Black Humanity: Gone Missing in the Media

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Black Humanity: Gone Missing in the Media
by Yemaya Williams 

When it comes to this heavily racialized society that we live in, black people are feared. White people cross the street in avoidance and police officers interact with state sanctioned violence. Racialized ideologies come at us from multiple institutions and push on us these misconceptions about black people. They are criminalized, exploited, and discredited for simply existing. 
The influence the news has on one's worldview is not something that should be underestimated. News media, also known as ‘The Fourth Estate’ is a societal power that dictates how its consumers view certain topics. Journalists don’t just operate as the watchdogs of those in power, they also engage in the creation of implicit bias, passing on ideas that follow along with today’s adapted dominant ideologies. 
Journalists may not be able to tell people what to think, but they can control what people think about. What is chosen to be covered, how often it is covered and from what angle it is covered by journalists all play a part in agenda-setting— the theory that the media is constantly shaping what people deem to be newsworthy. News media, as a hegemonic institution, was made by and for a white-dominated society during a time when black people were considered three-fifths of a person. The majority of newsrooms lack racial diversity and many organizations like National Geographic have published stories or whole issues focused on the ways newsrooms have poorly treated racialized coverage in the past. White-dominated newsrooms are still publishing these stories and making the same mistakes
Following a series of race riots in the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders issued a report detailing the institutional inequities that led to the black and white race relations at the time. Included was the news coverage and representations of the black community as fueling the problem.

According to a study conducted by Robert Entman, a professor of communications, political science and journalism, over half of broadcast television news stories about the black community are centered around crime or politics. This overrepresentation creates within consumers the association between the black community and crime, fostering an implicit bias and upholding racial hierarchy within our society’s institutions. The way the news selects and frames these stories, along with the sensationalized language used within them, sheds a negative light on the black community and offers no positive representation to balance it out.  

The discrediting of black people’s humanity within the news can also be seen in the vilification of black victims, especially when contrasted with the treatment of white perpetrators. The New York Times called police brutality victim Michael Brown ‘no angel’ and cited his appreciation  for rap music as well as him getting into ‘a scuffle with a neighbor’ on a long list of reasons of how he was a difficult child. When it came to covering Darren Wilson, the white cop who shot Brown, NYT mentioned Wilson’s previous accomplishments and stated he was just trying to live a ‘lowkey’ lifestyle. Immediately, black victims have their character attacked while white perpetrators have excuses made for them as if to justify the actions that lead to the continuance of the current racial hierarchy. 
Negative news coverage of black people and our issues aren’t always this overt - most instances of implicit bias arise in more subtle ways. These subtleties include picking an old, menacing-looking photo of Michael Brown as opposed to his recent graduation photo to accompany an article, framing Black History Month as something that happens “in the midst of Valentine’s Day” and portraying Serena Williams within the angry black woman trope for doing the same things her white competitors do. 
Implicit biases towards the black community continue to present themselves in big and small ways because of the cycle it creates. Dominant ideologies are communicated through every institution, from the criminal justice system to the healthcare system. These ideas enter the news world when journalists enter monoracial newsrooms, never have their implicit biases challenged and continue to spread messages that they were socialized into believing long before deciding on a profession. 
This cycle may not be anywhere near ending as it is stuck at the same development rate as our status quo and controlled by the same people. However, a conscious effort can be made to make a difference. It is the job of the journalist to become and remain aware of the unconscious biases they hold and how it appears in their coverage and to start noticing it in the things they are exposed to and consume. Regardless of the choices made at an individual level, nothing will change until positive, well-rounded and nuanced stories of the black community become as widely covered and as widely shared as the negative, one-sided ones. 
This is the opinion of Yemaya Williams, a journalism major from Los Angeles, CA.

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