We have become used to the fact that in the aftermath of political debates, especially in the US, that no matter the outcome, the performance of every politician is spun positively. We are living a post-truth reality peppered with distraction, buffoonery, and nonsense. This is a world of “alternative truths” and other euphemisms that normalise lies, making them acceptable.
Facilitated by social media platforms, lies seem to circulate uncontrollably. The US president has lied countless times and other politicians are following suit. Nobody doubts that if the death of George Floyd had not been filmed the story of his death would have been made into a completely different event; one in which the police would have been doing “their job”.
This is not an extreme assumption. Many other African Americans have been murdered with total impunity. The filming of Floyd’s death (and an independent autopsy) dispelled the narrative that emerged soon after his murder which directed the attention to his underlying health condition as a contributing factor.
When the protests began and extended across the country, media platforms focused a lot of attention on the damage protestors were causing and the criminal behaviour of some. This perspective changed as the protests continued and videos of police brutality attacking peaceful protestors started to emerge. Even the press on the ground felt the impact of police violence. One of CNN’s anchors was arrested while reporting live and many other journalists have been attacked with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Journalists and those working in media have become legitimate targets. This is not surprising given that they have been depicted repeatedly by the US president as the “enemy of the people”. By 1 June, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported more than 125 incidents of violence and harassment, including arrests, against journalists covering the current protests across US. While some of the reporters had been attacked by crowds and protesters, according to CPJ most of the attacks were carried out by the police.
In addition, political leaders have been accusing reputable media platforms of being “fake news”. While in the past this expression referred to fabricated, outlandish stories that circulated via Facebook and other social media outlets, “fake news” has now been dangerously attached to legitimate stories that happen to be inconvenient to politicians.
This is a very damaging trend, and not an insignificant development, in the discrediting of all media. Media is supposed to function as the watchdog of democracy, playing a critical role in holding governments and politicians to account. We all lose without an independent, reliable and trustworthy media. Times of a global crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrate how vital the media is.
Media and racism
But the media also needs to be called out and challenged when appropriate. Sensationalism and the constant need for “breaking news” in order to capture the attention of audiences or readers is drowning news into exhausting hyperbole.
Newspaper headlines are a good example of this. They carry the most significant weight of the newspaper yet they are often overdramatic in tone. Headlines help to construct the interpretation of the news and they are what readers tend to remember most, even when they read the articles.
No matter how discerning readers might be there is too much information to read and assimilate every day. As such, headlines play a pivotal role in imparting information.
When it comes to racism, media researchers have shown that the media has played an important role in reproducing prejudices and stereotypes. More often than not, ethnic minorities appear associated with problems or as threats to the values and interests of the majority. In addition, discrimination in society is regularly treated as isolated incidents with little to do with systemic racism.
Headlines in UK tabloids such as in “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis” (The Sun); “The ‘swarm’ on our streets” (Daily Mail); or “Migrant claimants ‘must speak English’” (Daily Express) are good examples of how print media fuel hate and prejudice. However, it does not take such brazen headlines to illustrate media prejudices.
Stereotyping and misrepresentations can also be conveyed in more subtle manner. Earlier this month the Spanish paper El Pais carried an article about the death of George Floyd with the opening sentence being “The agent and the African American”.
This is not uncommon. Ethnic minorities are often referred to by their ethnicity, or as part of a group, and seldom by their names. This is just one example of the many that language used by the media can dehumanise minorities and steer antipathy towards them.
The protest paradigm
The relationship between the media and audiences is complicated. But there is no doubt that news media help audiences to make sense of events. Editors and journalists select what is important to bring into the news and what is not. By choosing how news is framed they help to emphasise or diminish events, often with the goal of making them newsworthy. And similarly through their portrayal in the news, they can empower or disempower groups of people. In other words they can contribute to creating particular social realities.
In studying how social protests are covered by the media, Douglas McLeod and James Hertog found that often the media undermines the important social role that protesters play and concentrate instead on the violence, property destruction, and conflict. They also realised that the views and opinions most used by journalists in their reporting are those of official sources which often results in the legitimisation and demonisation of protesters and their demands.
McLeod and Hertog called it the protest paradigm. And while not all coverage of protests adheres exactly to this model, the authors believed that the media has the capacity to exacerbate social conflict:
The lack of respect for the value of social protest inherent in such coverage has created frustration among the protesters, which has in turn contributed to dysfunctional confrontations.
In the Atlantic, Megan Garber warned readers looking at the current protests, and the attack on peaceful protesters in Washington, not to “fall for the chaos theory” frame. Some of the examples Garber refers to include headlines from major newspapers: “As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to ‘End It Now”.’ (New York Times. It was removed after numerous complaints); “We are tipping into chaos,” (Washington Post); “Many demonstrations sank into chaos,” (Associated Press).
For Garber, the word “chaos” helps to redefine the event into something it was not. By using it, editors missed the enormity of what had happened and what it meant. Those headlines, she points out, erased the state violence and ignored the threat to civil rights.
Voices in media
The language used in media is important but equally important is the source of that language. Too often the lack of resources and staff in newsrooms results in the over-reliance on official sources. Events involving ethnic minorities are described from the point of view of the white majority. And their opinions are given more prominence. Not only are minority groups quoted less frequently but when they are they are frequently misunderstood.
The truth is that as long as the lack of diversity within the publishing industry continues, journalists will never be able to speak the right language when it comes to racial justice. And this is because the diverse voices needed to change the way some stories are told are missing.
Jelani Cobb, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, describes the impression he felt when he stumbled upon a story about some robberies in the Bronx a few years back:
the efforts of a journalist, an editor, an expert, and even neighbourhood residents seemed only to further a narrative of liberal condescension, missing crucial facts about life in this place.
Cobb denounces the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in print and broadcast media in the US where in 2017, while 37% of its population was non-white, only 16.6% of journalists at daily newspapers were people of colour. This ethnic and demographic imbalance exists in media organisations in many countries.
The demographic landscape in Ireland has changed profoundly in the last 25 years. But the make-up of newsrooms has not followed suit. As in many other countries Irish newsrooms are also missing the story.
However, simply attempting to hire some minority staff will not be sufficient. The change needs to be meaningful, structural, and democratic. The inclusion of voices that represent the diverse population media companies serve is good for business and could contribute to their growth and quality.
As the then Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith pointed out in 2015, it would help “editorial organizations avoid the bland and often false conventional wisdom held in a room full of people who come from similar places”.
Dr. Mayte Martín holds degrees in Philology, International Relations and Communications, and Sociology. She is co-founder with Lisa Rose of the consultancy Martin Rose which supports youth, communities, professionals, politicians, and civil servants in working towards more equitable and peaceful societies through training, research, mediation and advice. For more information see martinrose.online
Featured image via pdpics