Photo by Shantale Davis
Shantale Davis

After graduating from the Klein College of Media and Communication master's program in media studies and production and working at various media organizations, Alexis Johnson, KLN '17, was excited to return to her hometown of Pittsburgh as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2018. Now, her position at the newspaper is receiving national attention. Because of a viral social media post she created, the Post-Gazette is denying her the opportunity to cover Pittsburgh protests spurred by the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. Klein faculty and staff acknowledge Johnson's plight and support her in embracing the values that she strengthened — and still carries — from her days at Klein.

Johnson first joined the Post-Gazette as a digital news editor, but recently transitioned into a reporting role, taking a particular interest in highlighting Pittsburgh's Black residents. When Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers on May 25 and sparked international outrage, Pittsburgh protesters of all backgrounds demonstrated their disdain for police brutality and anti-Blackness. While some protests were organized, others were more spontaneous, displaying the centuries-old frustration felt by Black people in the United States over unjust racial discrimination. 

Using less than 280 characters, Johnson took a creative approach in communicating this sentiment. She took to her personal Twitter on May 31 to make a comparison between property damage that was supposedly caused by protesters and property damage that was caused by Kenny Chesney concert-goers in Pittsburgh. But the editors at the Post-Gazette were not amused, saying that her tweet violated the newspaper's social media policy — which, according to Johnson, is just a set of guidelines not included in journalists' contracts — by showing bias. Though she was not the only reporter admonished for a social media post related to the protests, she was, and still is, not permitted to pursue protest stories in Pittsburgh. To add insult to injury, her similarly reprimanded colleague, a white reporter, was not removed from protest coverage.

Johnson is one of the 13 Black members of the  Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, a 140-member labor union. When the guild found out about Johnson's situation, it gave Post-Gazette editors an ultimatum: apologize and reinstate Johnson or face an eventual grievance. The editors chose the latter and the grievance quickly became public knowledge. Social media users, fellow journalists and public officials like Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto showed their support for Johnson with the trending hashtag #IStandWithAlexis. Yet the Post-Gazette editors stood by their original position, and even took down and altered stories by other journalists at the newspaper who backed Johnson. 

The Post-Gazette's decision and follow-up actions have resulted in widespread criticism, including the newspaper's removal from newsstands at Giant Eagle — a supermarket chain headquartered in Pittsburgh — and a call from Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh's parent union NewsGuild for the resignations of the Post-Gazette's executive editor Keith Burris and managing editor Karen Kane. In Philadelphia, Klein's own Dean David Boardman was one of Johnson's many outspoken supporters.

"As a journalist and former newspaper editor, I was appalled at what happened to Alexis and her colleagues," says Boardman. "And as the dean of her alma mater, I was proud to stand behind Alexis for her courageous stance in pushing back."

Although standing up against her employer has been daunting, Johnson already had some practice building up resistance to adverse circumstances during her time at Klein. Outside of her coursework, she was an anchor and reporter for the Temple University Television weekly news broadcast Temple Update. Peter Jaroff, executive producer and faculty advisor of Update, noticed that Johnson possessed a particularly strong sense of self and commitment to storytelling when she covered Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and was treated poorly because of her role as a student journalist. However, Jaroff says Johnson and her Update colleagues made sure to work together to produce quality stories about Trump's campaign. 

"She's a tremendous person and we know that from working with her, and I know that from staying in touch with her since she graduated," says Jaroff. "We wish her the best and I know this has been a tiring — kind of exciting, but also very tiring — time for her and we're hoping things settle down and she's able to do the job she was hired to do and that she's so good at."

If nothing else, Johnson says the backlash against her and other Post-Gazette journalists — including Pulitzer Prize-winning Black photojournalist Michael Santiago, who was removed from protest coverage at the newspaper after tweeting his support for Johnson — has sparked interesting conversations about expectations for professional journalists.

"There just needs to be more conversation about what objectivity is as far as when it comes to journalism," she says. "I think we need to talk about who made these rules and when, and address that reporters have to be these stones that are silent and can't express any feelings or emotions about anything."

But Johnson's brave face amid controversy does not mean she is immune to fatigue.

"I'm tired, I'm not gonna lie," she says. "I hate that I even have to fight this fight. I'm not complaining because obviously God chose me for this for a reason and it is making a lot of noise and making somewhat of a difference. Especially during this time when [there's] a reckoning of newspapers and industries all over the country about diversity and race relations in corporate America. It is tiring though."

As of June 18, Johnson is suing the Post-Gazette and claims that the newspaper is illegally retaliating against her. She is seeking damages and an end to her ban from protest coverage. Her colleague Santiago resigned from the Post-Gazette and accepted a buyout. 

Johnson's tense dealings with the newspaper are just beginning, but she chooses to stay focused on the bigger picture. As a self-proclaimed "Temple made and Temple tough" journalist, she wants to challenge news publications and organizations to treat journalists as nuanced individuals.

"I think there needs to be more conversation [about journalists' humanity]," she says. "And I think that if this incident had to happen for that conversation to happen across the country, then I think that that will all be worth it and I hope that it will save another young Black journalist the pain of having to go through what I'm going through right now."