Like most Americans, I was anxiously awaiting the decision of the Ferguson grand jury last Monday.
The source of my concern, however, was not about how the grand jury tasked with assessing the case against Officer Darren Wilson in the death of resident Michael Brown might rule. I trusted they would react fairly considering the plethora of evidence.
Instead, my concerns lay with the way the media conducted itself.
During the civil rights era, the media played a critical and beneficial role. The media allowed Americans in the North to see firsthand what atrocities were committed against African Americans in the South. Media coverage helped generate the emotion needed and stiffened resolve to ensure groundbreaking legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed.
The media was a positive factor in the civil rights era.
Racial issues are much more complicated these days, and the media seems to be doing more harm than good.
Overt, institutional racism of the civil rights era is gone. In the 21st century, race is a far more amorphous problem. People nowadays struggle to understand each other and generalizations — merited or not — persist. African-Americans, thanks to portrayals in entertainment and on the news, become stereotyped as dangerous, poor, and lacking intelligence. Whites are typecast as heartless, racist and selfish — especially conservatives.
These stereotypes breed distrust and make meaningful discussion of solutions to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri and Sanford, Florida impossible. Our racial problems are rooted in that distrust.
Most African-Americans don’t live in poverty and don’t have criminal records. And how racist can whites be if they played a major role in electing the first African-American president?
But the races seem to be split further apart as the media excitedly runs live feeds of Ferguson rioting. Tweets from African-American celebrities and politicians broadcast a level of disappointment with the decision to not indict Officer Wilson that shows a disrespect for the legal system and encouragement of mob rule.
Yet, stories such as how conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly and liberal gadfly Al Sharpton came together to help launch My Brother’s Keeper, a presidential initiative to find mentors for young minority at-risk males, garnered almost no attention in comparison.
Dramatic shots of burning buildings are much better for ratings than a White House ceremony, especially if that ceremony features people of opposite political ideologies working together. That cooperation discredits the media narrative that one side – guess which? – is racist.
The media’s problem is that this is not 1962. In order to take the next step, the media must focus on empathy and intelligent discussion about problems rather than provocations that spur distrust.
For example, a November 12 headline from MSNBC as part of their lead-up to the Ferguson decision declared the “KKK says Ferguson protests ‘have awakened a sleeping giant.’” A racist organization that the vast majority of white and black Americans reject was recast as a legitimate player — helping stoke animosity news producers seem to want. Who is following this ostracized group, and why do they deserve prime coverage?
Clearly, a dynamic is created that anyone against Ferguson protesters might stand with the KKK instead, despite the reality that almost everyone rejects it.
Additional examples include the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery. It was him, along with the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly, who baited police into arresting them in a fast-food restaurant, giving them both attention and fame. MSNBC’s notorious Toure was also not helping but instead provoking. He implied on-air that violence was necessary by stating, “If the protests in Ferguson had been peaceful, would America have listened.” Such subliminal calls for violence are detestable. Neither of these self-focused acts could possibly be a part of the solution.
Our media needs a different approach. They must stop fueling emotional fires and focusing on what divides America.
People almost unanimously want minority youth to be in more advantageous positions, and only an isolated, stark few want young African-American men shot dead by police. Yet the media often paint a different picture.
Why cause African-American men to appear more dangerous than their racial counterparts? It creates a problem that is worsened when these young men give in and decide to embrace the negative stereotypes they see perpetuated in the news and in entertainment. We need a media to ask tough questions and perhaps provoke debate, not act as if the KKK is still relevant.
We need a grown-up mentality in reporting on the events in Ferguson.