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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!

9 Responses to The Message Sent

  1. August 13, 2014 at 8:33 am John Moriello responds:

    Rachel: I’ll defer to you with respect to the criticism you received about “too much” city coverage since you’re obviously more aware of the context of that particular episode in your career.

    Nevertheless, yes, it is possible for media to cover the city “too much.” The D&C does it all the time, especially in the context of education reporting. Every time a set of state test scores comes back, the paper’s reporting is almost exclusively about the numbers for city schools. Given how abysmal those numbers are, the focus is **somewhat** understandable.

    But by obsessing with the city performance on that subject, the paper (and other media, I’m sure) so easily misses out on recognizing the slow, steady decline in scores in a number of suburban districts.

    Given the effect of school ratings on a community’s housing market and what a decline in housing prices can mean to the tax base, the ripple effects can be enormous in even a short period of time.

    Remember, Rochester’s population may be in the 200K range, but the city is only a sliver of a metro area of over 1 million people.

  2. August 13, 2014 at 11:26 am John Moriello responds:

    “Everything else” is ignored if there’s no one assigned to a beat.

    It makes little sense to have a city education reporter if you don’t have someone covering the 20 to 25 suburban districts to some degree. How can you know if the issues affecting one are also impacting the others.

    Again, you would know better what your specific situation was and what the mechanics of a TV news operation are, but I can say without hesitation the D&C covers city government and schools at the expense of the suburbs — where their readership and advertisers happen to be.

    • August 13, 2014 at 11:42 am Rachel Barnhart responds:

      I understand what you’re saying. I would love to talk with your offline about what happened.

      The reason I was still able to do “city stories” is because they were really good stories. The suburban stories offered as alternatives were not – such as trend pieces on what’s happening with traffic around the mall.

      The city should command a certain degree of attention – a large degree IMO – because of the depth of the problems. I also don’t think it’s true that suburbanites don’t care what happens in the city. I think they do. Many grew up in the city, work in the city and play in the city. The city is also the center of cultural and civic life.

  3. August 13, 2014 at 12:18 pm John Moriello responds:

    I agree with that, and I also agree that suburbanites should and do care about city issues.

    Many though (myself included) have stopped reading because we want more info on Gates, Greece, Chili and the other western ‘burbs. There may people on the east side with similar frustrations.

    That’s the extent of my “too much city” point. If the D&C would just cover my town(s) more thoroughly, I wouldn’t begrudge them their city stories.

    Take care, and I’ll hopefully see you at RMA next month.

  4. August 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm Animule responds:

    Disturbing thread, from a couple of perspectives. First, I thought that “news” became “news” because it was new, novel or different. What Rachel is saying is that reporting should be skewed toward city stories “because of the depth of the problems.” This blurs the line between news reporting and advocacy. If we want advocacy, we know where to go for that. It is unfortunate that advocacy has replaced news, to a significant degree.

    What is also ironic here with the “Message Sent” article is that it misses the forest from the trees. You have a full blown riot going on in the St. Louis area with people shooting bullets at helicopters, looting stores, destroying businesses and the focus is on twitter tags? Is this for real? Maybe the focus should be on the media’s tacit acceptance of this sort of rioting by downplaying it since it actually is news. The degree to which the news business is managed these days to steer clear of actually discussing facts like this riot (and our own problems – like the Memorial Day fracas at the beach which was reported on in more detail by Adam McFadden than any media outlet) is frightening.

  5. I think the positive narrative does matter. It happens beyond just murdered African Americans. The serial killer/child pornographer next door (Caucasian or African American) is always a “good guy” that people “never had any problems with.” Maybe he was “quiet,” but people are always “surprised.” No one wants to remember the villain, even when people actually are villainous. I think it’s important for people to try and put a positive spin on their loved ones. If my close friend were murdered, I’d certainly rather see a professional appearing portrait on TV than some picture of them acting silly at a party or something.

    As for there being too much city coverage, I think that’s a really interesting point. I think local news, especially here where the area of coverage is so broad in demographic, from deeply urban inner-city areas to deeply rural areas in Livingston County and farther out it is very challenging to balance what is appropriate coverage of each. I particularly remember a local news station’s coverage of putting a Dunkin’ Donuts in Honeoye Falls, it was their lead story for several evenings, very unreasonable for a story that really only effects a small minority of people in the area. Unfortunately, news is a business, and those are the people that tune in. I think our area lacks the depth of coverage that many other areas of similar size have, especially in reporting stories that convey the importance of a seemingly uninteresting story to the masses (though I think you do an exceptional job at this).

  6. I don’t think its a black only thing, when it comes to pictures. Its my opinion that your profession chooses pictures to sell papers or get viewers. Look at the Trayvon Martin reporting, originally pictures were of a pre-teen Martin and a Zimmerman mugshot.

  7. August 16, 2014 at 1:19 pm Orielly responds:

    The media makes the news far more than most people realize. They decide what to cover and what isn’t news. Local TV news if printed would easily fit on half a page in a print newspaper.

    That makes their bias even more damaging. THE city had 210K people Greece alone has over 100K, yet we see the mayor of ROCH about 3 out of 5 times a week on TV. The supervisor of Greece we might see on TV one a month.

    The D&C is almost exclusively a City based org. and biased towards DEMS / minorities and also has the most content.
    Yet the purchasing power and most people in this 5 county metro that makes up almost 1 million people are white, and REP/CONs.

    OF the 1 Million, only 50 to 70K (5 to 7%) are involved in the RCSD. Yet the news coverage of that failure is non stop.

    Most of the 1 Million come into the city only a few times a year if at all..(outside of driving thru on the expressway).

    Like we have seen nationally some day a news org locally will realize who their customers are and start covering them … as FOX news has done.

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