By DENISE CLAY
Because newsrooms can be stressful places that embody a host of personalities, the ability to express how you feel when you believe that a co-worker or newsroom manager has done something that you find disrespectful or unfair is an important one.
But if you’re a journalist of color in a legacy newsroom — especially if you’re the only person of color in that space — expressing how you feel in a situation like that can be tricky. The line between “expressing your concern” and “being perceived as angry” is a thin one.
And because of the murders of two journalists in Virginia last week by a black former colleague who had been fired, that line might have gotten that much thinner.
At least that’s how Valeria Davis, a journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin, said she felt when she saw what happened.
“It’s about perception,” she said. “Expressing justified anger is going to be seen as a dysfunctional impairment now. How [Vester Flanagan II] responded was wrong. But my concern is that this is going to put us in a spot where we’re not allowed to respond to wrongs we feel in the newsroom because we’re afraid that being angry will be perceived as a lack of competence.”
Or put another way — did Flanagan hurt or even kill efforts to diversify legacy newsrooms when he killed Alison Parker and Adam Ward?
What Flanagan did isn’t something that happens in newsrooms, or any other workplace, every day, said Dr. Sarah Vinson, a forensic psychologist based in Atlanta. In order for this to be used as a means for not hiring people of color, it would have to be assumed that a person of color is more likely to respond violently to something done to them by a co-worker, something that the statistics don’t show, she said.
“The number of people of color who have done this kind of thing is pretty low,” Vinson said. “I don’t know if anyone even has the data on this because it is so low. So you can’t take this one incident and say that blacks are more likely to be violent in the workplace because of it.”
But while the history books aren’t necessarily filled with people of color who have expressed workplace anger at the barrel of a gun, there is a double standard that journalists of color have traditionally had to negotiate that may end up coming into play here, said Joshunda Sanders, journalist and author of the book “How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media”.
In light of what happened in Virginia, Sanders is concerned about the prospects of black men in the newsroom in particular.
“I’m not sure what the impact of this is going to be, but it’s probably not going to be positive,” Sanders said. “There’s a dearth of black men in news organizations compared to other demographics and because there’s the perception that they have this darkness that can’t be cast out in a holistic way, it plays a part in how they’re viewed going forward.”
As a black man who has worked in legacy newsrooms, Chris Murray, a Philadelphia-based sportswriter, has felt that perception. People of color in general, but black men in particular, come into newsrooms knowing that every move they make is being scrutinized, he said.
“When you’re a black man in this society, you’re already under double secret probation,” Murray believes. “You’re suspect whether you should be or not. There’s this mentality that black men are the boogeyman and on an unconscious level, things like this just reinforce it.”
While there may be some changes to newsroom policy in light of the shootings in Virginia, it’s unlikely that they’ll be used as an excuse for not hiring people of color, said Russell Contreras, president of Unity Journalists For Diversity.
It’s natural to be a little insecure about your standing in a business that’s already been kind of hostile to you in light of something like this, Contreras said, and there’s always going to be people who blame people of color for everything no matter what. But the changing demographics of the country and the demand for more diverse newsrooms will win in the end, he said.
“We’ve heard all of the excuses,” Contreras said. “But the pressure is just too great to have media outlets better reflect the communities they serve. You may see some policy changes at media outlets because [Flanagan] claimed that he was being bullied because he was gay and that caused him some stress, but I don’t see media outlets using that as an excuse. I don’t see news outlets changing their diversity policies because of this.”
“And if it does,” Contreras said, “We’re strong enough to call them on it.”
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Denise Clay is the assistant editor for AllDigitocracy. She is a contributing editor and columnist to the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, and the Philadelphia Public Record. Her work has also appeared on XOJane, and Time.com.