Sunday, December 14, 2014

Relying on Race Narratives: Ferguson Protests and the News

For months, Americans have tuned in nightly to see recaps of protests that began in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Mike Brown by a white police officer. These protests have seeped from the suburbs of St. Luis to each coast as people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against what is seen as systematic racism by the U.S. police. From Berkeley, California to Manhattan, protesters are growing in numbers, and their every (bad) move is constantly being fed to the American people through the media.

Why make the (bad) distinction? Because, much to the chagrin of ‘unbiased journalism’, the majority of the media is relying on the same racial stereotypes and mistrust that the police are being criticized for: the notion of an all encompassing ‘black = criminal’ assumption.

Photo credit: The Kansas City Star and Roll Call (respectively)
In the early fall, CIME published an article about bias in photojournalism and the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown. The article claimed “participants have used the hashtag to draw attention to how the media's use of photos conveys a particular story, which might not be the whole truth.” The coverage of Ferguson is merely a collection of moving images, just like those shown in juxtaposition by the aforementioned hashtag. On several news outlets you can see wide shots of the thousands of peaceful protesters, walking arm-in-arm, chanting songs, and calling for justice. On other sites, like Fox News, the coverage is very different: shots of the city burning, buildings being looted, and anchors referring to the people (all of the people) as opportunistic and violent criminals.

According to one Huffington Post piece, protesters are taking to Twitter and other social media to give first-hand accounts of their activities instead of allowing the media to be the only ones chronicling the events. “I went to find out firsthand, and sure enough, the first night I was out, I came home and the media reported it as if it was nothing but a bunch of violent hooligans," said Darlene Hawkerself, a 43-year-old teacher from St. Louis. "They totally took advantage of stereotypes about race and making any black person that shared emotion seem violent,” Hawkerself said in the article.

Beyond depicting the protesters as violent criminals, some American media is also trying to paint them as mindless and easily manipulated. On a recent John Stewart Segment, the host discussed the Ferguson media coverage. He focused partly on Fox News and their collections of commentators, who consistently claim the protesters are being fueled by outside ‘Race Arsonists.’

Photo credit: Mother Jones
“Who might these arsonists be? According to Fox host Sean Hannity, they're the ‘terribly irresponsible’ likes of Rev. Al Sharpton, Attorney General Eric Holder, and President Barack Obama—all of whom Hannity suggested were fueling national tensions” said this Mother Jones article on the Stewart segment. It seems the news outlet in question is trying to convince the American people that the protests in Ferguson are being carried out by violent, unintelligent, easily manipulated, opportunistic criminals—not by school teachers, community leaders, and church deacons. To be fair, Fox News is not the only outlet relying on stereotypes and archetypes to convey a story. Recently a CNN report was cut short after one protester screamed “F**k CNN” into the camera as a way to convey his disgruntled feelings about coverage such as this:

Photo credit: Reliable Sources - CNN
To be clear, yes, there has been violence at some of the protests in both Ferguson and around the country. Yes, there have been incidents of looting, of theft, of crime. All of these things are true. But what is not true, what should not be occurring in modern media, is the current characterization of ‘all’ protesters. Major news outlets are quick to spend the majority of their airtime covering a store subjected to arson, yet they do not cover stories such as this, where protesters stood between those wishing to do harm and the businesses within their community.

There is a difference between a criminal looking to seize an opportunity for their own gain, and a protester or supporter looking to give a voice to someone who can no longer speak or raise awareness of an issue that is plaguing the United States. NPR’s Eric Deggans sites a Brookings Institute report in his claim that “each cable news channel fine-tunes its coverage for its target audience, including how that target audience sees racial issues.”

To be an ethical media source, the distinction between criminal and peaceful protester should not be manipulated to placate a base but rather explicitly and ethically covered as a way to educate. The news is supposed to report the facts, not change them for higher ratings. As coverage of the Berkeley and Manhattan protests continue to be chronicled, it will be interesting to see how Fox, CNN, and other news sources depict white, well educated, and affluent protesters as they take to the streets to demand change.

How would you cover the story of Ferguson without promoting one narrative over the other?

Stay tuned to CIME for more conversations around race, media ethics, and journalistic bias.

- Carol Davey

CIME blog - #Iftheygunnedmedown
The Huffington Post - As Some Ferguson Protesters Turn on the Media, Other Cover Demonstrations Themselves
Mother Jones
The Huffington Post - Ferguson Protesters Guard Stores From Looters
Brookings Institute
CIME blog

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Cybervigilantism: new tumblr "racists getting fired (& getting racists fired)"

Photo credit: BuzzFeed
You may of heard of the recent internet tumblr sensation “racists getting fired (& getting racists fired)”. It operates by uploading screenshots of racist comments posted on social media, and “encourages people to track down where outspoken racists work and then post details of their hate speech to the employers’ social media accounts demanding punishment. In some instances, racists are “doxxed”, meaning they have their personal identity and contact information shared without consent.”

Many of the screenshots on “racists getting fired” pertain to the events occurring in Ferguson, Missouri. One twitter user, “VA Truck Driver,” issued a series of tweets about Ferguson (the complete sequence can be found here), but ended up issuing a public apology after social media users discovered his identity and he was suspended from work without pay. Other people featured in screenshots have issued similar apologies after internet users tracked them down and complained to their employers.

However, some people have also been innocently caught in the cross-fire of the tumblr, including one young woman whose ex-boyfriend framed her for several comments on Facebook. Unfortunately, “before the site [racists getting fired] realized the trick and issued something resembling a correction, the Brianna smear racked up tens of thousands of reblogs and notes and prompted readers to bombard the real Brianna’s workplace with phone calls and tweets. Probably because RGF provided instructions on doing this exactly."

The original moderator of the tumblr has also faced considerable backlash, posting recently “i began this blog much to publicly, with an excess of personal information bc i could not have forseen the skyrocketting of attention this blog has received. i was not prepared for the legal threats, nor for being hunted by 4chan doxxers and other anti-social justice websites. so it is too late for me.” (sic) The moderator has reported that within the first 8 hours of the tumblr’s existence they received 15,000 submissions.

Photo credit: TechCrunch
Is this type of cybervigilantism a good idea? Does it make people think twice about what they post online, and help curb those anonymous and hurtful comments the internet is known for? Or does it cause just as much harm as it hopes to resolve? One article, titled “Bullying the Bullies” states, “Humans haven’t quite gotten the hang of human rights, let alone social media. Combined ignorance of the two leads people to spew hate from the safety of an Internet connection, writing their bigotry into the public record. Now these moments are being put display [sic] for public shaming by a Tumblr seeking justice against racists. It’s a form of cybervigilantism...The question is whether cybervigilantism is ethical or productive for a society trying to overcome bigotry.”

- Kate Davidson

Business Insider
racists getting fired (and getting racists fired)
racists getting fired - Brianna correction

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Style over substance

Photo credit: Poor Richard's News
On November 20th from the Cross Hall of the White House, U.S President Barack Obama gave a speech on immigration. The primetime address laid out a series of executive actions proposing to take aim at fixing a “broken immigration system” in the United States. Like most presidential speeches this particular address has drawn substantial praise and criticism. In essence the speech has provided a platform and incentive for Americans and people around the world to engage in dialogue and debate about U.S immigration policy. The discussions and debates have occurred despite the fact that Obama's speech was not aired by the so-called “Big Three” American television networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS. According to some, the networks decided against airing the speech because it conflicted with a time slot that equates to peak ratings and vital advertising dollars. The decision not to broadcast Obama's speech is not surprising, considering that November TV ratings are especially important for the networks because they occur during what is called a “sweeps” period, which is when viewership ratings are used to determine future scheduling, programming, and advertising decisions. While the decision not to air the speech may make financial sense for the networks, does it also say something about our overall sense of values as a society?

When three large television networks are more concerned with ratings and advertising dollars than they are about the consciousness of the viewing public, should that be a cause for concern? What ever happened to the media’s responsibility to make journalistic decisions that were best for the universal needs of society? By choosing money and ratings (things that are seemingly perfunctory when compared to the pressing and controversial issue of immigration) did NBC, ABC, and CBS fulfill their moral obligation as stewards, purveyors, and promoters of ethical journalism?

One of the preeminent functions of the media is to provide the public with information and awareness. You can go back to the days of Julius Caesar or the Han Dynasty in China and one can find remnants of that same basic principle, that the public has a need and a right to be informed. Over time we have come to expect basic things from our media; in many instances we expect them to be exemplary in how they act and how they manage their part of the interdependent relationship that we share with them. In many instances they are our mentors, as they set many precedents and examples that we often follow, sometimes to such an extent that it mimics patterns of indoctrination. When they convey to us that dollars and Nielsen rating points are more important than keeping us informed, or providing us access to information that is relevant to many of our families, communities, and lives, what are they really telling us? If we want to stay informed perhaps it is incumbent for us to tell them what we are thinking, and not the other way around.

- William Korte


Monday, November 24, 2014

Covering every angle of the debate: going to war in Syria and Iraq

Picture credit: FAIR

Sometimes it can be difficult for the news to cover every aspect of a hot topic. There are so many opinions, and only so much time to devote to each story. However, a media consumer can reasonably expect a certain spread of voices. But that is not always the case.

The organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) recently released a report on how corporate TV news has covered the U.S.’s involvement in Syria and Iraq. Titled “Debating How - Not Whether - to Launch a New War,” the report found that during two weeks of heavy coverage of the topic in September “of the more than 200 guests who appeared on network shows to discuss the issue, just six voiced opposition to military action.”

In an interview on Democracy Now!, Peter Hart, the activism director at FAIR, explained that “the debate sometimes looked rather passionate; it had the appearances of a real debate. But what they were really debating was the mechanics of war, whether we should drop bombs just on Iraq or on Iraq and Syria, whether Obama was aggressive enough. There were critics of the White House, but they were critics that were pro-war.” What appeared to be a range of opinions seems to have only debated part of the issue.

Hart argued that there are strong similarities between this coverage and the pre-war media response back in 2002 and 2003. He asked “Has anything changed from 2002 to 2003 to right now? And the answer in the study is, absolutely not. If anything, the debate is more restricted now.”

How important is it to have many different opinions in our news? How can you as a media professional or a media consumer help ensure we have a range of voices represented?

- Kate Davidson

Democracy Now!
FAIR report

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Publishing the repugnant: Editorial Ethics

In a recent CIME blog post, author Kate Davidson discussed the implications of the “watermelon flavored toothpaste” cartoon run by the Boston Herald. The paper, its editor, and the cartoonist immediately apologized for their gaff and insisted the cartoon was not meant to be racist. The cartoonist claimed that there was a tube of kids watermelon flavored toothpaste left at his house and he simply took the flavor and put it into the copy. Whether this is the truth or not, the editor of the Herald should be held responsible for the decision to print the cartoon.

The chimpanzee is commonly believed to represent President Obama.
Rev. Al Sharpton stated at the time that the cartoon "is troubling at
best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being
synonymous with monkeys," and since the stimulus bill was
"the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama."
Photo credit: Think Progress
An editor’s job is complex. They deal with a myriad of issues that surround publishing, including being the ‘taste monitors’ of their papers (or magazines, online blogs, etc.). In fact, it could be argued that in today’s hyper pace news world, the most important job of an editor is to ensure there are civility, integrity, and ethical standards to which their employees are held. A political cartoon, just like a front-page story, has protections and privileges under the first amendment. These factors do not absolve the editorial staff of their responsibility. A cartoonist can draw up whatever Obama is a pimp racist rants they choose- but it is the job of the editor to ensure these outlandish cartoons never see the light of day (as was the case with the aforementioned cartoon. The editorial department of the Rome News-Tribune killed the story, but the artist sold it to other outlets). At the very least cartoons that can be considered extremely offensive should be placed in the opinion.

News Editors in the past have come under fire for their role in the publishing of offensive materials. In fact, according to this story from, an editor in Los Angeles was fired from their posting at the Brentwood Patch for the publishing of an offensive Cinco de Mayo themed cartoon. With the rise of social media, editors must be in tune more than ever to how the cartoons and the images housed within their pages will be received by the general public. Images and stories surrounding this cartoon related to Ferguson Missouri and this cartoon from The New Yorker spread across the Internet like wildfire. (In fact, you can view every New Yorker cover featuring Obama on their special slideshow here). The news outlets received backlash from one side of the country to the next, something that would seem unlikely in the past due to the limited circulation of some of these outlets.

Some claim these cartoons are not intended to be racist, that in fact it is the public who has become too sensitive to this type of humor, or simply just does not ‘get the joke.’ That is one opinion, another is that maybe the general public has simply evolved from the ‘level of humor’ that can be found in these ’50 most offensive’ compilation. Whichever the reason for the rise in the backlash felt by editors, one thing is clear… with social media and ethical watchdog groups everywhere, cartoonists and editors alike should be wary of a joke in which they are the only ones laughing.

- Carol Davey

CIME blog
imediaethics - Obama watermelon toothpaste cartoon?
imediaethics - Former editor says he was fired for cartoon patch said was racist
New York Magazine
The Guardian
The New Yorker - Obama on the New Yorkers Cover
The New Yorker - Judging a Cover

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Solutions Journalism could be consumption's new best friend

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are living in the midst of an information age. The social data revolution has transformed our lives forever; as has the sheer amount of information that we consume on a daily basis. In terms of digital information, a Huffington Post article cited research done at the University of San Diego that quantified our global annual digital information consumption way back in 2011 at or around 9,570,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes (or 9.57 zettabytes). To put this in perspective, remember that there are 1 trillion gigabytes in 1 zettabyte. To give you further footing to comprehend this: 1000 exabytes=1 zettabyte. With one exabyte you could stream the entire Netflix library 3,117 times.

We are consuming gazillions of bytes of information, but how do we get the information? In the U.S, a recent survey by the Media Insight Project claimed that, “the majority of Americans across generations now combine a mix of sources and technologies to get their news each week.” The project would go on to say that by in large most Americans use a mixture of about five technologies or devices to get their information.

So we have a seemingly-never ending amount of information to choose from as well as a plethora of places to go for information; does that mean that we will always seek out information that matters? When it comes to the information that we consume in regards to mass media, do we as consumers exercise the same judgment or critical thinking when selecting what we read or watch, as opposed to deciding how much we watch or read?

Photo credit: Journalism That Matters, Flickr
I wanted to introduce a type of reporting or brand of journalism that may get overlooked from time to time. It’s called, “Solutions Journalism.” In a nutshell, solutions journalism is media coverage that is intended to incite change and make communities better. It provides templates and examples for people and organizations to solve problems. It also creates a space for people to have dialogues and discussions about problems that affect society and humanity. While time honored traditions like advocacy journalism and investigative journalism seem to occupy our attention spans with more frequency, do they really provide us with the methodology to solve the problems that they highlight?

As the Hutchins Commission first attempted to point out back in 1947, when the press and mass media are determining what material to produce, they always have an ethical duty to keep society’s best interest in mind to allow for the greatest, most positive impact, to occur. Sometimes it seems that the vestiges of what modern democratic journalism was founded upon became lost or misplaced amid our voracious media consumption in the digital age. Is merely keeping the public informed good enough? Or should we demand more from our journalists and mass media inputs? Mainstream solutions journalism has the potential to make strong inroads into the mass media and digital media universe. I believe that if we make sound decisions when we decide on the journalistic material we ingest, like solutions journalism, we can ensure that our options will continue to evolve right along with our society and ourselves.

- William Korte

Internet Archive
The Huffington Post - Advocacy Journalism is Polarizing our Country
The Huffington Post - This is How Much Information the World Consumes Each Year
The Guardian
Solutions Journalism

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Publicly Funded Bias: The BBC and the Vote for Scottish Independence

Election Season. In America the months preceding the casting of a ballot can be daunting. It has become customary for the nation’s media to become inundated with mudslinging, mistruths, and bias. For example, American news outlets such as Fox and MSNBC are routinely charged with showing bias or favoritism to a particular candidate. While the stakes are high in presidential elections, there is no more significant a decision than that of one’s own independence. Say for instance, the vote held on September the 18th that determined whether or not Scotland would break away from Great Britain. While bias from private media companies is expected in American media, should publicly owned outlets, such as the BBC, be held to a higher standard? A protest held in September at the BBC’s Scottish headquarters in Glasgow points to a yes.

Photo credit: Daily Mail
According to The Independent, “thousands of angry nationalists [gathered to ] accuse the corporation and its political editor, Nick Robinson, of broadcasting “lies” and being “biased” in favour of retaining the Union.” The Independent went on to say: “the demonstrators’ anger centered on two events: an alleged failure of the BBC to broadcast the true scale of a Yes rally in Glasgow on Saturday; and accusations that… the Treasury spread lies about the dangers to business and financial services of an independent Scotland.” Even the BBC’s former Business Editor, Paul Mason, was dismayed with the BBC over its coverage of the Scottish independence campaign. “Mason, who worked for the BBC for 12 years before becoming Economics Editor at Channel 4 News in 2013, wrote on his Facebook page that, "Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I'm out of there," claimed

The vote for Scottish Independence resulted in an 85% voter turnout, over 4 million votes cast, and a margin of only 600,000 between staying with the UK or becoming independent. The campaigns Better Together (Union) and Yes Scotland (Nationalist) were supposed to the be two main pieces of public outreach for the conflicting sides of the referendum, yet some claim the bias from the public funded BBC tipped the scales towards Union favor. According to The Guardian, “there is no newspaper – local, regional or national, English or Scottish – that supports independence except the Sunday Herald. The Scots who will vote yes have been almost without representation in the media.” The author of the piece “How the Media Shafted the People of Scotland,” George Monbiot, went on to say, “That so many Scots, lambasted from all quarters as fools, frauds and ingrates, have refused to be bullied is itself a political triumph. If they vote for independence, they will do so in defiance not only of the Westminster consensus but also of its enforcers: the detached, complacent people who claim to speak on their behalf.”

Arguments for either side of the referendum have their merits. As an observer, one would have thought inwardly about what vote they would cast if in a Scot’s shoes- but therein lies the problem. The BBC is funded through a public license fee. Therefore the people of Scotland partially pay for its programming and were in essence funding a bias for "no" in media controlled by the very people from whom they were seeking independence. 600,000 people casting a different vote would have altered modern history. One cannot help but wonder how the people of Scotland would have voted had the BBC and other controlled media not ‘shown a bias.’

Media ethics already hangs on tattered shreds during election seasons in many parts of the world (including the free and democratic), but due to their usually being private companies with almost transparent partiality, this is taken as commonplace. The actions of the BBC, operating under a Royal Charter, should be held to a higher standard and the people of Scotland should have been able to determine their future free from interference or publicly funded bias.

- Carol Davey

CBS News
Business Insider
BBC Facts and Figures
The Independent
NewsNet Scotland
Better Together
Yes Scotland
The Guardian
Sunday Herald
Royal Charter