At 'LA Times,' Rancor Over Racial Equity Roils Newsroom Staffers at the Los Angeles Times say editors have failed to fulfill promises of racial equity at the paper including in hiring, pay and the coverage it offers readers.
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Rancor Erupts In 'LA Times' Newsroom Over Race, Equity And Protest Coverage

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Rancor Erupts In 'LA Times' Newsroom Over Race, Equity And Protest Coverage

Rancor Erupts In 'LA Times' Newsroom Over Race, Equity And Protest Coverage

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At the Los Angeles Times, just as in newsrooms around the country, the social unrest over racial inequities has brought long-simmering tensions back to a boil. Many staffers there say past promises on hiring and the paper's coverage have fallen flat. Similar issues have cost several prominent journalists at other news organizations their jobs in recent days. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been following all of this, and he joins us now.

Hey, David.


CHANG: So I understand that one of your sources at the LA Times calls what's happening there an internal uprising. What is happening there right now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, yeah, that was one source's characterization. She's a fairly senior reporter. But I'd say it captured the sentiment of many of the folks I've talked to in recent days. You saw it online in social media comments - LA Times journalists about their own employer as - and you've seen that at other news organizations, too, as people were talking about, hey, we're struggling with these issues, too - the kinds of things that we're seeing in the streets.

But inside the LA Times on private Slack channels, they blew up. And you saw a lot of journalists of color in particular asking for a kind of soup-to-nuts change. They want promises to diversify its newsroom ranks with real teeth in it. They want promises for top editors to think more acutely about its coverage of race, about who's assigned to various stories. They really want the news leadership of the Los Angeles Times to say not only is this a moment that they're acknowledging, but that this will change the way the Times thinks for the future.

CHANG: One of the details that jumps out from your story is the fact that on the metro news desk, which is the paper's largest desk, there is only one black reporter out of something like - what? - 90 journalists. How does that fact play into what you found in your own reporting?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's pretty searing and pretty emblematic of some of the struggles folks are dealing with. You know, there's one black reporter on that metro desk of - I believe it's 88 journalists. And you know, she feels that she, according to her colleagues, is carrying around an unfair burden for reporting on issues important to black people, black populations, black institutions.

And it's certainly not enough to think about how to assign folks to cover the disproportionately important black figures and institutions that dot, you know, Los Angeles County, Southern California politics, policing, business and entertainment. It's just far too heavy a burden for her to bear. You know, she has told colleagues that she feels responsible at times to help out in scouting at other stories to think through, hey, are we framing this right?

And you know, this means even as - or the executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, Norman Pearlstine, acknowledges that stories are missed, and sensitivities are neglected. I spoke with Pearlstein in an interview just a few days ago.

NORMAN PEARLSTINE: If you look at raw numbers, we are as inclusive a newsroom as any I'm aware of in a major media company in the U.S. But as a reflection of Los Angeles, we are far from where we should be.

FOLKENFLIK: Now, in the broader newsroom, there are problem with demographics, too. The newsroom has - a little over 4% of its journalists are African American. Compare that to 9-, 10% of Los Angeles County. The numbers are, if anything, worse for Latinos.

And Pearlstine and his team have made a bunch of recent promises in response to this uprising. He said he will hire a masthead that is very senior editor - deal with diversity issues. He said that they're going to do a comprehensive review of their coverage of recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. He said that they will start - it seems small but significant - to capitalize the letter B in black. It's an important symbol for a lot of folks, as it's done for Hispanics, Latinos, Asian Americans.

So he's saying, look. In that and a bunch of other ways, he's trying to say, I hear you, and we will make progress.

CHANG: I mean, it sounds like a lot of promises. But given the turnover that we've been seeing at other news organizations, does it seem like Pearlstine's doing enough to keep his job at this point?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look. Pearlstine is a giant in the industry - 77 years old, former top editor at The Wall Street Journal, at Time Inc., at Bloomberg News. But we've seen a lot of leading figures forced out in recent days - at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the executive editor; James Bennet, the editorial page editor of The New York Times; and a few others - Bon Appetit. You know, there's strong dissent within the newsroom, and yet, I had just last night a strong vote of support from a really important figure, the executive chairman and owner of the Los Angeles Times. And that's Patrick Soon-Shiong.

CHANG: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

Thank you, David.


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