Journalists grapple with media bias on race and religion

NEW ORLEANS – Journalists all over America believe they are not reporting fairly when it comes to matters of race and religion. Two hundred reporters packed a workshop here Sept. 18 at the 2016 convention of the Society for Professional Journalists to try to figure out how they can change that situation.

“One of the first things we have to do is understand that we have biases and that the people we report on have them too,” said Kevin Benz, a co leader of a workshop that aimed to help journalists avoid stereotypes when they report on race and religion. Benz is a faculty trainer at the Kneeland Project and owner of iMedia Strategies, a consulting firm.

Avoiding pitfalls in covering crime

“While I don’t believe most journalists start their workday figuring out how they can be racist,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org, “If they don’t do something about their ‘inadvertent’ furthering of stereotypes they end up in the same place as if they were consciously trying to foster those stereotypes.”

To prove that there is a problem of biased news reporting, the two workshop leaders cited 2015 statistics gathered by Pew Research. Those showed that 75 percent of the crime stories reported in news outlets across the nation involved black perpetrators and that 51 percent of those arrested for crimes in America are African American when only 12 percent of the population is black. “Lots of people are arrested for drug use in central Harlem,” Robinson noted, “but close by, on the campus of Columbia University where there is plenty of drug use, people are rarely arrested.”

“What does this say about black people to millions who live in communities where there are either no or only a few black people?” Benz asked.

Robinson approached the problem from the other direction. “What does this say to black people,” he asked, “when they are asked to trust the media to fairly tell their story?”

He cited additional Pew statistics about how negatively or positively different groups view media portrayal of young men and boys in their communities.

Fifty one percent of blacks said African American men and boys are portrayed negatively.

Forty seven percent of Arab Americans said their young men and boys are portrayed negatively, while 44 percent of Latinos said they felt the same way.

Only 13 percent of white respondents felt that the media treated white men and boys unfairly.

“What this means is we as journalists are failing to learn about some of the major concerns of communities we report on,” said Robinson. “How many journalists know,” for example, “that a major concern in communities of color is the ability of folks to secure and hold a decent-paying job?”

The discussions seemed to have a powerful effect on many of the reporters in the room. One editor at a small town newspaper (who declined to give her name for fear of negative consequences at her job) said she was disturbed about her publisher having them print all the reports they get each week from the police. “We don’t like printing crime news that is always the same thing – a black youth or a man committing some type of crime,” she said.

“Of course,” said Robinson, “to do the crime reporting the right way we can’t just print handouts from police departments. They have their own interests and biases and we all know there is so much more to crime in America that what we see coming out of reports on arrests made by local police.”

The journalists also grappled with the bias that is reflected when reporters avoid telling certain stories.

“Look at the unprecedented support for Donald Trump by white supremacist organizations,” Benz said. “We haven’t seen anything like this in this country in a very long time. The support Trump is getting from extremist white supremacist organizations shows signs of a deliberate, carefully planned strategy that needs to be investigated – yet it is not.

“And when we report on the activities of hate groups we have to be careful not to play into their hands,” he said. “They want us to link to their hate rhetoric and websites and we should be careful not to do this.”

Islamophobia seeping into coverage

Most of the journalists present admitted that news reporting on Islam as a religion has been abysmal. “There is all kinds of talk about radical Islamic terrorists,” Robinson noted “but nothing about radical Christian terrorists. The young white man who killed all those people in the South Carolina church,” Robinson said, “was described as mentally disturbed. Yet there was plenty of evidence that as a young boy he was trained by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a radical Christian hate group.”

In general, Robinson noted, there is almost no coverage of ongoing activity by radical right wing Christian groups despite their high levels of activity in many parts of the country.

The journalists also grappled with how they view alleged acts of violence. They were shown pictures that the media ran of looters in Baltimore and pictures the media ran of a police car being trampled on by several people in Ferguson. In both cases the people in the pictures were labeled as “protesters” by the news outlets that ran the pictures.

“Were they protesters,” Benz asked, “or were they just a handful of people breaking the law?” He then switched to pictures of mass marches in Baltimore and Ferguson where hundreds were marching lawfully, holding up signs calling for peace and reconciliation. “These people were clearly the protesters and they were peaceful,” he said, noting that the offending media had not shown the photos of the peaceful marchers.

Robinson also talked about how violence and civil disobedience must to be seen in context. “We all would like to think that if we were around in the days that Martin Luther King marched we all would be out there supporting him,” Robinson said, “but the fact is that in those days only 25 percent of the people polled thought the protests were legitimate, so time and context is important too.”

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the workshop on race and religion was the fact that it was the most crowded workshop at the convention on Sunday morning. Reporters from across the country were clearly anxious to deal with bias in the media, including their own biases, when it comes to race and religion.

A quotation from Frederick Douglass was flashed on the big screen in front of the room as the journalists filed out:

“Those who profess to support freedom yet deprecate agitation are those who want fields without plowing up the ground.”

Photos: From left to right, Rasheen Aldridge, Shermale Humphrey, Josh Kersting and Jeanina Jenkins, leaders of the Show Me $15 movement, take their organizing skills and dedication to justice to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Earchiel Johnson/PW


CONTRIBUTOR

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik started as labor editor of the People's World in May, 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York. Along with being labor editor, Wojcik is a co-editor of peoplesworld.org.  

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