2 Black reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were barred from protest coverage and the paper has removed protest coverage from its website amid public outcry

ktenbarge@businessinsider.com (Kat Tenbarge)
In this Monday, June 1, 2020 photo, Dínico Perry-Ellis leads a chant on Station Street in Pittsburgh, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Associated Press

  • Chaos has erupted at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, after a Black journalist was barred from covering the city's George Floyd protests over a tweet. 
  • The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh confirmed that journalist Alexis Johnson, "one of the few black reporters at the paper," was barred from protest-related coverage. 
  • The move came after Johnson tweeted about the trash and debris left behind at a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate, sarcastically comparing it to the outrage over looters.
  • Several of Johnson's peers at the Post-Gazette tweeted in support of her, but two reporters who did so noticed that their own protest coverage disappeared from the publication's website.
  • On Saturday, Pulitzer Prize-winning Post-Gazette photojournalist Michael Santiago tweeted that he had also been barred from protest-related coverage, writing that the paper "has chosen to silence two of it [sic] most prominent Black journalist [sic] during one of the most important civil rights stories that is happening across our country!"
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A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter's viral tweet highlighting the hypocrisy of critics of the George Floyd demonstrations sparked backlash from the newspaper's management and left her barred from covering the protests, the reporter and the newspaper's union said. 

On May 31, Black Post-Gazette journalist Alexis Johnson tweeted "Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don't care about this city!!!!! .... oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops."

The tweet was accompanied by four pictures of trash and debris from the tailgate, and it quickly went viral, accruing more than 50,000 retweets and 165,000 likes at the time of publication. 

It also led to Johnson being barred from protest-related coverage at the Post-Gazette, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh wrote in a statement, adding that "The logic was absurd and specious. The move stifled one of the few black reporters at the paper."

"I crafted a funny tweet about Kenny Chesney and I never thought a week later I would become the story. That's what they tell journalists: 'You never become the story,'" Johnson told Insider over the phone on Saturday. "The fact that this tweet about a Kenny Chesney concert called into question my ability to do my job is pretty disheartening and frustrating.

"I was so insulted by being taken off the coverage because Black journalists across this country are covering these stories about police brutality and are having to deal with trauma of watching our community be attacked every single day. Whether we tweet about our feelings about it or not, we still have the capability of showing up and being fair and accurate in our reporting, because that's what we were trained to do."

Since then, the controversial decision to limit Johnson's reporting has led to outrage and even more chaos at the publication. Once the decision became public, Johnson's peers, coworkers, and members of the general public tweeted in her support, using the hashtag "#IStandWithAlexis." It resulted in what the Guild called "troubling steps."

Post-Gazette managing editor Karen Kane told Insider that she is not allowed to talk about personnel matters.

Amid outcry and support for Johnson, Post-Gazette reporters were stifled and had coverage removed without explanation

According to the Guild's statement, Guild President Michael A. Fuoco and Unit Chairman Jonathan D. Silver, two longtime Post-Gazette reporters, met with the paper's managing editor on June 3, asking that the decision be reversed. "They refused and wouldn't explain their rationale," the statement says.

On Friday, June 5, several Guild members tweeted with the hashtag "IStandWithAlexis," including Post-Gazette city hall reporter Ashley Murray and general assignment reporter Lauren Lee. The two had recently each published a story related to the ongoing Pittsburgh protests over the killing of George Floyd — Fuoco told Insider over the phone that Murray's had been about Pittsburgh's city council discussing police bruality, and Lee's was about Friday night protests on the east side of the city. 

"Those two stories were on the website for a number of hours and then were pulled subsequent to those two female reporters tweeting their support for Alexis," Fuoco told Insider. "I think we know why they were pulled."

After Murray and Lee's stories were pulled from the website, the Post-Gazette posted new, shorter versions of the same stories that Murray and Lee didn't write. Pittsburgh CityPaper editor-in-chief Lisa Cunningham noted on Twitter that the new version of Lee's story used a picture of police officers kneeling alongside protesters instead of the original photo, which was of the protesters. 


"When there was public outcry because of that overnight, they went back and put a sanitized, really truncated versions of those stories, which these two reporters didn't write, someone else wrote, and put them back on," Fuoco told Insider. "But in any event, they put up stories that were just a little bit more than briefs when these reporters wrote extensive stories. And also they didn't use their bylines."

The confusion and controversial moves didn't end there. On Saturday, June 6, another Black journalist at the Post-Gazette, Pultizer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael M. Santiago, announced on Twitter that he too had been barred from protest-related coverage, just like Johnson. 

"@PittsburghPG has chosen to silence two of it [sic] most prominent Black journalist [sic] during one of the most important civil rights stories that is happening across our country!" Santiago wrote in his tweet. 

"Black journalists have been covering these stories for centuries, and whether we tweet our feelings or not on a social media platform, we've been able to be accurate and fair," Johnson told Insider. "These social media guidelines — I know a lot of newsrooms have them and I understand objectivity – but there are some things you just can't be quiet about."

Additionally, Fuoco told Insider that he heard all photographers at the Post-Gazette will no longer be permitted to take photos of protests. Fuoco said he learned late Saturday night that Santiago was scheduled to take photos at a protest in Pittsburgh's East End earlier on Saturday, but that Santiago was told Friday night "he would not be shooting it."

Fuoco also said that additional protest coverage was "killed" (the way journalists typically describe stories that are assigned or completed but are not published) for the June 6 edition of the Post-Gazettte. 

"I'm told that photo editors were told by their supervisor, the assistant managing editor for visuals, that photographers would no longer be photographing protests and that they were going to use wires," Fuoco told Insider.

"On the budget for today were two stories. One was from our religion writer about clergy reaction to the protests, and the other one was about this other protest that happened last night on the south side of town where the police chief kneeled with protesters [...] A picture of that ended up running but not the story."

The full statement from the Guild details even more concerns that the Guild has about the Post-Gazette leadership and the paper's publishers, including what have so far been unsuccessful contract negotiations that have been ongoing for three years. 

"It is abundantly clear to the Guild that PG managers are trying to gaslight us," the statement says. "We have no doubt that the Blocks and their top lieutenants are doing their best to crush our union, stamp out free thought and punish our members for exercising their federally protected rights."

"The Blocks" refers to the Post-Gazette's publisher, John Robinson Block, and his brother, who runs the company with him. The Block family has owned the paper since 1927, and Block has been involved in multiple controversies in recent years. The Guild statement mentions a February 2019 incident in which Post-Gazette staffers say an "intoxicated" Block came into the newsroom with his then 12-year-old daughter and threatened staffers.

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