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The Backstory: As journalists speak up about racial tension at work, newsrooms take action

I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

The racial tension in America spilled out of its newsrooms this week, with shakeups at the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times, and public frustrations at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Washington Post

But trust me, many more newsrooms, including ours, are having conversations about race and journalism right now. And they should be.

Journalists of color are frustrated by lack of opportunity and not feeling heard on story ideas, presentation or coverage decisions.

Black journalists in particular feel the pain of this moment and need and want newsroom allies to help make meaningful change.

Our journalists want to call out wrong when they see it, as do we all, but need to know when their opinions may bump up against newsroom ethics.

Certainly, they say, it can't cross a line to say "Black lives matter."

I couldn't agree more: Black lives matter.

Hundreds of people pray and hold up the peace symbol in remembrance of George Floyd in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, Calif. on June 2, 2020.

So we're looking at our standards and ethics to make sure they are reflective of the moment we are in while upholding our core values.

We have long been committed to having our newsrooms reflect the communities we serve. Despite that, we haven't made the progress needed in staff diversity. We're creating a plan to close the gap.

And we are talking about how to support our coworkers in truly meaningful ways.

"Especially since last week, a lot of people really want to know how they can help," said Mabinty Quarshie, digital politics editor and co-chair of the USA TODAY Diversity Committee. "I'm having conversations where I'm telling people who are white, you speaking up actually matters. You showing up to a meeting and when I say something and then you say it again (matters). So I'm not the angry Black woman that's like 'diversity' at all these meetings."

Indeed, we're all responsible for the hard work that needs to happen.

Cristina Silva, national editor and Diversity Committee co-chair, said of course we need to fully listen to our Black colleagues, but it's inappropriate "for us to put all of this work on Black journalists and to say, 'You have the context, you understand this community on these issues.' It's on all of us." 

Audio editor Shannon Green wants to see more white people speaking up.

"We're in a hyper-learning mode as white people, and it's coming at a time when people are busier than ever," she said. "White people need to talk to other white people about these issues. Right now, there is such a burden on Black and brown people due to an expectation to talk about these issues. It can be a lot."

Speak up. Even if it makes you uncomfortable. Especially if it makes you uncomfortable.

Listening must turn into action. Action must become real change. Change must lead to results. And we must hold ourselves accountable, we must be transparent, every step of the way.

This is a staff-wide effort. But I'm happy to announce we have a new managing editor for standards, ethics and inclusion to help lead the way. 

Michael McCarter

Michael McCarter previously served as executive editor of USA TODAY Network’s Evansville Courier & Press, and also coordinated coverage with editors and reporters in other cities in Indiana and Kentucky. Before that, he held senior editing roles at the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi.

"Internally, I will work with each team to have routine audits of our coverage and the language in our stories," he said. "I will work with individual reporters and editors to ensure we are being inclusive in the voices and communities we cover. We will create a mentoring program to invest in and retain diverse talent in our newsroom. I will work with our top leaders to ensure opportunities to work on high-profile stories are offered to a broader group of reporters."

Externally, he added, "I will connect with our readers to listen to their concerns, offer additional background on our processes and ensure concerns that our audience might have are vetted with a wide range of voices."

Philana Patterson is USA TODAY's managing editor for Money and Tech, and she has been a vocal leader in our coverage of the protests over the death of George Floyd and the aftermath. After pushing for stronger coverage in a news meeting, a recently hired journalist of color reached out and thanked her. She said, "I didn't know you could speak up like that."

Patterson replied, "You don't want to work for a place where you can't."

The Backstory:'Get ready.' The next generation of Black journalists has something to say.

The Backstory:Journalists report news. But we're also people. George Floyd's death brings pain, frustration.

Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.