How “Fact-based” Reporting Still Supports Systemic Racism and How We Can Do Better
On April 2nd, 2021, nearly two months after hundreds of Trump supporters swarmed the Capitol in hopes of throwing out a legitimate election, increased Capitol Police presence remained in Washington DC. On this beautiful sunny spring day, a suspect rammed his vehicle into two officers outside the Capitol building.
As TV news cameras panned the scene, I wondered why there was no information about the suspect. Those details seemed very slow to emerge in this case compared to the lightning-fast pace that other suspects have been identified to the public.
The next morning, I searched for articles that might give some information about the suspect and his motive.
I found that his name was Noah Green. He was killed at the scene as he lunged, knife in hand, at a Capitol Police officer.
Noah Green was Black. As I clicked each of the articles offered up by Google search results, I found that they seemed to call upon ideas about Black activism that white people have been conditioned to fear.
It wasn’t in the words themselves. It was all in the context: the way we present and interpret facts alongside other facts or in the absence of other facts. Journalists often express their responsibility to “report the facts”, but in reality, our understanding of those facts can change with context. Across all outlets reporting about Noah Green, there was a pattern of framing that could lead readers to question the reality of systemic racism and the validity of calls by Black people to end it.
This is most likely completely unintentional in most cases, at least on the part of the journalists doing the front-line work. Most journalists probably don’t know when they are creating a piece of white-centered thinking, and most readers don’t know when we’re reading it. Systemic racism wouldn’t work nearly so well if it wasn’t automatic and invisible. White people are conditioned to think of ourselves as the default. We tend to assume that our experiences reflect the experiences of all others and that points of view that differ from ours are exceptions, even aberrations. We see the world through a lens of “whiteness as default” from a very early age.
One example of this would be how white Christian children can’t fathom the idea that other cultures and other parts of the world may not celebrate Christmas. I remember the first time I tried to wrap my head around that. Finding that while the U.S. Federal holiday is December 25th there existed people who didn’t celebrate Christmas, or who had another beloved observance on a different day, represented the first crack in the “whiteness as default” lens for many of us who honestly tried to understand. Those who couldn’t understand grew up to complain about a war on Christmas.
We’ll just have to keep chipping away until the lens of “whiteness as default” completely shatters. For everyone.
Say you want to be a journalist who promotes only anti-racist thinking in the way you publish your stories. You are making a sincere effort to look through an anti-racist lens. Instead of working from a viewpoint of whiteness as default, you’re going to intentionally design your articles so that they don’t play to any of the assumptions that systemic racism uses to perpetuate itself. In that persona, let’s take a look at a couple of articles.
In this piece, you’ve had to write that the suspect’s motives are unknown. That is a fact. Should you also mention that Green “on his Facebook page…described himself as a follower of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam”? That is also a fact, but how does putting these two facts together impact your readers’ thinking?.
Compare the writing in this story to other stories about white suspects, particularly the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol building on January 6th:
In addition to mentioning that a motive is not known, you write that there is no evidence of terrorism, and it looks likely that the suspect acted alone. You write that he posted to his Facebook that he was “suffering in the pandemic”. Those are facts. In the presence of those facts, would you have mentioned another fact, that Nancy Pelosi called the fallen police officer a “martyr for our democracy”?
How might Nancy Pelosi’s statement be interpreted given that stories about Capitol police officers killed and injured during the January 6th Capitol riot are still fresh in your readers’ minds?
Would you have printed Mitch McConnell’s statement: “Once again, brave officers of the United States Capitol Police have been violently attacked while simply doing their job.” Why or why not?
At the time of this writing, the last update to the above article was on April 2nd, the date of the incident, so it is definitely written at the time of breaking news. You don’t know the suspect’s motive.
How might the context surrounding these paragraphs– information on the page and readers’ memories of recent events–play into sustaining systemic racism, even though they are both factual? Would you, the anti-racist journalist, have included these facts in this way?
From the article:
“Green expressed support on Facebook for the Nation of Islam, the Black nationalist movement led by Louis Farrakhan, who has a history of anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ views, multiple outlets reported.”
“According to CNN, hours before the attack Green wrote on an Instagram Story that ‘the U.S. Government is the #1 enemy of Black people!’”
We are living history as it’s happening, and the American history being made today is just a continuation of a history that cannot be divorced from manufactured hierarchical constructs based on race.
I’m inviting this discussion because if just a few white people can learn to truly and permanently see through a new lens, we can start being much more intentional about the way we as a society publish and consume information.
Originally published at https://artistroseanderson.com.