On The Record: Covering George Floyd protests and underrepresented communities

As a newspaper, we must amplify voices that need to be heard

On The Record: Covering George Floyd protests and underrepresented communities

The recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people, at the hands of police officers, are tragic. As a white woman, I will never truly understand the struggles and experiences that Black people, and non-Black people of color, face in this country each day. As a white journalist, I will never understand the difficulties of reporting on these issues that can be so personal and painful for Black journalists. 

However, what The Eagle and I can do is amplify voices that need to be heard and hold officials and others accountable for their actions, including racism and bigotry. As the Society of Professional Journalists outlines in their Code of Ethics, we aim to be “vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

We acknowledge and recognize that The Eagle has work to do to create better relationships with underrepresented communities on campus. We have made mistakes, and The Eagle has a history of not covering communities of color enough. As an organization, we are committed to improving and diversifying our coverage. We know we have a lot of work to do, and in order to be an organization that everyone can rely on, we need to be more reflective of our community on campus.

On The Record, a column that was created last year by our previous News Managing Editor Brianna Crummy, is made to offer transparency with the AU community. We want students to understand our role as journalists — both on and off campus — and what decisions go into our reporting, editing and publishing processes. 

With recent protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a new conversation surrounding the ethics of journalism has emerged. Should journalists publish photos of protesters? Should journalists be able to participate in protests they're not covering? Should journalists be vocal about issues they personally have strong opinions about? 

The Eagle recently live-tweeted at a George Floyd protest in D.C. At the end of the thread, our reporter published a tweet that said that The Eagle was taking part in the protests. 

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Soon after, we deleted the tweet and published a statement clarifying our position as a news organization.

“The Eagle tweeted a statement earlier that took a blatant advocacy stance regarding the protests, which is not our role as a news organization,” The Eagle said. “We, as a paper, do not take stances on our non-editorial coverage.”

It’s important for students and our readers to understand why we deleted the tweet and issued the statement. We recognize the pain that the Black community is currently feeling and will amplify their voices, but we, as a news organization, cannot advocate for any organization or issue that we cover. 

The Eagle should have made it clearer in it’s follow-up statement that the tweet was deleted because covering a protest you are taking part in is a conflict of interest. 

The statement was not meant to imply that we take an unbiased view toward racism. Racism has a horrifying history in this country, and we hope to report on the ways it impacts members of our community today.

Our role at protests is to deliver facts, observations and let our readers make up their own minds. It is to tell the story of why these protests are occurring. Because we do not align ourselves with specific organizations, we aim to share the opinions and lived experiences of those protesting by allowing them to speak for themselves. 

At recent protests, sharing these stories and observations has been extremely difficult for journalists to do. A large number of journalists have been arrested and targeted by police and other protesters. CNN reporter Omar Jimenez, who is Black and Latino, was arrested in Minneapolis, on live television. As an organization, we stand in solidarity with these journalists and believe they should have unfiltered access to document issues of public interest. 

However, in our own ethics code, we allow staff to post their opinions on social media about issues that The Eagle is not covering. We will continue to allow this to occur, despite the fact that some of our reporters will be covering this issue, but we will continue to address conflicts of interest that inhibit the fairness of our coverage. 

A part of covering protests is also publishing photos and videos of what is happening. The Eagle recognizes the harm that protesters have experienced in the past when their photos have been published. However, we will continue to follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics and not edit any photos we publish, which includes not blurring or blocking out faces. To minimize harm, we have decided to mainly publish unidentifiable photos of protesters, such as crowd or back shots, if we don't get permission from people featured prominently in the photos. We are encouraging our reporters to examine violent photos or videos before they publish them. Both on and off campus, protesters should have an expectation that their photo may be taken if the protest is public, and The Eagle will continue to hold that belief.

The day we began covering the protests, we published an editorial. Some people may not understand the role of an editorial board and that is something I would like to briefly touch on. An editorial is an article written by our opinion editor that gives our staff’s opinion on an issue we are reporting on. During the school year, we typically write one editorial per week, mainly focusing on an issue revolving around AU.

This was the first time we did a virtual editorial. We knew we could not stay silent on issues of racism and bigotry that impact many members of AU’s community. Our board stands with the call to lessen or end ties with the Metropolitan Police Department and for the University to donate to a local fund that fights against police brutality. Our board wants the University to do more for its Black students and believes that students should take action beyond social media. However, these opinions do not impact the way we report on these issues.

Ultimately, our goal is to report fairly on issues. This involves not taking part in advocacy. That does not mean that our role is not to seek voices that are seldom heard — because it is. 

With that comes a responsibility to reflect on the reporting that The Eagle has done on campus involving underrepresented groups. And the reality is, we have not done the best job. We have strained relationships with certain groups and admittedly, it can be hard to gain access to some events due to our own missteps. 

Many students of color believe that AU’s student media (outside of The Blackprint) only turns to organizations like the NAACP or the Black Student Union when issues concerning racism occur. And, unfortunately for The Eagle, most of the time, that is true. We need to do better at covering events that these groups host and building relationships with their staffs. With last year’s creation of our Community Outreach Editor, whose role is to foster relationships with student leaders and pitch stories about underrepresented communities, we are hoping to improve our coverage.

As the Managing News Editor, I am taking this opportunity to reflect on my own, and our staff’s, reporting. We are planning to further cover voices across the country who are protesting the death of George Floyd. We are planning to report on how the coronavirus has impacted communities of color. But more importantly, we need to report more on students of color’s accomplishments and the positive impact they have on AU’s campus. 

We also have a role to report on members of our local community. When we think of the neighborhood AU is in, many people typically think that most residents are relatively wealthy and white. However, outside of the bubble of AU, D.C. is extremely diverse. Black people make up 46 percent of the population. Reflecting on our coverage on local news, we have not sought out stories that showcase this diversity. It is our responsibility to do so and it is one of my main priorities. 

Ultimately, I sit here and ask myself how I can repair the damages done and trust that has been broken, and if I am being honest, I do not have all of the solutions. However, I am hopeful that with myself, the creation of our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, an Editor-in-Chief and a staff committed to diversifying our staff and coverage, we can improve relationships and be a source that everyone can trust for fair and accurate reporting.


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