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In 2019, Free Press, the Media, Inequality & Change Center and Movement Alliance Project joined forces to form the Shift the Narrative Coalition after community-listening sessions in Philadelphia revealed that people were feeling frustrated with local crime coverage. The goals of the coalition focus on replacing prevailing media narratives with complex stories about trauma, safety, crime and criminal justice in Philadelphia.

And for good reason: News coverage that focuses on crime and violence influences how the public perceives Black and Brown communities, the poor, their own neighborhoods’ safety and actions taken by police and elected officials. Too often, news outlets prioritize speed over context, police narratives over community perspectives and sensationalist coverage over context-based or solutions-oriented reporting. The need to shift all of this serves as the basis of our organizing efforts.

It’s been nearly three years since the coalition’s founding. Here’s a look back at the work.

2020 brings about global — and local — upheaval, with calls for media accountability 

2020 brought about unprecedented disruption, change and volatility to the work the coalition was aiming to do. When the COVID-19 global pandemic nixed any opportunity to safely organize, mobilize and convene together in person, the Shift the Narrative Coalition moved to convening virtually to develop strategies and tactics that would allow it to transform coverage of the criminal-legal system.

Then the murder of George Floyd brought about a global uprising for Black lives, calling for organizations locally and nationally to address the ongoing oppression and senseless killing of Black people by police and state-sanctioned violence. It was a moment that encouraged Shift the Narrative to think deeply about holding police — and journalists — accountable during the wave of protests.

As the coalition analyzed how the media were centering police narratives, Philadelphia’s paper of record and the city’s oldest newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, published an egregious and dehumanizing headline in its coverage of the mass uprisings: “Buildings Matter, Too.”

The headline sparked immediate backlash among the public, local journalism-affinity groups and the Inquirer’s own journalists of color. The Inquirer’s executive editor resigned, the paper issued an apology and internally the outlet made a call to action to shift itself into an antiracist institution.

Rapidly responding to the outcry, Free Press and Shift the Narrative organized a local petition calling for the Inquirer to transform itself to meet the demands of the public and its own journalists, who were deeply affected and traumatized by the headline. More than 40 social-justice and media-justice organizations signed the petition calling on the Inquirer to change. The groups emphasized that not only did the paper need to diversify its newsroom, it needed to deeply analyze and change how it covered police and crime. The petition also called for the paper to center community perspectives as well as local initiatives that were addressing the city’s rampant gun-violence epidemic.

The headline was a moment of organizing for the Shift the Narrative Coalition. As the coalition interfaced with Inquirer leadership to hold the newspaper accountable for its headline and the structures that allowed for it to be published, the group developed a two-pronged strategy to elevate its efforts in changing the narratives around crime, public safety and policing.

The first prong focused on building a universal narrative-power strategy within the coalition and with local allies who were directly addressing gun violence and the criminal-legal system. The goal was to help spur content creation that put community voices at the center of stories around crime and the criminal-legal system, amplifying the work through digital, social and other information channels.

Coalition member Amistad Law Project created its Move It Forward Podcast and Everyday Philadelphians Want to #DefundThePolice to “lift up the voices of [Philadelphia] community members in order to shed light on the path to a more just world.” Reclaim Philadelphia published its Heal, Empower, Atone, Restore, Transform (H.E.A.R.T.) digital-storytelling series to expose how the criminal-legal system fails to keep people safe. Movement Alliance Project worked with half-a-dozen allies to develop and publish its Safety We Can Feel Survey to showcase the resources Philadelphians wanted in lieu of more policing.

The second prong consisted of holding newsrooms, like the Inquirer, accountable for centering police narratives and publishing harmful and traumatizing stories about crime, police and community safety. With the support of the Shift the Narrative Coalition, Free Press continued its pressure on the Inquirer, developing a Memorandum of Understanding that eventually led to a series of strategic meetings with the paper’s crime reporters and editors to develop internal policies around crime briefs and crime coverage as a whole.

During an Engaged Journalism Exchange webinar, the coalition described the theory of change it developed in the fall of 2020:

Shift The Narrative’s initial theory of change: By directly addressing coverage created by a corporate concentrated power of local media, while simultaneously building the power of communities to tell their own truth and stories, we’ll transform whose stories are told in local media while centering narratives toward community-led solutions & away from authoritative sources like police.

2021 ushers in action, audits and reflections 

As the pandemic continued to rage in 2021, the Shift the Narrative Coalition initiated its two-pronged approach. In April and May, Free Press facilitated four strategic community meetings between the Inquirer’s crime and courts reporters and editors, members of the Shift the Narrative Coalition and several community partners, including representatives from the Philadelphia Bail Fund, Resolve Philly and YEAH Philly.

The goal of these meetings was to discuss ongoing issues around the Inquirer’s crime and police coverage and then co-create editorial recommendations. These recommendations were designed to help the paper deepen relationships with community partners, create editorial policies that would incorporate antiracist practices and vocabulary within crime reporting, and improve how journalists interacted with BIPOC communities that were affected by crime, over-policing and the criminal-legal system.

Free Press’ hope was that, following these meetings, the Inquirer would consciously shift narratives away from officials, police and people in power; center and humanize impacted communities; and institute new internal editorial guidelines on stories around crime, public safety and the criminal-legal system.

After the conclusion of the meetings, Free Press, Shift the Narrative and its allies sent draft recommendations to the Inquirer. The paper’s leadership agreed to take only three of the requested steps, namely: 

  • Establishing standards around crime briefs
  • Hosting more community-listening sessions to give community members and leaders more opportunities to give direct feedback on a reporter's work and coverage
  • Creating a community-reporting desk

A post-meeting working group featuring the Shift the Narrative Coalition and Inquirer reporters and editors was created to facilitate follow-up conversations and check in on the status of the draft recommendations. 

Even though communication waned between the parties — due to the drop in communication from The Inquirer — the Shift the Narrative Coalition members continued to produce and promote content that examined the need for new approaches to coverage around crime, police and the criminal-legal system. 

The MIC Center’s Malav Kanuga published an Op-Ed in July 2021 calling for antiracist media to challenge traditional newsroom reporting practices that overlook, silence and underplay community voices — particularly Black and Brown voices — that are overpoliced and under-resourced. Kanuga challenged the notion that more police are necessary when there’s no evidence to show that policing keeps people safe. Later in 2021, Kanuga published a deeper analysis of the narrative and media-based organizing in Philadelphia following the 2020 George Floyd protests.

Another analysis that was published in 2021 — which highlighted the work of Free Press and bolstered its call for media accountability — was Temple University’s landmark diversity and inclusion audit of the Inquirer. The university’s Klein College of Media and Communication spent eight months auditing the paper’s content, coverage and cultural decisions. Temple also interviewed dozens of current and former staffers to determine how the Inquirer’s past and current DEI efforts shaped its coverage and connection to the diverse communities that make up Philadelphia.

The study noted that the Inquirer’s newsroom was nearly 75% white, and that the newsroom published stories that often centered white men’s perspectives, despite the fact that Philadelphia has a 44% Black population and is only 34% non-Hispanic white. “[T]he makeup of the largely white staff was reflected in story content,” audit co-writer Andrea Wenzel wrote in Poynter. “90% of staff stories included at least one white person. And of all the people featured in stories, 60% of them were white.” 

Other findings pointed specifically to crime coverage and the way the newsroom centered police narratives.

“Most Inquirer journalists we spoke with acknowledged that the institution could do better when it came to offering an inclusive representation of communities of color,” the audit reads. “Reporters and editors said they knew some communities felt their neighborhoods were only covered when there were issues of crime or drugs. A history of distrust meant when they did try to report on these communities they received pushback: ‘Why are you guys here, you’re never here unless something bad happens.’”

2022 renews calls for action around media accountability

In 2022, the Shift the Narrative Coalition presented its ongoing findings to its funder, the Independence Public Media Foundation.

Lessons learned included:

  • Widespread community distrust of media demands deeper relationship building than has occurred. 
  • Newsrooms like the Inquirer’s lack internal policies on how reporters address community-information needs.
  • Legacy institutions like The Inquirer don’t prioritize community-information needs. Shift the Narrative has had to continuously emphasize the need to incorporate community listening and harm reduction (particularly around language) into the day-to-day newsgathering process.

Challenges the coalition observed and experienced included:

  • Community organizations have limited capacities to continuously engage with larger, more well-funded media institutions.
  • The pandemic hampered the ability to meet in person and forced convenings online; it also impacted the MIC Center’s research timelines and required changes to its research methods.

As the coalition worked to address these challenges and reorganize itself, it outlined a strategy kernel to identify a shared challenge among all coalition members:

Law enforcement and mainstream media work together to perpetuate narratives that legitimize criminalization and mass incarceration of Black, Brown and working-class people. This largely happens through media coverage of community violence and shows that mainstream newsrooms are not accountable to the communities they serve. Communities that are most impacted by coverage have no control or power to shape the stories told about them. Harmful narratives that are entrenched in media coverage about the criminal-legal system are one of the biggest barriers to winning system-level changes toward decarceration and non-police alternatives.

Enter the J.A.W.N. Coalition: Journalism Accountability Watchdog Network

To deepen and support its media-accountability work, Free Press hired an additional program manager in July 2022 and engaged with three journalism-affinity groups in Philadelphia that focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and coverage issues among journalists and communities of color: the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, the local chapter of the Asian American Journalism Association and the local chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

This group discussed ongoing issues with the Inquirer, which had been touting itself as an antiracist institution since 2020. The collective deliberated ways to hold the newsroom accountable for the promises it made to address internal and public concerns and demands that arose following its “Buildings Matter, Too” fiasco. Since 2020, the Inquirer had created a “More Perfect Union” project investigating its own racism and the racist roots of other Philadelphia-based corporations, issued another apology to Black communities and journalists, created a communities and engagement desk and hired a new vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion — who came from Comcast.

Yet the Inquirer has failed to heed the needs, concerns and demands from Free Press and the journalism-affinity groups. It also hasn’t addressed the recommendations in the Temple University audit. To this day the Inquirer:

  • Has not provided information on its crime-coverage policy
  • Has not addressed concerns about practices that are impacting its coverage, culture and commitment to engaging with communities of color
  • Has not created any outside community-advisory group to support its transition into an antiracist institution
  • Has not retained journalists of color, particularly Black journalists, within its newsroom
  • Has not diversified its newsroom or management
  • Has not adopted any policies that would make it an antiracist institution 
  • Has not addressed the concerns of its journalists of color
  • Has not acknowledged previous diversity audits, which were published in 2004 and 2017

Up until recently, the newspaper also found itself with zero Black male news reporters outside of its sports desk. This dire statistic — amid the outlet’s ongoing shortfalls — became a rallying and activation point for the journalism-affinity groups and Free Press, which created a coalition called the Journalism Accountability Watchdog Network (J.A.W.N.).

Together, J.A.W.N. members organized a letter calling on Inquirer Publisher and CEO Lisa Hughes and other executives to live up to their antiracist call to action and build a newsroom that actually reflects the diversity of Philadelphia’s residents. The letter called for a meeting with the publisher to address ongoing DEI concerns.

Instead of meeting with the group, Hughes sent an internal email dismissing J.A.W.N’s concerns. She belittled the diverse coalition as “voices outside the organization” even though members of the groups that make up J.A.W.N. include current and former Inquirer staff.

The surprising reaction from an institution that just two years earlier had promised to become antiracist was not lost on members of J.A.W.N. or other media institutions. The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists published a statement supporting J.A.W.N. Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media noted that the Inquirer’s refusal to meet with J.A.W.N. amounted to a “master class” in how not to respond to criticism of your newsroom.

Three months later, the Inquirer found itself in the spotlight at the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists’ awards gala, where it received PABJ’s first-ever thumbs-down award. PABJ slammed the paper for failing to engage with local journalism-affinity groups on DEI efforts, disregarding diverse media leaders, gaslighting J.A.W.N and failing to address the myriad grievances from both communities and journalists of color.

Meanwhile, the PABJ President’s Award was bestowed to the organizations that make up J.A.W.N. for their efforts to hold institutions like the Inquirer accountable for their actions. And in early 2023, J.A.W.N. won the Pen and Pencil Club’s award for Collaborative Journalism Project of the Year, beating out establishment organizations including The Inquirer and WHYY.

Vanessa Maria Graber, Ernest Owens and Tauhid Chappell hold the award J.A.W.N. received for Collaborative Journalism Project of the Year.
Free Press’ Vanessa Maria Graber and Tauhid Chappell (left and right) with J.A.W.N. coalition partner Ernest Owens

The road ahead in 2023 and beyond for Free Press

2023 is shaping up to be an important election year in Philadelphia as politicians, advocates and other community leaders are tossing in their hats for the upcoming mayoral election, with gun violence and crime shaping up to be a primary talking point for all candidates.

Free Press is continuing to identify and deploy tactics that address Philadelphia media narratives around public safety, crime, violence and the carceral system. Free Press is working with J.A.W.N.’s journalism-affinity groups to define what media accountability looks like for the entire media apparatus within Philadelphia. Free Press and the coalition are working with the MIC Center to learn about research exploring the impact of coverage on communities. The groups are also working with Movement Alliance Project on ways to build connected community-narrative power.

Free Press is also addressing the personal impacts of harmful crime coverage. We are planning a series of brainstorms with therapists and organizers to identify needs and strategies for caring for people. These brainstorms will create a foundation for our care work, which will be a heavy focus of our community engagement in 2023.

There is more work to be done in Philadelphia. These media institutions in Philadelphia are well-funded, opaque in their editorial processes and policies, and do not accurately or adequately address the critical information needs Black, Brown and Asian communities have when it comes to gun violence, police and the criminal-legal system. As a mayoral race looms in Philadelphia, where public safety is the top issue among all candidates, now’s the time to elevate the community solutions and the critical information systems that will keep us safe.

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