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The shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri has sparked a discussion about how young black men are covered in the press.

A Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown refers to what pictures the media would show of young black men killed by police officers. Would the media deliberately choose pictures of them looking like thugs?

I can’t say I’ve witnessed this specific type of bias in Rochester, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. When covering a story about any deceased individual, I look for the nicest pictures available. The pictures we show are most often provided by families. Sometimes families don’t have many pictures from which to choose. (Poynter offers a good discussion for journalists on how to avoid bias in these situation when choosing photos.)

But the hashtag raised a much larger issue of how the media covers young black men. The most thought-provoking article I read was by Jasmine Banks in Root titled, “Black Kids Don’t Have to Be College-Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic:”

The more horrific part, in my opinion, is that we—people of color—have been exposed to this “thugs deserve to die” narrative so frequently that some of us seem to have embraced it ourselves. Instead of arguing that nobody deserves to be shot, we tie ourselves up in knots making the case that the latest victim of a law-enforcement officer’s bullet was a good kid, or that the photo the news media selected wasn’t the most flattering depiction of him…

We cannot and should not engage in discussions that look like black and brown people explaining that an unarmed person shouldn’t have been shot because they lived in a way of which we are proud. 

This article resonated with me. There are so many young, black men who are killed in Rochester. We hear grieving loved ones say, “He was turning his life around.” We hear, “He was going to MCC in the fall.” We hear, “He was a good kid and would have done anything for anyone.”

Sometimes those things are true. Sometimes they are not true. Sometimes victims are innocent. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes people are honest about their loved ones. Sometimes they are not.

It doesn’t matter.

When I was attending John Marshall High School, I was acutely aware of how the media treated urban crime. Even then, I was a news junkie. During a time of record homicides, many of them young black men, we collectively remember only one young black male from that era: 14-year-old Ralik Henton, hit with a stray bullet, dying with a bible in his hand.

In 1995, a black teenager I went to high school with was robbed, shot and left for dead on the sidewalk as he left his job at McDonald’s. The name of this murder victim is long forgotten to all but his friends and family.

When I started my first job in Rochester, I asked why some homicide cases get more attention that others. A manager told me, “Families shouldn’t look to the news media to validate their loved one.”

One some level, that’s true. The news media pays more attention to things that are out of the ordinary. Innocent victims, suburban victims and white victims are more unusual. Some crimes are simply more shocking than others.

StreetMake no mistake, however. Media bias exists. At another job, I was constantly criticized by some superiors for “doing too many stories in the city.” The message was clear: The (mostly white) suburbs matter more than the (racially diverse) city. I was dumbfounded. How can you have too many stories in a city with 210,000 people, a city with enormous challenges and numerous people without a voice? Why does the news exist, if not to tell these stories? I am grateful I was still able to do most of my “city stories,” despite the criticism.

There’s so much urban violence, we have become numb. Even if we wanted to do personalized stories on every victim, we may not find family members willing to speak. We may not find pictures. The story may not get anyone’s attention. That’s why it’s important to focus on larger problems of poverty, education, drug policy, segregation, and more. Those “city stories” also tell the story of lives lost.

Where the media devotes its resources sends a message. How it chooses to cover certain things sends a message. It sent one to me when I was in high school. It is surely sending that message to other teenagers watching every day.

 

Links of the Day:

 

– If casinos are supposed to be cash cows for local governments, why do they need tax breaks?

– Stop The Cap takes on Adam McFadden for writing a letter in support of Comcast’s takeover of Time Warner. (McFadden told me he simply hates Time Warner and Comcast does not give that much money to his group.)

– Syracuse’s mayor is exploring municipal broadband.

– Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy has discovered Twitter. It turns out, he’s pretty good at it! Even better, his boss hasn’t tried to rein him in.

– The Cuomo administration is deleting all emails after 90 days, raising issues about records preservation.

– The New York Times editorial board calls on Cuomo to stop trying to throw his Democratic primary challenger off the ballot.

– This is why call centers are bad economic development. Xerox is laying off 468 people in Houston.

– An orthopedic surgeon writes about the growing number of children who have sports-related injuries. His advice to parents is to chill out.

– A mom is reading her emails on her phone while her kid plays at the park. Give her a break!