The Morality of Misrepresentation: When Bad Reporting Has A Body Count
I am an intern at a local news station owned by a media conglomerate. My primary role is to write brief digital stories from news releases and police reports we receive.
There is one particular story that I am assigned to write almost every day. Every day, it’s pretty much the same story. And every day, it goes like this:
There is a man accused of a crime, and the police have submitted a 2–4 sentence description of said crime, as well as a request to publicize the incident in hopes of finding information that will lead to the arrest of the suspect.
The Man in this story, the man in almost all of these stories, always strikes me as more of an archetype than a real human being- he exists only in grainy photos from surveillance cameras. He appears in these photos to be, most generally, an African-American male wearing your regular, average gym clothes. He does not look particularly devious- in fact, he looks like pretty much anyone else I know. He is usually caught with his eyes half-closed, or his mouth half-open, or his gaze fixated on something in the distance- in other words, making the faces anyone makes when they don’t know someone’s taking their picture.
However, even a nonchalant facial expression is construed as “devious” when your photo gets paired with mega-size, all-black font, spelling out “SUSPECT.”
It is in that moment that a grainy photo of a normal, tired-looking man transforms, in the eye of the viewer, from a complicated, real human being into “SUSPECT.”
I see that complicated, real human being before I slap the “SUSPECT” label over their name (or description). I see regular, flesh-and-blood human beings who struggle with everyday problems, and they are not personifications of social evils- they are just people, who do the best they can, and sometimes they fail.
The crime this mythical Man, or that this collection of grainy photos, commits, is almost always a nonviolent one. His offense is stealing food, or stealing beer, or stealing pizza, or stealing cigarettes, or shoplifting, or grabbing a handful of groceries and running out the door- things which are obviously not ideal moral behavior, but they are not the crimes of a crooked, maleficent deviant- they are the crimes of accident, of poverty, of struggle, and of misfortune.
The last line of every single one of these reports ends with the cheery repetition of what I have always thought to be a particularly dystopian and macabre jingle of law enforcement: “If you have any information on this suspect, call 1–888-LOCK-U-UP.”
I write these stories and report them, without comment, simply and accurately, every time (with the extremely scant information and one grainy photo I am given). But every time I do, I can’t help but wonder if I’m, also, being used to tell a story about right and wrong, about social problems, and about “certain kinds” of people.
I feel that objective reporting of these police memos presents the writer or reporter, in this situation, with a troubling existential quandary. For if I tell the story objectively and with only these facts (from a four-line police report), I am reporting the story accurately... technically.
But I am also leaving out a significant amount of social context- the context, and begging question all social institutions ought to consider, of whether it is actually advantageous to anyone to persecute nonviolent offenders with a medieval vigilance that feeds the very problems it hopes to fight, and to waste both social resources and valuable news time lending importance to something that is so obviously only “News” in the way that it highlights a particularly ugly facet of our criminal justice system, and by doing so, we lend it a power which is ethically not its due.
This style of reporting parrots and gives greater legitimacy to the frankly disturbing level of vigilance police seem to exercise in their war on poor nonviolent offenders, a vigilance which all too clearly paints a scantly unflattering portrait of the priorities of police, and the prevalence of white supremacist attitudes across all institutional levels.
I understand that it is actively significant to report on crime and danger- hardly anything could be more concretely the social duty of news organizations. But I also feel concern at the concept of media agencies acting as a functional voice for the rhetoric of the police force, when, so often, reporting on these police reports and adhering to these officer requests does not improve the public good- but actively detracts from it.
I have a confession to make. I don’t want you to call 1–888-LOCK-U-UP.
I don’t think anyone deserves to rot in jail the rest of their lives for stealing a pack of cigarettes. The court systems will be no kinder to these people than police have been, and both are avid practitioners of a convenient morality that consigns millions of Black people to poverty with its selective policies, then persecutes those same Black people at a disproportionate rate (almost a rate of 1:5) for the same (often “nonviolent”) crimes, openly regards Black people with brutality (often killing people in cold blood for no reason other than that they ‘look like’ the grainy photos of “suspects” I report), and then condemns millions of Black people, each year, to lives in prison- too often for nothing more than the crime of stealing a pack of cigarettes.
In no way do I see this as socially productive.
Every time I publish one of these stories about This Mythical Man- this man with the grainy photo (in which his face is often obscured, so that the only discernible traits apparent for identifying the ‘suspect’ are his clothing style and the color of his skin), I wonder- will someone be profiled by a police officer today because of my story? Will someone be pulled over, who just happened to “look like” a suspect that left Farm Fresh without paying, and, in acclaimed pursuit of this heinous crime, will the police search their car for this reason, and will they think of my story, and will they recall the visceral image of an impossibly grainy photo, and will that man they pulled over then become confused, and will the police officer then seize on that frustration, and will they then find this innocent person to be guilty, doomed by some other abstract crime conjured in that moment, or even just by the officer’s whim- will they do this to someone? Will they do this because of my photo?
Will there be another Philando Castile today because of my story?
Will someone be profiled, will someone have their life ruined, will someone come home to their Daddy gone because I chose to be complicit in only telling you only one part of the story, a story that, from a four-sentence police report and a grainy photo of a man holding a bag, I cannot possibly know? Is there any other behavior that legitimizes law enforcement’s systemic institutional violence more than mine does in this instance?
Where men rape and white women steal and fathers beat their daughters, and people do real, actually bad things- and while these things are reported on, do we not disgrace these real issues by stooping so low as to report on a stolen pizza by someone who, every time, fits the stereotype of a demographic chronically profiled by police, as if it were somehow of the same criminal consequence, and, every time, I wonder, why is this the only story we are telling? I wonder, if we only tell this piece of the story, are we reinforcing structures of institutionalized oppression, police brutality, vindictive thinking, and the cycle of prison labor and generational poverty?
Why is this the only story we are telling about Black Americans?
I wonder, if we didn’t write this story about a man who walked off with a pizza, if we didn’t tell the public, the public who listens to us and trusts our voice, that they should call the cops on this man and LOCK-HIM-UP, if the world would really be such a worse place for that fact.
I wonder how to reconcile systemic injustice with accurate reporting. I wonder how to reconcile morality with duty, and sometimes I wonder which one is which.
I wonder, as I publish that story on this Mythical Man, because I am an intern and I value my job and realize this is but a reality of all news outlets and a small part of the role I play- I wonder if, somehow, I am allowed a free pass from the guilt of perpetuating institutional prejudice and propping up police violence because (I tell myself as I hit “Publish”) I want to do my job.
I wonder if this is how police officers feel when they slam that kid onto the concrete because he didn’t look at them right, and that’s what all the other cops do to keep things safe. I wonder if they thought they were just doing their job.
I wonder if this is how executives feel as they sign off, abstractly, on paperwork to dig pipelines through sacred sites. I wonder if this is how ICE agents feel as they hunt men, women, and children like bloodthirsty hounds and rip them of their livelihood and lives. I wonder if this is how politicians feel when they sign a bill that will strip health care from millions, but which will look good as policy. I wonder if they, too, are just trying to keep their jobs- and however our actions affect lives, that’s all that matters, right?
If that was the case, there would be zero accountability for unjust action in this world. The people in power should wield that power carefully and compassionately, and those writers who craft the voice of news media- a voice thousands trust- possess incredible power to either enforce a narrative of things as they “are” or to supplement that coverage with the kind of in-depth critical perspective that challenges all of us to destabilize anything that obscures justice and inspires us to consider social attitudes for what they might or should be- the choice to serve an agenda of what’s conventional, or to serve an agenda of what is truly newsworthy, not what is just functional performance to placate police departments, at the cost of real people’s livelihood and lives, as well as justice overall.
This is the world we must occupy, and narrate with conscience.
This is the story I write every day.
And every day, a mundane task is made cosmically heavy and grave by the burning, persistent question- am I complicit?
The answer, I truly believe, every time, is yes.
Part II: Scholarly Context
It turns out my fears are not unfounded, and there is factual evidence that what I’ve described is, in fact, a consistent problem with concrete effects. Scholars of media bias have found that the manner in which Black Americans are portrayed in news media is directly linked to racial profiling, public prejudice, police brutality, and discrimination within the criminal justice system that leads to harsher and more prolonged sentences for Black Americans for the same crimes.
The 2014 Sentencing Project reports of a direct link between racial media bias and public perception of minority groups:
A study of television news found that Black crime suspects were presented in more threatening contexts than whites: Black suspects were disproportionately shown in mug shots and in cases where the victim was a stranger. Black and Latino suspects were also more often presented in a nonindividualized way than whites — by being left unnamed — and were more likely to be shown as threatening — by being depicted in physical custody of police. Blacks and Hispanics were also more likely to be treated aggressively by police officers on reality-based TV shows, including America’s Most Wanted and Cops. Mass media are therefore a major contributor to Americans’ misconceptions about crime, with journalists and producers apparently acting based on their own or expectations of their audiences’ stereotypes about crime.
Police Reports: Decontextualizing the ‘Unknown Black Suspect’
It turns out I am also not the only who finds it bizarre, inaccurate, and highly problematic to report police statements verbatim without broader context or systemic analysis, and to incessantly report the same narrative of these crimes without thinking about why this situation may be the way it is. By failing to include social context and systemic analysis in news reporting, by failing to consider racial prejudice, systemic police violence, the disenfranchisement of the poor, and the targeting of minorities- if we fail to give that explanation- then, in our omittance, we are implying a very different explanation, one that many internalize: that Black people are dangerous and bad. Our negligence to address and include social context creates a script perfectly fit and almost acutely designed to sow the seed for burgeoning prejudice and white supremacy, creating a climate even more dangerous for and violent to Black lives. The civil rights organization Color of Change makes these exact claims in its 2015 News Accuracy report in a paragraph titled ”Missing the Story: Lack of Context and Systemic Analysis in News Reporting on Crime:”
During the course of our monitoring, we found that not one of the stations contextualizes their crime coverage with any analysis of the overall justice system. Coverage of crime consistently lacks discussion of factors such as over-targeting of Black people by police, discriminatory incarceration (e.g., Black people receiving harsher sentences for the same crime compared to white people), and the impact of poverty, unemployment and discrimination on crime.
A repetitive news formula focuses on re-broadcasting police statements unquestioned, and routinely focuses on individual perpetrators of crime, in lieu of discussing systemic factors such as root causes of crime and patterns of racial discrimination.
Simply parroting ambiguous police reports and framing them as news, without question or social context, is not only negligent, it is, quite frankly, more propaganda than it is news. In addition, the distortion of actual crime statistics vs. media coverage, shows that news outlets portray Black Americans being depicted as suspects or criminals at a rate that exceeds actual arrest statistics for those same crimes by a whopping 24 percentage points- a disparity which reveals a horrific implicit bias in reporting.
The Consequences of Reporting Without Context: Racial Profiling
A 2000 study jointly published by Stanford University and the University of California entitled Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public, goes even more in-depth. The harm of news media bias goes far beyond failing to contextualize crimes. The study reports that not only does television news portray Black people according to a “crime script,” a format that lends itself particularly easily to action-news reporting and public ratings, but that the actual quantity and proportion of crimes is, on average, grossly distorted to portray Black people as the primary perpetrators of crime.
The abstract reads:
Local television news is the public’s primary source of public affairs information. News stories about crime dominate local news programming because they meet the demand for “action news.”. The prevalence of this type of reporting has led to a crime narrative or “script” that includes two core elements: crime is violent and perpetrators of crime are non-white males. We show that this script has become an ingrained heuristic for understanding crime and race. Using a multi-method design, we assess the impact of the crime script on the viewing public. Our central finding is that exposure to the racial element of the crime script increases support for punitive approaches to crime and heightens negative attitudes about African-Americans among white, but not Black, viewers…
“[These] stations are failing the most basic responsibility of journalism: to report the news accurately.”
Not only is it irresponsible to report these events without context, and to adhere explicitly to a racialized narrative, and not only does this racialized narrative have real-life effects in prejudice, opinion, and policy…. but there is an actual distortion index and factual inaccuracy to the disproportionate amount of focus given to crimes involving Black people. Meaning, we are literally not reporting in an accurate manner.
Media Matters writes:
Two Media Matters reports analyzing nightly news coverage show New York City outlets have named African-Americans as suspects in murder, theft, and assault stories at a rate at least 14 percent higher than reflected in actual NYPD arrest rates averaged over the last four years.
The Color of Change reports similar incidents of media bias and misrepresentation:
The Color Of Change News Accuracy Report Card is a study of how accurately news stations are covering the role of Black people in crime. From August to December 2014, Color Of Change partnered with Media Matters for America to study the representation of Black people in nightly local TV news reporting on crime in New York City.
The result is an outrageous level of distortion: news stations report that Black people are involved in murder, assault and theft an average of 75% of the time, which exceeds the actual arrest rates for those crimes by 24 percentage points. (And that’s not even factoring in the equally outrageous over-targeting of Black people by police in the first place.)
All four stations [studied] — with WABC performing the worst of all, followed by WNBC, WCBS and WNYW/FOX5 — are failing the most basic responsibility of journalism: to report the news accurately.
The Lie of the ‘Antisocial’ Black American
Black community in America has a long, powerful history of positive civic engagement that’s constructed the world we occupy today, in context of the unnegotiable fact that people of color pioneered every civil movement you can probably think of in American history. In order to delegitimize the power of these movements for equal rights and social change, long ago in history white supremacist apologists had a (conscious or perhaps subconscious) idea, and have since been perpetuating an active, still ongoing narrative rhetoric to delineate stereotypes of Black Americans as inherently dangerous, antisocial criminals. This embedded narrative discourse functions to “moralize” racial distinctions and incite traditional white moralists (and, implicitly, the white establishment as a whole), towards a continued social attitude of complicit oppression that seeks to (and singular aim is to) delegitimize Black power and Black voices.
Mass media’s cultural framing, in this regard, functions (implicitly or not), to justify systemic prejudices regarding race and power, prejudices that act as a cultural buffer to a social receptivity to civil rights movements. Mass media’s role in sustaining these public attitudes is pivotal to the continued dissemination of white supremacist thinking- with the media, particularly broadcast news, playing the significant role of shaping mass opinion in a manner that rationalizes and moralizes the systemic oppression of “minority” groups- an oppression upon which powerful state and economic institutions profit and thrive. This historical situation, and this continued coordinated system of disenfranchisement and discrimination, leaves the majority public (regarding racial attitudes) in a continuous state of civil unrest in order to ensure that through this chaos, inequality will persist as an unchecked status quo of American life.
Popular media uses the depersonalized ‘Unidentified Black Suspect’ as little more than a plot device in its parable of implicit racism- while ignoring the fact that our subjects are people, not plot devices, and that Black lives are not ours to own, and the story of Black culture is not one white people get to define and rewrite according to what generates clicks and viewership.
The dissonance of this plot is sustained by a language of cultural conditioning that functions to sow implicit bias. Mass media’s distorted, depersonalized portrayal of the ‘Black criminal’ is one feature of the stylized narrative formula that behavioral psychologists call the “crime script.”
For those of you who are not familiar with the term, a “script” is a set of social rules or beliefs that are implicit, socially conditioned, and by which we infer things from other things. For example, there is a “script” for how you should act in an elevator, and there is a “script” for knowing that when you get to a restaurant and see a line, you should stand in said formation rather than walk up to the counter. Social scripts are more complex than rules- they are unconscious patterns of understanding and navigating reality that govern our behavior- they are world-maps that allow us to move within, construct, and understand relational data in the social world. “Crime” scripts are, similarly, deeper than beliefs- they are implicit narrative landscapes that dictate a certain way to construct the reality of crime, the reality of danger, the reality of victimhood, and the role of race in context of these elements.
Stanford’s “Prime Suspects” study explicitly confirms and remarks upon the trend I observed in my grainy-photo, unnamed-suspect stories. It turns out I am not, in fact, crazy:
….[A] second element of the crime script… [is] the focus on individual perpetrators and minority perpetrators in particular. Over one-half (52%) of the violent crime reports made explicit reference to a suspect. Minorities accounted for two-thirds of those cases (768). In other words, when a violent perpetrator was identified in a news report there was a 66% chance that viewers would see a minority suspect….
The authors of the Stanford report conducted a study in which they showed five separate groups of individuals segments of typical local news coverage that depicted Black Americans as “suspects” in relation to crime.
Each group was divided into two components- one component being exposed to local news coverage that featured white, not Black, suspects each time. The researchers concluded that exposure to the “crime script” and excessive coverage of unidentified Black people depicted simply as “SUSPECT” does, indeed, have significant influence on the racial attitudes of white (but not Black) viewers.
The image of Black people the crime script provides, the “anti-social Black person,” is a dehumanizing one that puts Black Americans in danger by teaching society that Black Americans are the danger. The study describes this kind of racial attitude and its history in detail: Exposure to this script, and the racial attitudes that emerged from news viewers in the study is described in the following:
The public image of the “anti-social Black” is nothing new… According to Webster’s [classical model of prejudice], racial prejudice refers to a “natural aversion”, “repugnance”, or “instinctive opposition in feeling” toward a particular group and its members. Thus the acceptance of negative racial stereotypes is taken as evidence of racial prejudice…. it generally includes traits associated with both genetic inferiority (lesser intelligence) and “environmental liberalism” (failings of character). In our study, “old-fashioned” racism was measured by asking participants to rate African-Americans in terms of the applicability of the following traits — “law abiding,” “unintelligent,” disciplined,” and “lazy….”
These depictions of and attitudes towards African-Americans are as old as white supremacy is old, and they persist. The Stanford article, in this next quotation, discusses the more overt beliefs that underlie these prejudices in modern day, beliefs that few will outright admit, but that are fundamental underlying tenets of the rhetoric nonetheless. A significantly compelling point is the historical role of the “science-ing” of racism, and the role the media plays in justifying and serving up fodder for these beliefs by painting a distorted picture of the reality, power, achievements, and, often, historical inheritance of generations of discrimination and persecution from white majority culture and its systems.
Racism and poverty create circumstances that leave many minorities especially vulnerable, and then racism and poverty find their justification in the exact circumstances of oppression they have created. It is such that the disenfranchisement and literal laws banning African-Americans from living in certain neighborhoods (a situation created by racism and by white people) results in a large proportion of African-Americans living in poverty…. and then, these same perpetrators who created this situation by disenfranchising and legally excluding and persecuting African-Americans, consigning millions to poverty- these same forces that consigned People of Color to poverty then presume to blame POC for being poor, for being disenfranchised- and then these same forces use these systems white supremacy has created as proof of and further justification for white supremacist attitudes and policies.
This cyclical logic of oppression-and-blame, of creating sociocultural conditions and then somehow conflating social circumstance with biological fact, is what one might call “biological racism.” The article continues to describe this sort of prejudice. While these ideas might seem a bit dated, they are absolutely not- the language has grown more coded, but the rhetoric remains:
‘The central idea [underlying this implicit bias] was [that] Black people came from an inferior race incapable of full human development. They were depicted as violent, immoral, and shiftless dependents unworthy of full inclusion into the society.. The onset of the “age of science” provided Jim Crow ideology with an aura of respectability. Newby observes that, “The achievement of scientific racism was to strengthen this popular prejudice by clothing it in a mantle of… [false] authority” (1970:20).
(Devine and Elliot, 1995; Sniderman and Piazza, 1993).
We have for us, now, a “new racism:”
‘It is now common knowledge that people should not openly espouse racial animus. And for the most part, the society abides by this norm. Nonetheless, whites continue to resist many forms of racial change and pejorative stereotypes about African-Americans remain alive and well (Kinder and Sanders, 1996; Sniderman and Piazza, 1993)… The “new racism” is thought to be “symbolic”, “subtle”, “covert”, “hidden”, or “underground”.
Kinder and Sanders… identify four central elements of the new racism:
a) a denial that discrimination against African-Americans continues;
b) a sense that Black people have violated traditional American values of hard work and self-reliance;
c) a perception that Black people make illegitimate demands; and
d) the belief that Black people receive undeserved benefits from government.’
This is the “covert” framework of “new racism” embedded in the narrative that we as the media reinforce. The implications of this implicit bias manifest in quantifiable statistics of police brutality, and abuses within the criminal justice system that emerge from the depictions and distortions of hyper-criminalizing Black people in parables of crime, which eventually manifest in social attitudes and intrinsic ontologies of belief. The danger and immorality of this- the danger to human life- goes, quite frankly, without saying.
Is this our job as reporters?
Finally, Journalistic Ethics Redefined
While factual reporting is theoretically unbiased, we can’t help but inadvertently, as writers and reporters, reinforce a certain landscape of the world based on our own beliefs about it. We decide what is newsworthy- and I don’t mean that as a matter of personal preference, but as a matter of moral responsibility. I understand that it is virtually inconceivable to imagine a corporate-owned media outlet somehow capable of producing only investigative, socially relevant, or important pieces with the matter of truth as its only concern, and not a single anecdote of frivolous intent (neither would this kind of outlet be useful to the everyman, who so often relies on you for his updates on weather or traffic). This is not what I argue at all.
I don’t argue for a morally fascist utilitarian kind of journalism, I argue for and hope for the persistence of a journalism that is fundamentally creative- a kind of journalism I still see crafting the mission and ideology of many anchors, stories, and news outlets every day, despite whatever social afflictions we find ourselves, too, burdened with.
Like some kind of weird fetishist, I bear the idealism that is the obvious stamp of inexperience, and too often the “warning” label of someone who probably just won’t make it in the field. That might be true.
But in an age of competing social tensions that tend to manifest in body counts, and in an age where leading officials are enacting consistent and deliberate attempts to undermine a critical and honest press, I think that this ideal of pursuing honesty and social duty, no matter how far-fetched of an ideal it may be, is one we should strive for with far more diligence than is standard practice at this moment in media history.
Media bias and its distorted, racialized portrayal of the ‘Black criminal’ is more than accident: It is bad journalism, dishonesty, and betrayal of the public trust.
I worry at the increasing construction of information (a concrete thing) as a consumer product (something to be owned, transformed, and dictated). I think the media is doing an exemplary job at lending accurate coverage to the surreal, fast-paced, complicated world we now live in, and I am inspired by the many, many journalists who doggedly uphold this mission, and also justice itself, to a higher standard of unwavering integrity.
In my minute corner of the world, I am telling a very small, very old tale in the story I tell every day. But this small story is part of a big one. And I can’t help but wonder, and continually feel challenged by, the inherent tension that comes with a duty to be the Microphone and not the Speaker.
My minute experience and personal reflection on the power of news coverage and its role in sustaining a focus on nonviolent crime that reinforces the prison-industrial complex and upholds institutional racism is, by no means, a major cosmic breakthrough of any kind. But it is a reflective experience that I consider mine, and it is an active moment in which I am learning, deciding, and actively realizing what kind of writer, what kind of truth-teller, and what kind of person I will choose to be.
And I have come to this conclusion: there is never a “right time” to call out injustice. There will never be a “right time” to say unpopular things that challenge our social systems. There will never be a time when it is safe or it is easy. I have to decide what kind of writer I want to be. And if I wait till I’m well-established as a journalist, if I wait till I’m at that publication I dreamed of, if I wait till it won’t upset the people who sign my paychecks- that day will never come. There is never a convenient time to challenge systems, to demand better, and to say unpopular things. But my dream is to do exactly that- to use truth not to uphold current systems, but to craft a better world. And if there is a social problem, especially at my own publication, that is the most important time to say something.
On a small scale, I have experienced, at a few different outlets, what happens when you write a story that is “too disruptive.” I have learned how unwelcoming many publications can be towards investigating the establishments that allow them to exist, and I understand that’s not entirely their fault. But I do think that feel-good, feel-bad news, is both the status quo and rule of law to the letter of absolute degree. Be critical- but not too much. Investigate- but not too much. Be honest- but not too much. Be straightforward- but selectively.
There is power not just in what you say, but, even more so, in what you don’t.
And I posit, that as journalists- if we wish to call ourselves by that name- must examine our position of unquestionably parroting police reports, selectively choosing crime statistics to reflect based on what will get clicks or ratings, and the practice of reinforcing systemic prejudice.
Media bias and its distorted, racialized portrayal of the ‘Black criminal’ is more than accident: It is bad journalism, dishonesty, and betrayal of the public trust.
I posit that this is a betrayal of our most fundamental pact with the public- that we will report truthfully. That we will exercise the power of our voice responsibly.
That we should, and that we must, be better. That we must consider the morality of media misrepresentation, because, in this instance, not only is it bad reporting:
Our headlines have body counts.
This piece is dedicated to “Unnamed Suspect,” and to the dignity he deserves, that these stories do not give him.
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