Many journalists are missing the nuance, and missing the point
I’ve been watching, reading and monitoring coverage in the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and about 136 other black people killed by police so far this year, as well as the shooting rampage in Dallas that took the lives of five police officers. Guess what?
While I am pleased to announce a number of news organizations aren’t using irrelevant mugshots of the people killed in these police altercations, many if not most journalists, are still getting the stories wrong. What they’re missing is nuance.
“Just today I was reading a piece that will be up on the Maynard site this week that featured Paul Delaney, a reporter who began his work with the Atlanta Daily World during the Civil Rights Movement and became a foreign correspondent and editor for The New York Times. He talked about how social media and the inability for pause and reflection would have made reporting on the Civil Right Movement extremely problematic,” said Martin Reynolds, a Senior Fellow with the Maynard Institute, which specializes in media diversity. “It was the moments of downtime when deadlines had passed that the opportunity to talk to sources and pull back provided a more nuanced approach to coverage.”
Delaney is right, of course. As journalists we have got to be able to take time to explain the complexities of race as it exists today. It may feel like 1968 to some, but it isn’t. What’s happening now isn’t so black and white as it was back then. But journalists today are producing black-and-white coverage of what are no longer black-and-white issues. Here are a couple examples:
- First, the police officer who killed Castile in a mostly white suburban enclave of Minneapolis-St. Paul, is Latino, not white. But that’s the impression many people are left with after reading or viewing the news.
- Second, the stepmother of the sniper who killed the five police officers in Dallas is white. And by at least one account, Mica Xavier Johnson wasn’t even into black empowerment until recently. Not only is his stepmother white, Johnson hung out with fellow soldiers in the U.S. Army who are white while stationed in Afghanistan. To be clear, it’s not the fact that he had white friends that makes him not racist. It’s the fact that Johnson doesn’t fit the definition of a racist. Nor does Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who killed Castile, for that matter.
Johnson and Yanez don’t fit the scholarly definition of racism, which holds that people of color cannot be racist because they lack the power and privilege to perpetuate racism on groups of people of another race or ethnicity. It will be interesting to see if Yanez is indicted or arrested in Castile’s murder, which would likely further support this definition, and would be similar to another case in New York involving an Asian American police officer.
That leaves us with the white cop who killed Sterling after shooting him six times. Was he racist? Maybe, maybe not.
Whether one agrees with the scholarly definition of racism or not, journalists ought to be able to break it down to help readers and viewers understand the meaning and dynamics behind the term.
And even if journalists don’t know whether racism spurred any of last week’s killings, what we do know is that all three of these individuals likely targeted others based on preconceptions about race. As for the police officers, there is also a good chance their actions resulted from unconscious bias.
So what is unconscious bias, how does it differ from racial profiling and how do journalists explain the concepts to viewers in text or in five second soundbites? By putting the shootings in context, and by taking the longer view.
Let’s start with racial profiling, which is the targeting of particular individuals by law enforcement authorities (or any authority really) based not on their behavior, but rather their personal characteristics. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, racial profiling can encompass “race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion — and means the impermissible use by law enforcement authorities of these personal characteristics, to any degree, in determining which individuals to stop, detain, question, or subject to other law enforcement activities.”
Racial profiling is premised on the erroneous assumption that people of a particular race, ethnicity, national origin or religion are more likely to engage in certain types of unlawful conduct than are individuals of another race, ethnicity, national origin or religion. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights concluded:
“Thus it is not racial profiling when law enforcement authorities rely on these personal characteristics as part of a subject descriptions or in connection with an investigation if there is reliable information that links a person to a particular race, ethnicity, national origin or religion to a specific incident, scheme or organization.”
The key word here for journalists to tease out and explore is whether police used personal characteristics as THE description they used to encounter Castile and Sterling, or PART of a description. In other words, just because Castile’s nose may have looked like a robbery suspect’s nose, isn’t likely enough of a description for police to detain, let alone shoot him to death. Just as Sterling wearing a red shirt isn’t likely enough of a description for him to be detained, or shot to death. Though grand juries and/or district attorneys in both cases may disagree with my legal opinion. But that’s a different story.
Whether racial profiling is at the heart of last week’s police shootings is further complicated by another complex concept: unconscious bias, which are attitudes or stereotypes that people form simply by absorbing messages from the media and world around them.
According to a growing body of research, everyone has unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from our tendency to organize the world by categorizing people. The problem comes in when these unconscious biases impact, among other things, hiring, patient care and policing.
How can journalists best explain or convey implicit (or unconscious) bias to viewers and readers. First, journalists have to recognize their own unconscious biases.
Martin, of the Maynard Institute, recommends reading Young Men of Color in the Media Images and Impacts.
“Share it with your editor. Share it with a few colleagues and take an hour to discuss it among yourselves,” he added. “In doing so, think about your own biases and how they impact how you see the world. And then as you go about the job of reporting, make an effort to be intentional about how you do your work. The antidote is there for healing the sickness of distorted portrayals. But journalists must be willing to take it. It is us who must be healed.
“I would also recommend reading Sally Lehrman’s book News in a New America,” Martin continued. “It was published in 2006, but is nevertheless an important read to provide context for working journalists. Lehrman, an award-winning medical and science policy writer, has also been leading the work around improving trust of media. She said we have to address the “powerful human processes that create misunderstanding.” I couldn’t agree more. In her view, it’s about much more than hiring, retention and developing a coverage strategy. Those things come later. But a more probative look at oneself must come first.”