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What Ferguson Can Teach Journalists

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One of my many takeaways from Ferguson coverage over the last two weeks has been a confirmation of a suspicion I’ve held for awhile: journalists have more than earned their bad rap. Sources don’t assume that we’ll quote them unfairly, that prejudice and stereotypes will dominate our narrative, and that we’re after “the story” rather than the truth because they’re paranoid. They assume those things because we do them all the time, and we need to do better.

Based on the biggest lessons I’ve taken to heart as a young journalist, here are questions I suggest reporters, especially white reporters, ask themselves while writing every story.

Are my sources diverse?

White people are accustomed to speaking for everyone, to being the default, and to being considered authorities on issues whether they’ve experienced them personally or not. Fight this bias, and the tendency for reporters (of whom the vast majority are white) to only present people of color in a negative light, by working hard to find diverse perspectives on every issue and making a special effort to find perspectives from marginalized people affected directly by a particular social issue.

What are my assumptions?

Good reporting is also good skepticism. Are you fitting your story into a particular narrative or stereotype, like the mainstream media’s depiction of Ferguson’s peaceful protestors and violent police as police attempting to control a “mob”? Are you assuming that anyone’s actions are justifiable, or that any particular narrative is the “right” one?

Is this a time for compassion?

While Michael Brown was getting posthumously smeared as “no angel” and the grieving community of Ferguson was being described as “looters” and “rioters,” Robin Williams’s house was getting stalked by ambulance-chasing paparazzi. Those of us who want to build a career on something more than tabloid fodder need to understand that the New Media allows for humanity. For an example of how journalists can introduce compassion constructively, look no further than Sarah Kendzior, an outstanding St. Louis-based journalist who has written powerfully and unapologetically from within the story.

Is this about me or my subjects?

Reports of journalists treating Ferguson as a career-making networking fair have circulated since just a few days following Michael Brown’s death. Rather than placing ourselves above it, we need to recognize this as the all-too-common tendency that it is, and call it out from within. The film Capote deals with the writer’s struggle to balance personal ambition and responsibility in one of the most raw and honest ways I’ve seen; ultimately, we are in a profession that profits off misery, suffering, and sensationalized violence, and we alone have the power to reshape that.

What can I learn from the birth of Twitter reporting and death of print journalism?

If you are still in the “Internet is killing journalism” camp, go watch the first season of House of Cards and then retire gracefully with Tom Hammerschmidt. Twitter gives a voice and a platform to anyone with something to say, and as such, it is saving journalism from the biases and constructed narratives of yore. By the same token, recognizing Twitter as a viable journalistic medium means respecting intellectual property (and, one hopes, someday actually protecting users from harassment): you can’t just compile a bunch of manual retweets and curated tweets of others and call it your own reporting. If not for Twitter (and Vine and Instagram) we would not know what’s really happening in Ferguson. Think about that, and learn, and humble yourself before the population you claim to serve.

Featured image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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5 Comments

  1. Julia Burke,

    A big part of the problem is that the networks want to make money, and reporting on mostly positive stories, including ones involving minorities just wouldn’t be as profitable, so they tend to focus on the negative. You know the old adage, if it bleeds it leads.

  2. I understand that, I really do but the adage comes on the backs of Black and Brown people and the media needs to seriously rethink that.

    I live in the Black community. I know for an absolute certainty that we’re not as bad as the MSM has made us out to be but then I have the benefit of personal experience. For White people who don’t have that experience,the only thing they know about Blacks and Latinos is that we’re all nappy headed Thugs and Baby Mommas, who can’t speak standard English. Focusing all of their attention on a minority within the minority.

    The MSM has spent the past 30/40 years equating the word Black with violence/crime. And they were very successful at that. I don’t blame Darren Wilson for what he did bc he is exactly the result you get from constant brainwashing by the media that Black men are the most dangerous, sub-human creatures on Earth and that White men MUST assert their authority over them by putting them down hard. He’s very much a product of his culture.

    Sorry if I sound so cynical but despair about this topic pretty much comes with the color.

  3. A big part of the problem is that the networks want to make money, and

    That maybe the problem with “some” of them. For many of them its a combination of laziness, which is to say, they are happy to repeat the narrative being driven by some other media outlet, rather than appose them, and lose viewers. And, those other outlets? They have an agenda. The agenda may be, in some cases, that they will lose readers/viewers, if they don’t bang the drum of their readership/viewership, which are heavily invested in a one sided perspective already (such as being white, or conservative, or Tea Party), but the net result is that their agenda turns into the white, conservative, Tea Party advocates, or what ever other disease riddled world view they are scared to challenge either their readers/viewers, or possibly even boss, over.

  4. I think you have to also factor in unconscious (and sometimes conscious) racism.

    We (USA, at least) live in a culture steeped in the centuries-old stereotype that black men are, as a class, dangerous criminals. So when someone — reporter or not — sees a black man doing something, they’re much more likely to assume he’s doing something criminal than if it’s a white person. (There have been a number of experiments that confirm this.) If they’re writing a TV script that calls for a violent criminal, in all likelihood, they’ll make him black. If they’re putting together a “reality” show about police work, and they have a choice of showing them apprehending a white person or a black person, which do you think they’ll choose.

    In all cases, they’ll say they’re not racist, that race doesn’t even play a factor. They’ll explain how the behavior of the black person who’s locked out of his house is really different from that of the white person in the same situation. That the black person who beat someone up is more dangerous than the white person who does exactly the same thing. (Or that the black pre-schooler who knocks over chairs is being anti-social while when a white kid does exactly the same thing is just being exuberant.) They’ll explain that the scene with the black person being arrested is more interesting or more newsworthy or something, and that it has nothing to do with race. If you complain that “human interest” stories almost exclusively show white faces while crime stories almost exclusively show black faces, they’ll just point to crime statistics. They’ll believe they are being “rational” and “objective,” and not see how their perceptions are skewed by the racism they’ve been breathing since birth.

    Racism is endemic and built into the structure of USA society. To support it, all you need to do is take the most comfortable path, to do what’s expected. To oppose it takes conscious effort and looks and feels awkward. It violates social norms and makes people uncomfortable. I remember people disparaging the Gannett newspapers because they had a policy that human interest stories and pictures had to include a representative number of members of minority groups — yet that is exactly what a newspaper has to do if they want to overcome their unconscious racism.

    All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

    (BTW: almost all of this applies to sexism, too; just change the stereotypes.)

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