How Newsroom Leaders Wrestled With Covering A Tumultuous Year

Originally published on June 9, 2021 8:33 am

Updated June 9, 2021 at 11:31 AM ET

From the pandemic to racial justice protests, a contested election and a second presidential impeachment: The events of the past year divided the nation, but they also challenged conventional notions held in newsrooms about objectivity and fairly representing diverse points of view.

For NPR's We Hold These Truths series examining what is and isn't working in America's democracy, All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly has been pulling back the curtain on how the media works to explain why journalists cover the news the way that they do.

For this installment, she spoke with a trio of newsroom leaders: Terence Samuel, NPR's own managing editor for news; Sara Just, executive producer of PBS NewsHour; and Dawn Rhodes, senior editor at Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to ground-level local reporting. The group discussed how they've responded to the events of the past year and whether they've made permanent changes to how they report the news. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On choosing the right words to describe key events

Terence Samuel: We had a huge discussion about whether George Floyd was "killed" or whether George Floyd was "murdered." And that was not just a conversation limited to this newsroom, but literally all the readers and all the listeners felt that they had enough information to weigh in on that conversation.

Even when we said he was killed, some people complained that he was murdered, and suddenly "killed" was no longer a powerful enough word to describe it.

Sara Just: One of the phrases I think that we talked about was "protesters" versus "members of the community" [to describe] people who came out to protest. Sometimes that distinction of remembering that these are people in their community, talking about what they want to see in their community, has a different kind of impact.

The other language distinction that I recall having in real time wasn't last summer but on Jan. 6 when we were discussing whether to call the people outside the Capitol "protesters" or "rioters" or "a mob." I remember that day, [the guidance] just changed as the day went along, minute-by-minute.

Dawn Rhodes: Our language was definitely "they stormed the Capitol" and "it was an attempted coup." We definitely used that language, understanding that [race typically informs these decisions]. I think in news media, we probably wouldn't be wrangling over this so much if the color of the people or the demographics of the people doing something like that were different. And so understanding that, if they were a group of Black supporters or Latinx supporters, people would be calling that "a riot." People would be calling that "a horde of people."

One of the things that we struggled with in that language of describing what happened to George Floyd — what happened to Jacob Blake, what happened to Breonna Taylor and so many people last year — was just using active voice. We tried to make a decision to say "police [shot] Jacob Blake," "police killed George Floyd," "police killed Breonna Taylor," and that was a switch.

On whether their newsrooms have changed how they report on police or treat police sources:

Samuel: For a long time in traditional media, when you said "check it out," in some places what that meant was actually "check with the police" because that was the official source. You wanted to see the police report. Suddenly it was clear, and I think people who have been covering protests and police shootings over the last decade or so have come to understand, that police reports are not as reliable as we made them out to be. And so we have gone beyond just relying on police sources and particularly, police reports.

Rhodes: [Being a local newsroom] definitely informs the way that we write about crime and write about anything involving police. Through our reporters being in the community and neighbors [knowing] to contact them to say "Hey, did you hear about this?", very often, we come across people who have seen a crime happen, and they can give context that the police can't. And sometimes the story ends up being very different.

How the current moment has changed how newsrooms think about balance and objectivity

Just: We don't need to go find someone to come on our program to say "Black lives don't matter," but really understanding that reporting on the community must include people with all different views. And so when we talk to people in a community where a protest has happened, we talk to people who participated in the protest., we talk to people who did not participate in the protest — as much as we can. That kind of balance informs our work, even though it doesn't necessarily lead to an actual debate.

Rhodes: I think that we all mean well when we talk about approaching stories with objectivity; I think the intent behind it is OK. But I think that really glosses over who's being served by these very traditional notions of objectivity and neutrality. Our approach to it isn't so much objectivity in the way that we traditionally understand it, it's about being fair. I think that when we start our stories from a place of understanding that a situation is inherently unfair and it's inequitable and that certain people here, they don't have as much opportunity to tell their story, I think that that helps us achieve a little bit of balance because we're starting from a sense of "things are not balanced."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I have been a journalist for coming up on three decades now, and I have never lived through a more tumultuous news cycle than this last year or so - the pandemic; protests for racial justice; the election; the insurrection; the impeachment, both of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.

WOLF BLITZER: Here in the United States, it's just crossed 100,000.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hands up. Don't shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: George Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The time is not now. The time is yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: He stayed on George Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

BLITZER: These individuals just rushed through security. They are inside Statuary Hall.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And they are stopping the constitutional peaceful transfer of power.

KELLY: This week, for our series We Hold These Truths, we are pulling back the curtain on how the media works, why we cover the news the way we do. The idea is if we journalists are more transparent about how we collect and deliver information, that might help our fellow citizens process the headlines coming at them. Yesterday, we heard from a trio of reporters and anchors. Today, we have brought in newsroom leaders. And we're going to focus on the tough decisions they've had to make about how to cover one of those stories - the protests. Sara Just is executive producer at "PBS NewsHour." Dawn Rhodes is senior editor at Block Club Chicago. That's a nonprofit news organization dedicated to ground-level local reporting in Chicago. And Terry Samuel, our own managing editor here at NPR News.

When the four of us sat down to talk, we zoomed in on something central to the work that journalists do - the words we use to tell a story. I asked, any difficult conversations about how to describe what was happening in this country after George Floyd was killed?

TERRY SAMUEL, BYLINE: An absolute yes. Look. Speaking specifically about the George Floyd coverage, early on, everybody had seen what had happened. And so the reporting is now more difficult in that you have to tell people something that you haven't covered that they don't know. That was very difficult in the early days. And so we were playing it relatively straight early on. Obviously, we had a huge discussion about whether George Floyd was killed or whether George Floyd was murdered. And that was not just a conversation limited to this newsroom, but literally all the readers and all the listeners felt that they had enough information to weigh in on that conversation. And it was...

KELLY: Oh, I remember getting angry emails when at one point I said George Floyd had died and people pushing back and saying, he didn't just die, he was killed. Somebody killed him. Let's just say what happened.

SAMUEL: Right. And it went beyond that. Even when we said he was killed, some people complained that he was murdered. And suddenly, killed was not - no longer a powerful enough word to describe it.

KELLY: Sara, Dawn, either of you want to touch on that one?

SARA JUST: You know, one of the phrases I think that we talked about was protesters versus members of the community and people who came out to protest. Sometimes that distinction of remembering that these are people in their community talking about what they want to see in their community has a different kind of impact. The other language distinction that I recall having in real time wasn't last summer, but on January 6, when we were discussing whether to call the people outside the Capitol protesters or rioters or a mob. I remember that day just changed as the day went along, minute by minute.

DAWN RHODES: That was Sara talking before. This is Dawn. One thing that I want to inject into this conversation is the issue of race. Our language was definitely they stormed the Capitol, and it was an attempted coup. We definitely used that language, understanding that, I think in news media, we probably wouldn't be wrangling over this so much if the color of the people or the demographics of the people doing something like that were different. And so understanding that if they were a group of Black supporters or Latinx supporters, people would be calling that a riot. People would be calling that a horde of people.

KELLY: Or there were people pointing out, if these were people who appeared to be Muslim, we would be, you know, asking, should we call these terrorists? And that was not part of the conversation.

RHODES: Absolutely. And so I think that definitely factored into our decision-making in that time. And to kind of go back to what Terry was saying, one of the things that we struggled with in that language of describing what happened to George Floyd, what happened to Jacob Blake, what happened to Breonna Taylor and so many people last year was just using active voice. And so we tried to make a decision to say police killed Jacob Blake, police killed George Floyd, police killed Breonna Taylor, and that was a switch.

KELLY: Have any of you pushed your reporters, pushed people writing the headlines to make changes in terms of how your newsrooms are handling police sources? And we always hope that we're rigorously fact-checking and not just taking any source's word, but have you made any changes over the last year?

SAMUEL: I don't know if it happened over the last year, but I think obviously the last year we could feel ourselves changing. For a long time in traditional media, when you said check it out, in some places what that meant was actually check with the police, because that was the official source. You wanted to see the police report. And, you know, suddenly it was clear - and I think, you know, people who have been covering protests and police shootings over the last decade or so come to understand - that police reports are not as reliable as we made them out to be. And so we have gone beyond just relying on police sources and particularly police reports.

KELLY: Dawn, I want you to jump on this one, because I'm thinking of the way your newsroom is set up, having reporters in neighborhoods as opposed to what we at NPR have to do, kind of parachute into a community. And the way that that plays out in terms of building sources, fact-checking with sources, building trust, how has that played out for you in this last year or so?

RHODES: That's a really good question. I mean, and that definitely informs the way that we write about crime and write about anything involving police. And so through our reporters being in the community, and neighbors know to contact them to say, hey, did you hear about this, that means that very often we come across people who have seen part of a crime happen, so they can give context that the police can't. And sometimes the story ends up being very different.

KELLY: Journalists are human. I mean, we all have opinions. We all have biases. We all bring baggage to every story we cover. How do y'all think about, as you run a newsroom, what balance looks like in this moment, what being objective looks like? Is it even worth striving for knowing we're never going to get there? Sara.

JUST: Yeah, I think that you're absolutely right. There's been a deeper understanding and deeper conversation about how much our lived experiences play into the reporting that we do. And there's no question that it does for each and every one of us in different ways. And I think that lived experience we especially highlight now is valuable, whether it's race or gender or the challenges. I don't think people with those lived experiences have to carry the burden, though, of being the only ones to report on it by any means. And so that's something that we are always balancing.

KELLY: And to the question of balance specifically, Sara, the way that big news shows have gotten programmed for forever is like, if you have a Republican on, you should probably also get a Democrat on and give them roughly the same amount of time, and bingo, we're balanced. How do you think about that in this moment?

JUST: Yeah. I think we don't need to go find someone to come on our program to say Black lives don't matter, but really understanding the reporting on the community must include people with all different views. And so when we talk to people in a community where a protest has happened, we talk to people who participated in the protest. We talk to people who did not participate in the protests as much as we can. And so that that kind of balance informs our work, even though it doesn't necessarily lead to an actual debate.

KELLY: Terry, how are you thinking about this question of being objective, being balanced? What does that look like in 2021?

SAMUEL: I think the balance objectivity axis has kind of slipped in significance in the work we do. I think the balanced objectivity question is mostly a political one, and that's about argument and debate. I think what we need is to chase the whole story. The whole story gets you to the truth, and it's not a matter of representing just opposite voices, but more voices and excluding the voices that are just pure disinformation.

KELLY: Dawn, I'll give you the last word.

RHODES: Sure. In terms of objectivity, I think that we all mean well when we talk about approaching stories with objectivity. I think the intent behind it is OK. But I think that really glosses over who's being served by these very traditional notions of objectivity and neutrality. You know, our approach to it isn't so much objectivity in the way that we traditionally understand it. It's about being fair.

I think that when we start our stories from a place of understanding that a situation is inherently unfair and it's inequitable and that certain people here, they don't have as much opportunity to tell their story, I think that that helps us achieve a little bit of balance because we're starting from a sense of things are not balanced.

KELLY: Well, I want to say thank you very much to all three of you.

SAMUEL: Thank you.

RHODES: Thank you so much.

JUST: Thanks for having us.

KELLY: We have been speaking with a trio of newsroom leaders - Dawn Rhodes, senior editor at Block Club Chicago, Terry Samuel, managing editor at NPR News and Sara Just, executive producer of "PBS NewsHour." Tomorrow, the next generation - we'll visit the newsroom of The Red & Black. That's the student paper at the University of Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.