If your life came to a tragic end, how would you want the news to tell your story?
This is a question news organizations must constantly ponder when covering victims of gun violence.
Following the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old male shot in Ferguson, Missouri, news outlets such as USA Today pulled photos from Brown’s Facebook page, showing him displaying what can be interpreted as a gang sign.
As a result of the media coverage of Brown’s death, social media users have flocked to Twitter and Tumblr announcing their outrage using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to call attention to the media’s negligence when portraying people of color.
News outlets should exercise great caution in the language and imagery used regarding crime stories. Neglecting to do so will only perpetuate stereotypes stigmas surrounding race and alienate people of color from mainstream media outlets.
News coverage in black communities needs to reflect what is really happening within them. After examining news stories in Boston during a 30-day period in 1986 and again in 2001, researchers from the University of Mississippi and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that though crime concerning black people was less frequent in 2001, it dominated mainstream news coverage in both years.
If crime in black communities is declining, then the news needs to reflect positive change in the community and examine more closely what is causing violence, poverty and unrest.
Repetitive negative coverage of some blacks in the news perpetuates stereotypes of all blacks. The results of a random survey published in a June 2008 issue of the Journal of Communication show that network news coverage increased the endorsement of black stereotypes, particularly suggesting that blacks were poor and intimidating. The survey results showed network news exposure negatively related to estimates of black income. The results also demonstrated that exposure to network news is positively related to the prevalence of racism.
By not covering more optimistic developments in the black community and taking a closer look at the factors surrounding violence in these neighborhoods, the media is doing a disservice to consumers. The role of journalism is to inform the public, not to inadvertently persuade them to believe false stereotypes.
How the news portrays blacks affects news outlets’ viewership. The results of another study published in a June 2013 issue of the Journal of Communication showed that black readers were more likely to select and read positive and negative stories featuring their race; however, whites’ story preferences were not affected by a story angle or the race of the subject.
If mainstream media covered more stories involving people of color, they would appeal to more black readers at a time when most media outlets need as many viewers and readers as they can get.
The black community currently has a buying power of $1 trillion, and that is expected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2017, according to a September 2013 report from Nielsen. The report found that black consumers watch more TV, read more financial magazines and spend more than twice the time at personally hosted websites than any other group in the nation.
Perhaps more telling, an Aug. 14 Huffington Post article recounted headlines from major media outlets describing white shooting suspects with more uplifting language than black victims. For example, a March 26, 2012 headline describing the late Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in NBC News said “Trayvon Martin was suspended three times from school.” In contrast, this June 12 Fox News headline about an armed white 15-year-old said, “Oregon school shooting suspect fascinated with guns but was a devoted Mormon, his friends say.”
The headline describing Trayvon Martin was meant to grab readers’ attention by revealing a little-known detail, but it alludes to Martin being a troubled kid.
Though the Oregon High School suspect killed two people and himself, the headline presents him as a victim of mental illness. Regardless of skin color, the media should not depict victims of gun violence in a worse light than suspected perpetrators.
Doing so indirectly implies that they somehow deserved or caused the violence they endured and that their lives do not matter as much.
With these social media campaigns, the public is crying out for better news coverage. After reviewing photos of Brown following his tragic death, it is easy to see why negative news stories can be contributing to racial stereotypes, further dividing our country and reopening festering wounds brought by racism.