Updated 4:10 p.m.
Journalists of color at the Philadelphia Inquirer refused to work Thursday, calling in “sick and tired” in an open letter to newspaper leadership decrying racial inequity in the industry and demanding changes to “careless, unsympathetic” newsroom decision-making.
The action was sparked by a headline in Tuesday’s print edition of the Inquirer, “Buildings Matter, Too,” that accompanied a column on Philadelphia’s buildings and civic infrastructure in the aftermath of this week’s protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, and appeared to equate the destruction of property with violence against Black Americans. (The online headline, which has since been rewritten, read: “Black Lives Matter. Do Buildings?”)
The newspaper’s top editors have since issued apologies for the headline, both publicly and internally.
I’ve learned not to rage email, and by extension, I do not rage tweet (or tweet much at all). Accordingly, I’ve waited a full 24 hours to calmly tweet that this headline from @PhillyInquirer is why Black people find it difficult, AT BEST, to trust the news. Do better. DO BETTER. pic.twitter.com/pcpsmkJ1nL
— Cassie Haynes (@cassiegoeschirp) June 3, 2020
“The headline offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement, and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans. That is unacceptable,” reads the public apology, issued shortly before 10 p.m. Wednesday. “… This incident makes clear that changes are needed, and we are committing to start immediately.”
The editors’ public apology explains the Inquirer’s editing and headline-writing process and promises to implement new safeguards around that process, as well as to continue previously scheduled training around cultural sensitivity. The apology also refers to a two-hour newsroom-wide meeting Wednesday.
However, the letter issued by the Inquirer’s staffers of color states that the sickout is about more than the headline itself.
“As journalists of color, we do more than report on the community — we are the community. We do our best to give the community a platform to be heard. We strive to represent the voice of the people. And we are tired,” the letter states.
Today, I’m joining my colleagues of color at the @PhillyInquirer and calling in sick and tired.
Things need to change. We call on The Inquirer to do better. To be better.
— 𝙲𝚊𝚜𝚜𝚒𝚎 𝙾𝚠𝚎𝚗𝚜 (@cassieowens) June 4, 2020
“This is not the start of a conversation; this conversation has been started time and time again,” the letter continues. “We demand action. We demand a plan, with deadlines. We demand full, transparent commitment to changing how we do business. No more ‘handling internally.’ No more quiet corrections. If we are to walk into a better world, we need to do it with our chests forward — acknowledge and accept where we make mistakes, and show how we learn from them. Your embarrassment is not worth more than our humanity.”
The refusal to work comes on the sixth day of police protests and anti-racism demonstrations in Philadelphia. The Inquirer journalists said that they are distressed at suspending work during such a critical time, but that they need to take a stand against racial inequity in their field and at their publication.
“Things need to change. Today, I’m joining my colleagues of color at the @PhillyInquirer and calling in sick and tired,” reporters tweeted en masse on Thursday. “Things need to change. We call on The Inquirer to do better. To be better.”
The journalists’ letter went live internally at 5 p.m. Wednesday on the Inquirer’s Slack channel.
Initially, newsroom employees planned to use paid time off for their action. But shortly after staffers posted the letter, an editor responded by saying that if any journalist of color lost a personal day, that editor would share vacation days. At least 70 other colleagues offered to do the same. About 10 p.m. Wednesday, Inquirer publisher and chief executive officer Lisa Hughes issued an internal message indicating that workers participating in the action would not need to take paid time off.
“I understand and respect that people are sick and tired, just as I know how serious and deeply upsetting this is,” Hughes wrote. “No employee will be charged a sick day or PTO for this action.”
As of 8 a.m. Thursday, 44 employees of color had signed the letter. According to one employee, the majority of these newsroom staffers are taking the day off. The few who cannot are withholding their bylines, meaning they will continue working but will refuse to put their names on any stories published.
The group taking action includes reporters, editors, social media editors, photographers, and designers of color. Some of them, but not all, are unionized members of the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia.
The Inquirer newsroom currently employs 213 journalists, according to Evan Benn, director of special projects and editorial events; 57 of those journalists are of color.
The sentiment expressed by the Inquirer’s staffers of color has been voiced by other local journalist organizations as well. The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, the nation’s oldest professional network of journalists of color and the founding chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, issued a statement Wednesday:
“PABJ is calling on more than just a formal apology from the Philadelphia Inquirer, but immediate changes to their editorial process and vetting. We welcome a conversation with their editorial staff on this matter and propose working together on a collaborative plan that addresses the systemic racism that is reflected in their newsroom, and their coverage,” reads the letter, signed by the organization’s vice president-print, Ernest Owens.
The letter was backed shortly afterward by a formal statement of support from the Philadelphia chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association and reshared on social media by the local chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The Free Press, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization focusing on media democracy, issued a similar statement backing up Inquirer journalists Thursday afternoon.
A 2018 newsroom diversity survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors reported that people of color comprised 22.6% of employees in all surveyed newsrooms. Of all newsroom managers, less than 20% were managers of color.
Since 2018, the newspaper industry has undergone massive consolidation, especially among local newspapers, with many jobs of all types lost.
This article was updated to clarify details about how the day without work would be characterized.