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Pulitzer winners discuss race and diversity

By Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service:

When Keith Alexander and Wesley Lowery took on the challenge of covering fatal police shootings in 2015, they never imagined the magnitude of work that was before them, let alone that their team’s work would be honored with a Pulitzer Prize.

For them, it was a story that needed to be told and they were going to tell it.

“We knew we were doing something that was never done before. It fueled us, to peel back [on a national level] layer after layer on police shootings,” Alexander said during a phone interview. “Let’s get this story out and shake the trees – what more can we tell – that was the motivating part.”

Wesley Lowrey and Keith Alexander speak to the audience at Point Park University. Photo credit: Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service.
Wesley Lowery and Keith Alexander speak to the audience at Point Park University. Photo credit: Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service.

With an audience of approximately 120 people, the two Washington Post reporters took part in the event “Press Forward: A Discussion of Race, Diversity and Inclusion in the Pittsburgh News Industry,” at Point Park University on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation presented the event in partnership with the Point Park Center for Media Innovation.

Alexander and Lowery discussed not only their trials and tribulations in covering their historic series on police shootings, but also about the role of African-American and minority reporters in today’s newsrooms.

The PBMF opened the evening by releasing the preliminary results of its media diversity study.

The PBMF surveyed 10 local papers, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review and found that out of 425 positions, African-Americans only held 29 positions – barely seven percent.

Despite making up over a third of Pittsburgh’s population, people of color only occupy nine percent of the workforce in Pittsburgh newsrooms.

“Over the next two years we will be conducting an in-depth study of diversity and inclusion issues in Pittsburgh,” PBMF parliamentarian Letrell Crittenden said.

Alexander acknowledged the importance of his job as a reporter is to stand up for those who are marginalized.

“[We are journalists] to be a voice for the voiceless and hold the powerful accountable,” Alexander said.

With the civic unrest surrounding police-related shootings in the recent months, the panel stressed the importance of having people of color on staff to cover stories.

“The more you value diversity in the newsroom, the more you value diversity in coverage,” Crittenden said.

Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation, speaks with Wesley Lowrey and Keith Alexander. Photo credit: Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation, speaks with Wesley Lowery and Keith Alexander. Photo credit: Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service.

Alexander and Lowery also pointed out it is a sensitive issue anytime you are dealing with homicides.

“Being a crime writer you’re dealing with life or death. You’re dealing with stories with an immediate impact,” Alexander said.

In the case of fatal police shootings there was no public records of police-related shootings unless filed by the police precinct themselves. Without easily accessible data during research, Lowery explained how the team had to rely on Google news alerts, local media coverage and social media to help accurately collect their own data.

The development of social media and new ways to share video in recent years has magnified these violent acts by police officers.

“We’re having this discussion because of video,” Lowery said. “[Video] forced this conversation.”

Alexander stressed the importance of understanding these highly stressful and volatile situations with humanity. Both officers and victims are put into “anxiety-filled situations” where adrenaline can take over often times, resulting in negative consequences for multiple parties involved.

Alexander said that while citizen journalism is a useful tool, both reporters and non-journalists need to take precaution when tweeting and using social media.

“[You] can’t represent both sides in just 140 characters,” Alexander said. “People want to grab people’s attention without using the same journalistic skills that are used in a story and that’s a concern.”

Alexander said he is concerned over poor journalistic practices and stressed how important one’s reputation as a reporter is when sharing news.

“My reputation is what sells newspapers. We’re all journos, we all make mistakes and we correct them,” Alexander said.

To read entire study, visit: pbmf.org.

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