How to Make Media Coverage of Race a Force for Unity
by Hughey Newsome (bio)
Like most Americans, I anxiously awaited the decision of the Ferguson grand jury.
My concern was not about how the grand jury tasked with assessing the case against Officer Darren Wilson might rule. I trusted it to act fairly in dealing with the death of Michael Brown.
My concern lies with the way the media conducts itself.
During the civil rights era, the media played a critical and beneficial role. The media allowed Americans in the North to see firsthand the atrocities committed against African-Americans in the South. Media coverage helped generate the emotion needed and help stiffen resolve to ensure that groundbreaking legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed.
The media was a positive factor during the civil rights era.
Racial issues can be more complicated these days, and the media seems to be doing more harm than good dealing with race.
Overt, institutional racism found during the civil rights era is gone. In the 21st century, race is a far more amorphous problem. People nowadays struggle to understand each other, and generalizations, merited or not, persist. African-Americans, thanks to portrayals in entertainment and on the news, become stereotyped as dangerous, poor and lacking intelligence. Whites are typecast as heartless, racist and selfish — especially conservatives.
These stereotypes breed distrust and make meaningful discussion of things such as what happened in Ferguson, Missouri impossible. Our racial problems are rooted in distrust.
It's often a false distrust. Most African-Americans don't live in poverty and don't have criminal records. And how racist can whites be if they played a major role in electing the first African-American president?
But the races are split further apart as the media excitedly runs live feeds of Ferguson rioting. Tweets from African-American celebrities and bellicose politicians showing disappointment with the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson disrespect the legal system and encourage mob rule.
Yet, stories such as how conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly and liberal gadfly Al Sharpton came together to help launch My Brother's Keeper, a presidential initiative to find mentors for young minority at-risk males, garnered almost no attention.
Dramatic shots of burning buildings are much better for ratings than a White House ceremony, especially if that ceremony features people of opposite political ideologies working together. Such cooperation discredits the media narrative that one side – guess which? – is racist.
The media's problem is that it's not 1962. The media must realize this and focus on empathy and intelligent discussion about problems rather than seeking provocations that spur distrust.
For example, a November 12 headline from MSNBC, as part of its lead-up to the Ferguson decision, declared the "KKK says Ferguson protests 'have awakened a sleeping giant.'" A racist organization the vast majority of Americans, black and white, reject was recast as a legitimate player — helping stoke animosity news producers seem to want. Why would this ostracized group deserve prime coverage except to stoke tensions?
Clearly, a dynamic was created there in which those against Ferguson protests might stand with the KKK instead, despite the reality that a vast majority rejects the group.
The media should adopt a different approach. Get away from fueling emotional fires and focusing on what divides America.
For example, people almost unanimously want minority youth to be in more advantageous positions, and a stark few want young African-American men shot dead by police. Yet the media often creates a narrative that paints a different picture.
Why cause African-American men to appear more dangerous than their racial counterparts? It creates problems that are worsened if these young men give in and embrace the negative stereotypes they see perpetuated in the news and in entertainment. We need the media to ask tough questions and perhaps provoke debate, not act – as MSNBC did – as if the KKK is still relevant.
The media should adopt a grownup mentality when reporting on race and events such as those in Ferguson.
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Hughey Newsome, a business consultant in the D.C. area, is a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].
Published by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints
permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21, other Project 21 members, or the National Center for Public Policy Research, its board or staff.
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