By JOSEPH TORRES
Editor’s Note: AllDigitocracy is highlighting police beat reporting in light of the multiple stories in the news of late regarding the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police and the way news organizations have covered these stories. This is a continuation of that series.
In Part One of “Willful Blindness”, we explored how the news media’s ignorance of racial issues has manifested itself in how issues regarding police and communities of color are covered. In Part Two, we look at some of this historical aspects of the coverage of communities of color and the impact that has when it comes to covering their interactions with police.
To read Part One, please click here.
Getting Past Criminality?
Coverage of the Freddie Gray protests serves as an important reminder that the mainstream media has historically covered people of color as threats to society.
In 1690, our nation’s first colonial newspaper, Publick Occurrences, referred to Native Americans as “barbarous” and “savages.” In 1706, the Boston News-Letter said that Blacks were addicted to “stealing, lying and purloining.”
Three hundred years later, the stereotypical coverage continues.
A 2011 Pew Research Center study of the Pittsburgh media market found that “African American males were present only rarely in stories that involved such topics as education, business, the economy, the environment and the arts. It also found that “of the nearly 5,000 stories studied in both print and broadcast, less than 4 percent featured an African American male engaged in a subject other than crime or sports.”
On a similar note, a recent report from ColorOfChange.org and Media Matters found that Blacks appeared in crime stories on New York City TV stations at rates that eclipse the percentage of crimes they commit in the city.
The story isn’t much different for Latinos. For years, studies by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists found that crime and immigration were the most dominant topics about Latinos that aired on the networks’ evening news.
Plenty of great journalists are doing their best to tell other stories about people of color. But too many work for companies that claim to value diversity but don’t reflect those values when it comes to hiring, the issues they cover, or the voices they amplify.
And even though several stories about systemic racism appeared in prominent outlets following the death of Freddie Gray, we shouldn’t expect the mainstream media to continue to cover these issues. Instead, it will likely return to its old habits of covering race. As author and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans wrote in the spring edition of Nieman Reports:
“In my view, too often, coverage of racial issues at mainstream news organizations is treated episodically, focused largely on exploding controversies and breaking news stories. Someone is dead or is getting sued or has been arrested or has done something controversial, and media outlets are ready to track the fallout in stories almost guaranteed to rank at the top of their websites’ most-read list.
But in my experience this approach also segregates the topic of race to news, focused on conflict and controversy, that polarizes audiences. Audiences are conditioned to see race as a hot-button topic only worthy of the most blockbuster stories, making it tougher for journalists to tell subtler, more complex tales.”
Just consider coverage of poverty. According to Pew, from 2007 to mid-2012, news stories primarily about poverty that appeared in 50 major media outlets made up just 0.2 percent of overall coverage. The failure to cover this issue occurred at a time when our country was going through a major economic crisis that widened the wealth gap between White, Black and Latino households.
And as journalist Dan Froomkin noted in Nieman Reports in 2013, there are overarching reasons that explain the media’s general resistance to covering poverty:
“The reasons for the lack of coverage are familiar. Journalists are drawn more to people making things happen than struggling to pay the bills; poverty is not considered a beat; neither advertisers nor readers are likely to demand more coverage, so neither will editors; and poverty stories are almost always enterprise work, requiring extra time and commitment. Yet persistent poverty is in some ways an accountability story — because, often, poverty happens by design.”
It’s important to note that mainstream media companies have also exposed injustices in our society during key moments in history. In the 1960s, for example, the major TV networks covered the brutal actions of White mobs and local police officers against civil rights protesters during the fight to end segregation. Nevertheless, the press hasn’t shown the same commitment to challenging systemic racism or its connections to structural inequality. This is why the Kerner Commission faulted the media for contributing to our nation’s racial unrest.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose words are often co-opted by the media, addressed this issue in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King argued that support of historic civil rights legislation among many White allies didn’t mean they supported racial equality:
“The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.
When Negroes looked for a second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. The Negroes of America had taken the President, the press and the pulpit at their word when they spoke in broad terms of freedom and justice. But the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice. To stay murder is not the same thing as to ordain brotherhood. The word was broken, and the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance. The result was havoc.”
A Reason for Hope?
Activists of color — as well as members of the Black and ethnic press — have long fought an unjust media system in the struggle for racial justice. But few people are aware of the critical role the civil rights movement played in challenging our nation’s media policies and system. It led to the first wave of journalists of color to integrate mainstream newsrooms during the 1960s and 1970s.
In Jackson, Miss., Black leaders worked with the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication to challenge the license of a racist TV station run by a white supremacist. A federal court ruled in 1966 — for the first time in history — that U.S. citizens had the legal right to challenge a broadcast license.
This resulted in more than 340 license challenges led by Blacks and Latino groups against local broadcasters during the early 1970s. This development forced media companies to desegregate their newsrooms and air more programming that was relevant to communities of color. This activism also pushed the Federal Communications Commission to require broadcasters to engage with communities to determine their information needs and to hire employees that reflected the communities they respectively serve.
But many of those gains have since eroded. FCC rule changes have made it harder for communities to hold broadcasters accountable. And media consolidation — coupled with the changing media environment — has led to thousands of journalists being laid off over the past decade.
The latest industry statistics show the number of journalists of color working at daily newspapers — 4,900 — is the same as it was in 1991. And the percentage of people of color working in the newsrooms of local TV stations (excluding Latino-oriented outlets) declined to 19 percent last year. Meanwhile, people of color still own just 3 percent of all full-power owned-and-operated TV stations and struggle to find investors for their online ventures.
But despite all of these inequalities, there are reasons for hope.
A new generation of activists is using the Internet as a tool to chisel away at the “stone walls of white resistance” in the media’s coverage of communities of color.
“There is a reason why such as narrative is now being challenged and that is because of digital media,” says Julio Ricardo Varela, the founder of the online news site Latino Rebels. “You no longer have to rely on telling your story through traditional means whether it is a newspaper or a mainstream TV show; you are literally your own journalists, your own newsmaker, your own reporter.”
Tracie Powell, a writer and founder of AllDigitocracy.org, is hopeful that the pressure the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists of color are placing on the press will make it harder for the media to ignore stories that need to be told. And she points to citizen and community journalism exemplified by people like Feidin Santana, who recorded the video of the police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back. “That young man is more valuable to journalism than Don Lemon is on any given day,” she says.
Meanwhile, Dr. Jared Ball, an associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication in Baltimore, says the only bright spot he witnessed in the coverage of Baltimore was news produced by activists and alternative media via live-tweeting, live-streaming and posting of audio clips, pictures and video on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
“They made the medium of the Internet more valuable and relevant,” he says.
The third and final part of “Willful Blindness” will run tomorrow.
Joseph Torres writes frequently on media and Internet issues and is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Joseph also serves on the board of directors of the Center for Media Justice and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. Before joining Free Press, he worked as deputy director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and was a journalist for several years. He earned a degree in communications from the College of Staten Island. Follow him on Twitter @JosephATorres.