Media have divided the working class and stereotyped young African-American males as gangsters or drug dealers. As a result of such treatment, the media have crushed youths’ prospects for future employment and advancement. The media have focused on the negative aspects of the black community (e.g. engaging in drug use, criminal activity, welfare abuse) while maintaining the cycle of poverty that the elite wants.
Balkaran, S., 1999, The Yale Political Quarterly
Media have been under considerable scrutiny in the past year. Unethical behaviour, questionable actions by directors in the access to information, management of data and portrayal of both victims and alleged perpetrators has wrought a penance for some high-flying executives that some argue is long overdue. But the attitudes that allowed such breaches of privacy to go unchecked for high-profile people or cases continues at a more base, subtle level. Just twelve months ago, I was concerned about the mix of stories on one page of The Sydney Morning Herald.
This page dated March 29, 2011, intentionally constructed about “Indigenous affairs”, illustrates the undercurrent of racial stereotypes that infect the psyche of the mainstream Australian media. Social problems in Yuendumu, risks associated with drinking and smoking during pregnancy in which Indigenous Australians are the only sub-group specifically mentioned and a third article about Indigenous welfare generate a perspective that is less than balanced, let alone favourable. If truth in reporting is what we admire, then mainstream media is as transparent as the Australia Federal Police – or indeed, the Canberra Times – are about their handling of the case on the former Commissioner for ACT Revenue.
The problem of media bias is not limited to Australia. The recent death of the 17 year-old black American Trayvon Martin in a private estate in Florida has been exploited to both demonize and eulogize both the victim and the alleged killer. Whether George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing Martin, was an overzealous neighbourhood watch volunteer is a point still under dispute, with a police transcript stating certain parts of Zimmerman’s call to police are “unintelligible”. I’ll leave it to you to make what you will of the call; but the real worry in this whole saga is the influence of media on the perceptions of the two people at the heart of what is becoming a very sorry saga, perceptions that are based on a flawed stereotypical system that entrenches the ethnic and socio-economic biases that lie at the heart of racist thought and action.
Whether we like it or not, media forms the filter through which we see much of the world. It’s easy to be drawn in by repetitive articles that keep pushing the status quo, that do not challenge our concepts of marginalization or social status. Both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman have been the subject of manipulated images and sound files since news of the murder became an international sensation. It is the media itself that has been responsible for the manipulation.
To be fair, some media outlets have attempted to shine light on the selective reporting of the Martin-Zimmerman case. The role of social media and blog accounts that gain data through illegal means and then publish or mold a selectively distasteful portrayal of the character of Martin has been highlighted by at least one reporter. But whilst NBC is investigating the apparently biased editing of the call made by Zimmerman to police, the damage has been done. Mud sticks, they say and so the reputation of both Martin and Zimmerman has been viciously assaulted for no other reason than racism.
It makes me wonder about the need for news. Does media simply report on events, or does it at some level generate them? Perspective is the purvey of witnesses, not journalists who appear after the event. To taint such a tragic event with at best clumsy, at worst deliberately biased editing is profoundly unethical and the sort of thing that leads to civil unrest.
Within Australia the obvious parallel is the death TJ Hickey, who died at the same age as Trayvon Martin. Where the death of Martin resulted in the Million Hoodies Marches, the death of the Australian Aborigine Hickey generated the 2004 Redfern Riot. The distrust among the residents of the precinct known as The Block towards the police has developed at least partially through the disproportionate reporting of events and a lack of understanding of the causative factors of Indigenous disadvantage. The voracious appetite of the media for the sensation of conflict in what is really a very small patch of Sydney is disproportionate to some other areas of Sydney in which I hesitate to wander the streets regardless of the height of the sun in the sky. The simple mention of Redfern conjures images of a violent black ghetto; the reality is a island of people of many nationalities, forced together by hardship, gradually being pushed out by the almighty dollar and property development. None of the mainstream media outlets report on this. None consider the effect of forcing people to move to suburbs at Sydney’s boundaries, away from the hub of employment and the multiplicity of public transport options.
Pitting black against non-black (it’s worth noting that Zimmerman is Hispanic) through manipulation is not the sole means by which racism is reinforced by mainstream media. What we also have is the moderation of reportage that comes with cases in which a black man is the victim of a crime committed by a non-black. The death of Kwementyaye Ryder, who was bashed in Alice Springs in 2009 and subsequently died, resulted in a maximum sentence of just six years for the driver of the vehicle used to chase the victim. This was despite the accused having terrorized Ryder and his fellow Indigenous friends by driving through the dried Todd River bed late at night where a number of people had gathered, some sleeping, not once but twice. Not one of the major media outlets commented on the leniency of the sentence, the character references provided by the judge himself nor the concern about a possible previously unknown aneurysm being the cause of Ryder’s death. Even if Ryder did have an undiagnosed aneurysm, what has happened to the so-called egg-shell rule? Notably, closed head injuries due to trauma with no skull fracture are noted with a traumatically induced aneurysm also noted in medical literature as a possible cause of death. Not one of the mainstream media outlets noted the call from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council for the Northern Territory Government to demand an appeal into the sentences and the distress of Ryder’s mother at losing her child and the short sentences for the accused was all but ignored. Media has the ability to exacerbate the racist ideology through both biased reporting as well as silence.
Certainly a journalist is going to have an opinion about what they report, but it is the very unbalanced perspectives that portray one side as saints and the other as less-than-so that irks me. More importantly, it is the brush used to tar all people of similar background or appearance that makes me seek news from wider sources than just The Australian, The Herald, The Telegraph or the commercial television networks. A bit of the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, even the Green Left Weekly, not to mention whatever else I pick via Facebook and Twitter. Programs such as Lateline or 4 Corners, or print media such as the Griffith Review provide alternative, more detailed reports on issues, but they cannot replace the daily news reports that make up the foundations of the reporting via which many of the opinions and biases of so many individuals are reinforced. Media has a responsibility to report factually, to keep bias to itself and to be openly transparent when opinions substitute for facts. Sometimes this is best addressed in forums such as opinion pieces, editorials and blog posts. And certainly page layout should be a careful consideration.
You may think that I am being too harsh in my assessment of mainstream media. I don’t care. Journalistic integrity is not a given, it is an attribute that must be cultivated and held at the centre of any article published for public consumption. Bias should be clearly stated, not created through nefarious intent. I believe that the page I pointed out at the beginning of this post was deliberately managed to create a specific effect. It really does point to a conscious intent upon the part of media to generate controversy for the sake of news, a controversy driven by racial and ethnic tensions. Or perhaps I’m just becoming more cynical as I get older. Heaven knows my rose coloured glasses are now little more than grit leaving tiny lacerations in the soles of my feet. Maybe I would make a good lawyer afterall.