Can Pittsburgh have a healthy media ecosystem if journalists of color don’t believe they’re fairly represented? Or if they don’t believe they have reasons to stay in the city?

Letrell Crittenden, who is African American and who serves as program director and assistant professor of communication at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, recently asked me this.

His new report, The Pittsburgh problem: race, media and everyday life in the Steel City, (and an accompanying story in Columbia Journalism Review), underscores the lack of diversity in Pittsburgh newsrooms — and in the city — by saying that reporters of color here “have a much lesser quality of life both inside and outside of the newsroom.”

Crittenden interviewed 20 current and former journalists from the Pittsburgh region, including 16 of color, and he kept their names and news outlets anonymous, which is common for academic research. They made comments such as:

  • “In Pittsburgh, I felt very much in a box,” one African-American journalist said. “I felt like I was fighting my bosses and [fellow] staff at the same time, and I was exhausted.”
  • “I want to say something, I want to speak up, but I don’t want to be perceived as being angry, or, ‘you’re that angry black reporter.’ So you’re walking on eggshells,” another reporter said.
  • “It got to a point where I’m like, ‘I guess I kind of accept it. It is what it is, and I’m just going to pick up my assignments and keep going,’” a third said. “So I guess you can say I gave up, threw my hands up in the air and said, ‘You know, forget it.’”

Part of the problem, Crittenden said, is that Pittsburgh has gained a negative reputation among black professionals.

“That’s what I call the ‘Pittsburgh problem,’” he told me. “Not only do journalists of color seem to feel displaced inside of the newsroom; they feel displaced outside of the newsroom. That sort of dual impact, quite frankly, has led a number of journalists of color to go elsewhere or even leave the industry altogether.”

Some Pittsburgh journalists circulated Crittenden’s report via social media with links to Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Media, which published it.

Yet I heard more from friends outside of Pittsburgh asking me about the report than I heard from locals. The comments I received were along the lines of, ‘Did you see this?’ No one asked, ‘What are you going to do about it?’

“I haven’t heard anything from anybody in Pittsburgh,” Crittenden told me days after the report dropped on October 25. “It signals to me the larger problem that the article pointed out that nobody takes seriously these types of issues when they pertain to race, inclusion and media.”

Or maybe it’s because none of this comes as a surprise.

Crittenden, in a study he produced as a board member for the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation in 2016, reported that people of color are under-represented in Pittsburgh newsrooms, that more of them left Pittsburgh newsrooms than were hired and that no newsrooms required diversity training or really even talked about it.

Before that, in 2011, The Heinz Endowments commissioned a study that found media coverage of black men and boys in Pittsburgh disproportionately focused on crime and sports, while stories about black women and girls talked about victimhood.

Another new report, by the city’s Gender Equity Commission, paints a damning picture for African Americans in Pittsburgh. Black residents, and especially women, it found, are far worse off here than their contemporaries in other cities: “Black women and men in other cities have better health, income, employment and educational outcomes than Pittsburgh’s Black residents.”

PublicSource just ran a series of essays that seeks to measure the depths of this problem with the simple question: Should black Pittsburghers simply leave? Reporter Tereneh Idia said she struggles with this question for herself.

Crittenden knows about this firsthand. He used to teach journalism at Robert Morris University and lived here for three years in Lawrenceville. He and his wife left the city in 2017 for better job opportunities, and because they didn’t feel like Pittsburgh offered enough racial and cultural diversity.

“While I made some really great friends and remain in contact with people from Pittsburgh, the fact of the matter is I have a much higher quality of life in Philadelphia, which is a much more diverse and cosmopolitan city,” Crittenden told me. “I often think about it myself, and I miss people in Pittsburgh, but I don’t miss Pittsburgh.”

Letrell Crittenden. Photo courtesy of Thomas Jefferson University.

That’s hard to hear. Normally, as a native Pittsburgher, I would take any negative comparisons to Philly as fighting words; in this case, it just makes me sad for our city.

I felt this loss when Crittenden left Pittsburgh just as we had just started working together.

I felt it again when other African-American colleagues left Pittsburgh and jobs at local media outlets for similar reasons.

I felt it yet again when I read Damon Young’s book, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.” Young, a Pittsburgher who started the website Very Smart Brothas, wrote his memoir in a series of essays, and they often reveal a very bleak landscape for race relations and equity in our city.

To answer the question Letrell asked of me: As a white man with a prominent place in local media, I say no. We cannot have a thriving media without a diversity of perspectives.

And in order to begin to solve this problem, we must be intentional. I’m pledging to take action and I’m asking other white leaders across Pittsburgh media to do the same.

It’s not that I’m just now realizing that local media lacks diversity; I’m saying that we all need to do more about this.

So what do we do? How can we make Pittsburgh more welcoming to everyone? And how can we ensure that journalists of color feel like they have a place in Pittsburgh media?

It has to start, as Crittenden suggested to me, with admitting that the city and its media have a problem.

I can start there: Pittsburgh has a problem.

In part two of this column to be published next week, Andy Conte will address solutions. We welcome your thoughts and comments below or email us here

Comings & Goings

  • Elsa A. Heffernan has joined Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corporation, which runs public radio stations 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, as director of sponsorship sales.

Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com