Journalism has long-held a certain distinction. Journalists are trusted as unbiased messengers of the truth and trusted to maintain integrity while keeping the public informed. But racial bias has a way of creeping into the print of our newspapers and onto the screens of our newscasts. Here are some ways that the stories from your news outlets reflect a culture of hegemony and anti black sentiments.
Black faces of criminals lead the newscasts
You may think blacks must be committing the majority of the crimes if they lead the newscasts everyday. Not necessarily true. More often this kind of reporting is due to racial bias. Newsrooms around the country each have a code of conduct that governs how news is presented and what types of stories make the newscast. Most times it is unspoken but implicitly understood that white mug shots aren’t shown unless there is an egregious crime committed. In fact, you can usually tell a suspect is white due to the absence of a mug shot.
This problem is so pervasive that even the sheriff/police departments sometimes delay posting white mug shots (some never get posted) on their official sites or omit them when they are sending their crime bulletins to news stations. But, even in cases when white mugshots are shown, sometimes they are not mugshots at all, but photos and their stories are presented in a way that help to generate sympathy or at least reasonable doubt. Black mugshots, however, are shown in almost all cases, even when the arrest photo is not directly linked to the story or if the mug shot is of the victim.
The final decision about how to “color” the news is usually decided by producers, who compile the stories done by reporters into a newscast. But the assignment editors also play a role through the stories they assign to reporters. Still, many times the reporters themselves are guilty of contributing to biased news. Reporters can often do a story of their choosing if they have their idea ready to present in the news meeting. The culture of the newsroom determines whether those stories will be rejected by the assignment editor or not.
This impacts communities by misrepresenting the “color of crime” in municipalities, causing the population (including black people) to conclude that black people are THE problem and therefore deserve to be more heavily policed and restricted than whites. It leads to discrimination and shaming of and entire population. It causes black people to start to see black culture as problematic, despite having a vastly different experience with black culture in their own homes and personal social groups. This also leads to discriminatory policies against black people (i.e. the anti-sagging laws, curfews, police occupation). The effect is that some groups of black people begin to distance themselves socially and in proximity to some more vulnerable black people so that they are less likely to experience discrimination.
Racially Charged Code Language Is Normalized
Every year, local news stations do the obligatory story on a summer program for inner-city (code for “black”) youth. Every year, a well-intentioned but dim reporter writes about how the said program “keeps these kids out of trouble” or “off the streets”. These phrases have become so common in connection with black youth that many of us adopt them ourselves without questioning the implications. Though the black kids that black people have in our social circles (churches, sports teams, communities) are not “in trouble” or “on the streets”, we blindly tolerate these harmful narratives to be generalized and attached to them. The impact is not lost on black children, who repeatedly hear these messages and begin to understand society’s expectation of them. Sometimes the weight of this destructive labeling makes it harder for children to resist bad influences and may even encourage them to act out of character to meet those expectations. Black children learn they are viewed as criminals in the making, prone to failure and bad behavior. Unfortunately, stories like these are often written by black reporters, which also impacts how deeply these narratives take root.
Old Racist Tropes Get Recycled in New Stories: Degenerates and their White Heroes
Old white-hero story lines make their rounds every year as well. One of the most recent incarnations of this trope is a story of Chauncey Black, a young man in Memphis who asked a white man, Matt White, for food (glazed doughnuts)in exchange for carrying his groceries. Matt obliged and even bought Chauncey other groceries, but not without documenting his “good deed” on Facebook with this impromptu interview with Chauncey.
The result was an outpouring of support and money (more than 300k) from white citizens to a GoFundMe account that Matt controls, but that he says he set up for Chauncy.
This story has been covered by most major media outlets and local news outlets and shared more than 800-thousand times. It’s great Chauncy will get some relief from his hunger and poverty through the donations (at least I hope the proceeds go to him.) But I have to question why it takes the public humiliation of a black child to move white people to charitable giving? Would Chauncy’s well-wishers be so generous in the absence of his humiliation? Do they care about why Chauncy is poor or about the other kids in the same predicament?
Likely not. Well, at least not in Chauncy’s hometown of Memphis Tennessee where a recent economic disparity study revealed that more than 90 percent of the wealth where Chauncy lives, goes from the pockets of the working poor (like Chauncy’s family members) to wealthy white males. Memphis is a 60 percent black city and most of its jobs offer low wages, no benefits or retirement plans and are mostly staffed by third-party firms who take part of the workers’ salaries. Companies providing these jobs are also often given millions of dollars in Memphis tax payer money through PILOTS and other incentives to locate in Memphis without being required to pay taxes back into the city.
The problem is that there are and will continue to be more poor children like Chauncy because there is no intention of changing this dynamic. In fact, the governor of Chauncy’s state promotes the cheap labor in Memphis and other black municipalities to court businesses. This is a continuation of the exploitation of black labor and the criminalization of the black poor that has historically defined the region where Chauncy lives. It is also why many families work full-time jobs (often more than one) and continue to be poor and why children like Chauncy are often cared for by grandparents, other family members or left unmonitored.
Forgive my skepticism, but if Chauncy’s well-wishers really cared about Chauncy having a chance to be successful; they would stand with the people who look like Chauncy when they fight to raise the minimum wage, fight against the fleecing of resources in Chauncy’s city, fight to keep the tax dollars mostly earned by Memphis’ black working class within the city of Memphis. If they cared, they would share in the outrage of people who have children like Chauncy, over the closing of their community schools (20 schools have closed since 2012 and 9 more are recommended for closing in Memphis). But instead, most tacitly support the funneling of Memphis education dollars into majority white suburbs that are not a part of Memphis. If they cared, they would not be leaving Chauncy to strive to be a reported straight A student in a sub par school system that will leave him unprepared for college when he graduates.
But stories like this one rarely depend on facts or go beyond the surface. Most don’t think beyond the feel-good headlines to consider the underlying framework. Instead, people default to celebrated ideals of white patriarchy and paternalism and figures like Chauncy in these stories are reduced to tokens affirming supremacist beliefs, the latest incarnation of the “white man’s burden”.
Our Responsibility as Consumers and Content Providers
It is important for us as consumers of media to be critical thinkers, mindful of how biases shape the content we consume and consciously limit the extent to which we allow these biases to shape our beliefs about ourselves, our communities and the people within them. We must also hold accountable those who participate in perpetuating harmful stereotypes about black people, even when their jobs depend on it. If a news agency or personality does not strive to report on people of color with accuracy and integrity, they do not deserve your support. Black truth matters.
Christian Kirk is the host of The Agenda with Christian Kirk, passionate freedom fighter and animal lover. She is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and commentator on black womanism, racial disparity and black progress.