WATCHING the nonstop coverage of Ferguson, Mo., after the news of a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown — and now a Staten Island grand jury’s non-indictment in the chokehold death of Eric Garner — I couldn’t help thinking one thing over and over again. If even half as many black people were featured as commentators and experts on television the rest of the year the way they were being asked to comment on the riots last month, we might not have killings of people like Brown and Garner in the first place.
Indeed, research by media scholars has recommended for decades that one significant way to ensure a more nuanced, equitable and honest perception of people of color is, believe it or not, to represent people of color in a more nuanced, equitable and honest manner in mass media. And one significant way of doing this is to quote more people of communities of color in news media. Most important, quote them on matters of their expertise, not only in matters that call upon their skin color and ethnicity.
Network television seems to have, in recent weeks, suddenly unearthed black scholars, lawyers, writers, activists and all kinds of analysts. Where are these people of color during the rest of the year? One could be forgiven for believing that these experts are only capable of speaking to black issues (if we insist on framing the Ferguson-based unrest as a “black” issue).
Further, why is it that the news media insist on having each of these people respond to questions about the upheaval that occurred in Ferguson, no matter that their expertise may not be in the area of anarchist political protest? Would we fault a viewer or reader for thinking that the blackness of these commentators necessitates that they be called out to speak for violence wrought on the streets by people who happen to be of the same race or ethnicity — or for wondering why the riot coverage is disproportionately spotlighted by the media?
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Such “ghettoized” representation of diverse communities in news coverage is nothing new. Indeed, research has shown over and over again that news media tend to focus on white, authoritative, male sources. This preference becomes especially heightened in coverage of crime, disaster and even civil disobedience.
In our research study on the first 24 hours of news coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks, my co-author and I found that even in a city as racially and ethnically diverse as New York, journalists sought out white, official, male sources. I recall watching with some shock when at one point, the camera of a network television reporter interviewing a crowd of eyewitnesses deliberately shifted away its lens from a brown-skinned male to focus exclusively on white bystanders. Women — relegated to minority status — were quoted mostly as victims, screaming or crying in the streets.
Earlier, in my research of social protest and civil disobedience during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, I found that journalists overwhelmingly sought out official, or authoritative, male sources (those appointed to high public office or in senior corporate or trade organization positions) to quote on issues related to social protests as well as issues of world trade. In fact, these patterns of news-sourcing were almost identical to coverage of the Vietnam anti-war protests. Despite the fact that the WTO protests used the Internet for political organization as well as providing analysis, giving journalists a whole host of nontraditional yet reliable sources, little to nothing had changed in patterns of news sources in three decades.
Although some strides have been made with regard to equity in representing gender — that is, smart women speaking eloquently on television and in print on a wide variety of subjects — such moves have still to be seen with regard to race and ethnicity.
The bottom line: If we do not see people of diverse ethnicities and races represented in the diversity of roles they play in society; if we see African-American males represented in the news as well as the entertainment media in mostly violent imagery, are we surprised that Wilson should use what several scholars are qualifying as a racially charged term in describing a bullet-ridden 18-year-old Michael Brown as looking “like a demon?”
When I teach my journalism classes, and especially in my role as faculty adviser to the campus newspaper, I tell young journalists over and over again to examine their biases, especially in times of crisis coverage. Over the years, through trial and error, they have begun to see how important it is to quote, for instance, a Muslim student not merely on the rituals of Ramadan, but the bands at Quadstock, the university’s annual music festival.
I do this in the hope that they will change patterns of news sourcing and representation when they go out into the media workforce. I must admit that I also do this in the fear that they will get co-opted into old patterns.
Sonora Jha is associate professor of journalism and media studies at Seattle University.