Journalists love being the first to get to a story, or even the ones to break the story itself. They love to touch hearts and call others to actions through the stories they tell.
In many cases, though, the search for compelling stories and images quickly turns into a cruel intrusion. We also see that there is power in how a story is told: the way we portray the "characters" in each story truly influences local, national, and international attitudes.
The Difference in News Coverage
Social media exploded after the death of Michael Brown: with #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, Twitter users questioned why news organizations were choosing certain images of Brown, as well as certain headlines.
People began to compare the media representations of white criminals and black victims. Many of these comparisons demonstrated a sense of pity toward white youth who committed crimes, even if they were violent. These headlines hinted at rough childhoods, the absence of parents, and the struggles of not fitting in or even being bullied.
More recently, we have seen many examples of this approach to headline-writing and the selection of images to use in a story in the case of Brock Turner. Many news outlets used a photo of him smiling in a suit and tie. Headlines highlighted the fact he was a promising athlete and college student. The controversy behind this, as I'm sure most of you know, is that he was convicted of raping a young woman behind a dumpster. If the stories written about him were focused on the rape allegations, why weren't the traditional mugshots used?
|An image commonly used in the news coverage of Brock Turner and his trial. Via NBC News.|
This need to identify with the criminal was not represented when talking about a victim who also happened to be black, however. News organizations put out headlines that talked about the negative aspects of the victim's life: records of suspension, drug histories, and possible instances of past criminal behavior.
The misrepresentation of the people involved in the story goes against many codes of journalistic ethics. For instance, the Society of Professional Journalism. For instance, the code of ethics states the following: "Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story." By pointing to irrelevant information about a person, journalists can take away from what happened to that person or what that person did, and it almost seems as if they are trying to justify the wrong that occurred.
"Yes, he shot 5 people in his school, but he was a brilliant kid who was misunderstood by his mother. Oh, he also happened to be white."
"Yes, he was shot and killed by a policeman while he was unarmed, but he had a history of drug abuse and was suspended multiple times from his high school. By the way, he was also black."
A Larger Problem
We aren't letting black victims be victims: American journalism tends to tack on any bit of information they can to make the victim seem less worthy of sympathy or compassion.
On the other hand, white criminals are often painted as victims of cruel circumstances. Ethically speaking, this is not horrible. After all, it's important to keep in mind as a writer that people are people, even when they're acting monstrously. The SPJ Code of Ethics actually agrees: "Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage."
This is not reflected in instances where a criminal is black, though, which is incredibly problematic. Why are journalists deciding to show compassion to white criminals over black victims? Instances such as these also reflect the larger problem of the institutionalization of racism, even within American journalism.
As journalists, we have the power to shape public perception and national attitude. That is why it is crucial not to reinforce racist stereotypes in news coverage, but maintain some sort of compassion to the people affected.