Bay Area journalists reflect on the pandemic and BLM uprisings

By Jon Funabiki

From the state house to our city streets, Bay Area journalists are responding to the dramatic news exploding out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter uprisings. At the same time, the heightened awareness to matters of health, racism and social inequality tied to the twin crises has pushed journalists to confront their own vulnerabilities and shortcomings.

These were the top insights that leaders from the Bay Area’s most prominent nonprofit newsrooms shared during a recent conversation hosted by Renaissance Journalism. Conducted via Zoom due to shelter-at-home restrictions, it offered a rare opportunity for the journalists to set aside deadlines and share experiences.

“I’m really encouraged by the way in which so many people have stepped up across the journalistic landscape,” said Ben Trefny, news director of KALW public radio, whose own colleagues are working from home offices and makeshift studios because of the health dangers posed by the pandemic. “I’m really grateful for all the support from everybody and looking forward to more collaborations with all of you. It’s really beautiful to see all of you here.”

The more than 30 journalists on the call represented the 20 organizations that received $185,000 in emergency grants from Renaissance Journalism. When my colleagues and I realized that the pandemic was pushing journalists into crisis mode, we asked seven foundations to contribute to a fund to bolster local news media. The grant recipients ranged from small ethnic media outlets like El Tecolote and San Francisco Bay View to the larger public radio stations like KALW and KQED and the specialized operations like Reveal/Center for Investigative Journalism and CalMatters. (For a list of the 20 recipients and the funders, see our announcement.)

At that time, we could not have anticipated that the ghastly killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police would soon touch off the national BLM uprisings and an historic period of racial reckoning for the United States.

We asked the journalists what surprised them as they responded to these extraordinary times.

Like Trefny, many of the journalists mentioned ways that reporting practices have been impacted, from the limits on face-to-face interviews to cancellation of “town halls” and other community engagement activities. Frances Dinkelspiel of Berkeleyside feared that the restrictions on field reporting could subtly push reporters to give more airtime to government officials, amplifying a bias towards institutions. On the other hand, Laura Wenus of San Francisco Public Press and Marcia Parker of CalMatters noted that turnouts for their virtual events have been strong. “We’ve been doing weekly coronavirus series, and we’re getting thousands of people on every event,” said Parker.

Beyond the newsroom, the twin crises are impacting the public consciousness in profound ways. Louis Freedberg of EdSource offered that the debate over the reopening of schools has turned distance learning and the role of teachers into national topics of conversation. “I’d say that the biggest surprise, and I’d say, a pleasant surprise, is that in some ways this pandemic has brought out an incredible amount of support and affirmation for public schools.”

Similarly, Alexis Terrazas of El Tecolote, which serves the Latinx community in the Mission, noted that pandemic has opened the public’s eyes to the important contributions made by frontline workers in grocery stores, restaurants, farms and other operations. “One of the biggest surprises in this pandemic is finally the acknowledgement of the role of essential workers,” he said. This issue, which El Tecolote has covered for years, has moved from the fringes to the mainstream.

On a related matter, a number of the journalists noted that the pandemic has exposed the continuing failure of government and health agencies to provide critical information in Spanish and other languages. “I shouldn’t be surprised, but it continues to be just kind of emotionally shocking how little resources are provided to these communities,” said Edgar Avila of KBBF, which broadcasts news to many farm workers in the wine country who speak Spanish and other indigenous dialects.

The pandemic and BLM movement also has put a spotlight on the criminal justice system, the disproportionate numbers of incarcerated blacks and their mistreatment in prisons. Mary Ratcliff, publisher of the San Francisco Bay View, shared that her newspaper had just published a disturbing story by the wife of a prisoner at Soledad State Prison. The writer disclosed that guards rousted sleeping Black prisoners in pre-dawn hours and forced them to sit in the kitchen, their hands cuffed with zip-ties, for hours while their cells were searched. “We’re a Black advocacy newspaper, and we have thousands of subscribers who are in prisons all over the country,” said Ratcliff.

Some the participants warned that journalists are starting to succumb to the demands and pressures of reporting during this chaotic period.

“I’m thinking a lot about my newsroom because I feel like I’m seeing burnout in a way that I’ve never seen it before,” said Ethan Toven-Lindsey of KQED. “The surprising thing is how newsrooms have to be much more aware of how Zoom, about how the pressures of 2020, and all the things we’re seeing are weighing on our teams.”

In another example of inward reflection, the Black Lives Movement is forcing journalists to consider how they have contributed – through biased hiring and news coverage practices – to the nation’s record of racism. Wenus of San Francisco Public Press commented: “I’m a little surprised, to be honest, by the dramatic shift in the conversation that the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired, and I’m especially glad to see that there’s a lot of reckoning in newsrooms right now when we talk about these issues.”

Media bias is an integral part of Renaissance Journalism’s mission. In fact, two kinds of media problems have long plagued communities of color and other vulnerable people. The first is the inherent bias in how news is reported, which has existed since the early colonial newspapers castigated “rebellious Negroes” and “barbarous Indians.”

The second is that deep, structural forces restrict who gets to create, control and prosper from news companies. Numerous studies, stretching as far back as the historic Kerner Commission report of 1968, have documented the news media’s bias against communities of color and other groups.

So, as we have done with the emergency news grants and our special reporting initiatives, Renaissance Journalism will continue to help journalists put more emphasis on equity and social justice stories and to rectify the biases within their own newsrooms and the profession of journalism.