blessings of being at Variety is having not only that platform to elevate my own voice, but also others’.”
Another of our senior reporters, Audrey Cleo Yap, says the former artistic director of the L.A.-based Asian American theater company East West Players told her years ago that issues of inclusion can be likened to hosting a dinner party and asking all of your guests how they can be best accommodated: What are their dietary restrictions? What do they need to feel welcome at the table?
“The dinner party metaphor can easily be extended to a newsroom,” she says. “But when you are one of only a few people at the table who look like you, who bring a similar set of life experiences, it can sometimes feel like a very lonely gathering.
“I can only speak for myself, but in my years as an on-air host/reporter and writer, I have often been one of only a few minority [reporters] on staff. And I have bitten the insides of my cheeks raw at the insensitivity I have endured; I have also been heartened by those who have helped me navigate these spaces. It behooves any publication to leverage the voices and work of their minority journalists. A newsroom rich in racial diversity only makes our storytelling richer, more pointed, accurate and whole.
“So how can our ‘hosts’ — leaders and editors — make us feel welcome? Ask their POC reporters what they need and to share that with the non-POC journalists … and it is incumbent on newsroom leaders to ensure that those voices are heard, valued and amplified.”
As editor-in-chief of Variety I have tried to diversify our newsroom over the past 7 years, but I HAVE NOT DONE ENOUGH. I need to take a hard look at our hiring practices to make sure they are racially inclusive. One sure way to begin would be to restructure our internship program, overseen by our features news editor Shalini Dore, to make sure we tap a diverse group of students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Variety has a tradition of hiring many of our interns as full-time reporters after they graduate, so this is one way to ensure more inclusiveness in our newsroom.
Our senior TV writer Elaine Low put a fine point on it for me:
“This past week has highlighted the need for every newsroom to have reporters of color and with a wide range of life experiences. I’d like to challenge our own notion of what it means to be inclusive, which means not only hosting diversity events or publishing inclusion-themed issues but thinking every day about the language we use in headlines and stories, the sources we call and cultivate, the people whose perspectives we call on in the newsroom.”
In our search for talented reporters of color, she advises, “Let’s look outside of our traditional professional circles and cultivate in-house talent in a way that promotes richer diversity in race and socioeconomic class, which means starting at the root of the pipeline and hiring interns not just from colleges that are known journalism schools.”
I couldn’t agree more.
And, as I try to do my part in helping diversify our work environment, let me conclude by speaking to a macro problem in America related to Donald Trump, who over the past 3½ years has continued to fan the flames of racism in this country. While the media was covering the protests this weekend that spoke to Black Lives Matter, he tweeted this: “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” Yet the U.S. white supremacist hate organization the Ku Klux Klan has no such designation.
In a speech Saturday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the NASA SpaceX launch, he crowed that in talking with Floyd’s family he “expressed the sorrow of our entire nation for their loss.” Meanwhile, Floyd’s brother Philonise Floyd recounted his own version of the conversation with Trump in an interview with MSNBC’s Al Sharpton:
“It was so fast. He didn’t give me the opportunity to even speak. It was hard. I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept pushing me off like, ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.’ I just told him I want justice. I said that I can’t believe they committed a modern-day lynching in broad daylight.”