On The Hill, we are currently engaged in a Conversation on Race, struggling to understand our own implicit biases, and how they influence our perception of others. We confront these attitudes on a daily basis, not only when we judge someone’s appearance, but also when we read newspaper headlines.
Over the past year, the media has responded in vastly different ways to events in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement was portrayed negatively in major newspapers, while domestic terrorist attacks, such as the ones in Texas and Oregon, were presented with neutral words, instead of being described as the violent events they actually were.
These headlines are often chosen for maximum impact, and as a result are by no means representative of the complicated events. However, these short phrases are often the first opinions we see from the media. We should, therefore, keep in mind how we might be influenced by headlines.
As Black Lives Matter protests rose up in major American cities, the police and media simultaneously retaliated violently. In the past two years, protests across the nation prompted police - using tear gas, police batons, riot shields, and rubber bullets - to arrest over a thousand protesters, most of whom carried only cardboard signs and the strength of their voices. But pop-up violence labeled the majority of these protesters as chaotic and violent.
In response to protests in Ferguson, The New York Times article of December, 2014, read: “Violence Flares in Ferguson After Appeals for Harmony” and USA Today agreed, writing: “Ferguson Struggles to Grasp Why Protesters Turned Violent.” Other major news outlets such as The Daily Beast, CBS News, and NBC News used the words “chaotic” and “violent.” The true meaning behind these protests was smothered as the newspapers exaggerated the violence present in some of the cities.
At the same time as media and police were overreacting to the Black Lives Matter movement, they were underreacting to domestic terrorist threats. In May 2015, rival members of white motorcycle gangs launched a shootout that killed nine people and destroyed a family restaurant. The convicted criminals were not even handcuffed but were allowed to sit on the curb, smoking, drinking, and using their phones. A total of 480 weapons, 151 of them guns, were collected at the scene of the shootout. In early January, the Bundy brothers and 150 fellow terrorists staged an armed takeover of a government building in Malheur, Oregon, yet the police did not intervene for three weeks. Imagine the response from police and media if the gang members had been African-American.
The media’s role in shaping public perceptions is key. Prominent news outlets used neutral and even positive words, such as an NBC News headline which read: “106 Indicted in Waco Biker Brawl that Killed Nine” and a New York Times article titled: “170 Bikers Charged in Waco, in a Rivalry Rooted in the 1960s.” When describing the #BundyBrother takeover, a January headline in The New York Times read: “Standoff in Oregon Attracts Supporters Bearing Disparate Grievances.” The New York Daily News published the headline: “Militia Takes Over Oregon Federal Building After Protest.”
Some newspapers completely failed to mention that the scene in Waco was a shootout, not simply a “brawl” or “rivalry.” The media also toned down the depiction of the criminals in Oregon.
The armed men who seized the government building were neither protesters nor demonstrators nor militia. According to the FBI, these men were domestic terrorists, yet the media failed to label them as such. By lending positive words to a negative action, the media portrayed the terrorists in a positive light. When well-known news outlets used positive words, the media only gave more validity to the domestic terrorist attacks.
What message does this send to Americans, when peace is met with violence and violence is met with peace? The disparate reactions to these events seem to prove that it is safer to start a shootout or execute an armed takeover of a government building, than it is to peacefully march in the streets with cardboard signs if one is African-American.
Additionally, these headlines depict and manipulate only a small portion of the truth. The essential idea of racial equality that drove the Black Lives Matter movement was overshadowed by the negative reaction from the police and the media. The domestic terrorist attacks, however, were toned down and minimally resisted by the police. Although neither of these events can be wholly explained in a few words, the least the newspapers could do would be to accurately describe them. Why not call protesters in Ferguson “grieving” instead of “chaotic,” and why not call the criminals in Waco and Oregon “domestic terrorists” instead of “protesters?”
Although the Black Lives Matter movement hopes to end racial inequality with respect to police brutality, the disparate reactions of media to BLM and domestic terrorist attacks proves that racism still pervades the mainstream media. These implicit biases are manifest in the headlines of major news outlets describing white terrorists and black protesters. As a community facing our own unconscious prejudices, we should recognize the ways in which certain words can influence us, and keep in mind how popular headlines might only display a part of the story, not the whole truth.