ColorOfChange.org, the nation’s largest online civil rights organization, is urging both local and national media to be particularly mindful of their coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and across the country in the wake of the grand jury’s impending decision regarding Officer Darren Wilson.
Recognition of the dangers posed by a hostile media climate for Black people is crucial at this very important juncture in our nation’s history. In the wake of yet another young life lost to police violence, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to express their outrage and demand better of law enforcement, as well as our justice system. This is a constitutional right. Our media should aid in the protection of those rights, rather than contribute to a racist drumbeat against them.
It is also important to recognize how our media impacts the perceptions of its audience. Research shows there are dire consequences when stereotypical images of Black people rule the day; less attention from doctors, harsher sentences from judges, and abusive treatment by police, just to name a few. Rather than feeding into the hostile media climate that contributed to the deaths of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, and so many others, we should use this opportunity to forge a fair and humanizing media landscape for Black people.
We ask that any journalists reporting on the important events in Ferguson and across the country take the following into consideration:
Cultural bias in our media and society persistently excuses the name calling of people of color, resulting in very real, sometimes deadly consequences. We must be vigilant in rooting out the use of coded, racialized language in news coverage. To be clear, the protesters in Ferguson are exercising their constitutional rights. More importantly, they are human beings, not the “thugs,” “rioters,” “criminals,” or “animals” our media has routinely described them as. Yet, when a predominantly white mob erupted into a full scale riot during a pumpkin festival in New Hampshire last month, the media called them “rowdy, mischievous revelers.” The double standard would be laughable if weren’t so incredibly dangerous.
Name calling on the part of our news media spins a narrative of dehumanization and degradation that threatens the lives of communities of color, one not unlike that which led to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner tragedies in the first place. The demonization of Black folks and their allies contributes to a hostile, dangerous media landscape that actually threatens lives.
The state violence on display in Ferguson against protesters is inexcusable, and should concern us all. The over-militarized police there waved and pointed guns at protesters and drove through neighborhoods in tanks, unnecessarily heightening an already-tense situation. But too often, journalists and news organizations turn Black communities into enemy combatants in their own neighborhoods by focusing almost exclusively on alleged acts of violence perpetrated by a small minority of protesters, crafting a deceptive narrative that vilifies Black people and their allies, and threatens their lives.
Here’s the truth: for years, Department of Defense programs have supplied local law enforcement in places like Ferguson with the same weaponry used by US Armed Forces in war zones. Rather than devoting their energies to building a healthy relationship with the communities they serve, precincts across the country are loading up on armored tanks and tear gas. It’s an incredibly dangerous, unhealthy state of affairs that deserves a prominent place in any substantive conversation about the unrest in Ferguson.
Black people are not to blame for police brutality, nor do they deserve it. Yet, media outlets, and talking heads like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, point to so-called “black-on-black crime” as an excuse for the consequence-less murder of Black people by law enforcement. As Michael Eric Dyson eloquently explained to Mayor Giuliani on Meet the Press last Sunday, the issue at hand is that America has a serious problem with letting white people get away with the murder of Black people, especially agents of the state like Officer Darren Wilson. To somehow point the finger at Black people and blame them for their own oppression and injustice is not a valid critique. Rather, as Dyson asserted, it only exemplifies “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy.”
The VAST majority of Ferguson protesters are peaceful. Yet somehow, the stories coming out of many major media outlets paints a picture of total lawlessness, undermining the real work being done on the ground to bring attention to the very legitimate concerns of hundreds of thousands of people. The implication is that these efforts are largely violent, senseless, and deserve to be dealt with harshly. This could not be further from the truth. These stereotypical portrayals of Black people shape perceptions that, when acted upon, can mean real life harm for Black people.
Ferguson protesters have taken to the streets to assert that Black lives matter; that Black folks cannot be killed with impunity. The suggestion that these motivations lack legitimacy are unacceptable and contribute to a hostile media climate for Black people.
The opinions of protesters, activists, and Michael Brown’s parents matter, too. The situation in Ferguson has ignited an intense, national conversation around a host of very important topics. It is imperative that our news media present fair, even-handed coverage. The marginalization or complete shutting out of the voices and opinions of those sympathetic to the concerns of protestors or victims of police violence is all too common, and totally unacceptable.
Structural racism tells the FULL story. Yet, oftentimes our media conversation begins and ends with individual acts of racism, outright dismissals of racism, or the notion that racism now exists in our cultural rearview, and is no longer relevant to today’s world. According to a recent report from Race Forward, the majority of today’s news media is not systemically aware, ignoring or omitting engagement with the policies and practices that lead to the racial disparities at the heart of situations like the one in Ferguson. It is critical that we inject the realities of structural racism into the national conversation, and hold media outlets that refuse to do so accountable.
Editor’s note: With more than 850,000 members, ColorOfChange.org is the nation’s largest online civil rights organization.