The Black-and-White Media Double-Standard: Yes, But is it Right?
By Chez Pazienza: I didn’t want this to turn into a public back-and-forth, but when I wrote a piece last week for this site on the double-standard when it comes to how news outlets cover crimes which are racially motivated or have the potential to be racially motivated, I knew I might be opening a Pandora’s Box. So with that in mind, and after my good friend and podcast partner Bob Cesca penned a response to my original column here a few days ago, I feel like I want to clarify and expand on my views a little.
First of all, I really do hate the fact that even though my motives are much different and I have to believe more noble than theirs, my opinion gets to be lumped in with the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Bernie Goldberg. I don’t like that it looks like I’m defending them when I’m simply defending a point they’ve made — again, regardless of why they made that point. It should also go without saying that I hope I’m not labeled some kind of racist — or a latent racist, unaware of my own racist feelings, a charge that’s almost impossible to defend against — by those who disagree with me on this. I want to make it clear that while O’Reilly and Goldberg seemed to suggest an equivalence between the incident in Virginia and the Trayvon Martin shooting, I did nothing of the sort; they’re completely different cases and they should have been treated differently by the press.
The issue, though, is larger than an unfair comparison between two separate and distinctive events.
I’m not saying that the media don’t report black-on-white crime. Of course they do. Jesus, in a lot of places — mostly local news markets — it’s almost all they do. The difference — the double-standard — occurs when it comes time to tag a crime as racially motivated or to acknowledge a racial component within a crime. When there’s a possibility of labeling a crime racially motivated, the burden of proof is much higher in a black-on-white crime than it is in one that’s white-on-black. I understand completely the history involved — which Bob outlined nicely — and how and why that can come into play, but I’m still not sure that makes it right from the standpoint of journalistic ethics. From what I’ve seen, it would take a person or a group literally shouting “I hate white people” while kicking somebody’s ass for many in the media to report that a black-on-white crime had racial overtones — and if it didn’t appear at first glance to have overt racial overtones they almost certainly wouldn’t go looking any deeper for them.
Again, I do understand the lengthy and incontrovertible history that deserves consideration, but a group of white people beating up on a black person is automatically very suspicious — as it damn well should be — while a group of black people beating up on someone of another race or ethnicity is deemed, what? Business as usual? Just the way things are? Doesn’t the refusal to even acknowledge the racial element in a story like that — particularly when the coverage would be far different were the roles reversed — speak to Goldberg’s claim that the media may be trying to play a paternal role in protecting a minority community from the bigots who’d automatically label them savages or criminals? If so, is it the media’s job to play that paternal role?
There’s no denying that a news organization can often be influenced, sometimes very quietly, by factors not related to the goal of practicing journalism. On my site I’ve written often about the subtle pressure exerted on news producers to be cognizant of any possible liberal bias within their work — a product of years of accusations and strong-arming by the right — and how that can often lead a news department to overcompensate. True objectivity goes out the window in an effort to ensure that conservative critics are appeased — in other words, in the pursuit of the appearance of objectivity. Likewise, there’s an interesting guideline in place in many newsrooms — occasionally unspoken but often discussed openly — that tips its cards to the incredibly delicate way the press handles the subject of race and minority crime. It works like this: If a crime has been committed and the only description you have of the suspect is, say, a black male, 5’11”, wearing a white t-shirt, you don’t air or publish the description. Why? Well, because obviously that would mean police are currently on the lookout for six thousand people; the description is worthless. But its vagueness and consequent lack of value isn’t really the reason the description wouldn’t be run; there have been quite a few times throughout my career where it’s been acknowledged in my presence, and admittedly even affirmed by me, that a non-specific description of an African-American suspect is unfair to the black community.
True, a sketch of a suspect that ambiguous would likely be left out of a story regardless of that suspect’s race or ethnicity, but special attention was always paid to those who were wanted by the police and who happened to be black, often in an effort to avoid inflaming racial tensions or giving fuel to bigots. Of course, again, there’s a history to be considered here, a history of black people being unfairly targeted as suspicious due to nothing more than the color of their skin — see, yes, Trayvon Martin — and maybe it does in fact show journalistic responsibility and an acquiescence to the realities of the world to take that into consideration when publishing or airing a news item. I think this is the argument Bob was making in his piece and he could very well be right. But from a perspective that I hope is as dispassionate as it can be, the question of fairness and paternalism again comes up: Is it the job of a journalistic organization to favor one group over another or to treat one group differently in their coverage — to show it special dispensation or handle it with kid gloves not applied when dealing with anyone else?
One final thing before we hopefully put what I think has been a healthy debate to rest: By talking about this issue I want to make it clear that I’m not at all personally outraged about the double-standard in black-vs.-white press coverage nor am I crying that I’m being racially persecuted, as O’Reilly and Goldberg most certainly were. I’m a white guy living in the United States of America — I’ve got it fucking great. I’m merely pointing out that the double-standard exists and that there’s a very strong argument to be made that it does actually defy the rules of a responsible and unbiased press. Am I hedging a little because of the sensitive nature of this subject — wearing those kid gloves, as it were? Sure am. Is it somewhat cowardly to allow any kind of potential pressure or backlash to influence what I say or the way I say it? Perhaps.
But that was sort of the point I was initially making. Or at the very least, the question I was asking.