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Media mayhem: Racial bias and mass shootings

by The Stylus Staff
Tue, Oct 10th 2017 09:15 pm

It says a lot about American society when there are headlines like “Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock enjoyed gambling, country music, lived quiet life before massacre” in a publication like the The Washington Post. This sort of headline is frankly irresponsible, and no socially-conscious paper would let it get published. We at The Stylus certainly would not. 

When a white man decides to shoot into a crowd of  people, and succeeds in killing 58 of them and wounding hundreds more, we concern ourselves with his hobbies and his taste in music, yet when a young black man is gunned down by police, the media and society as a whole immediately begin to dig into his past to find any reason at all why he “deserved” it.

There is plenty of evidence that Paddock’s mass shooting was premeditated. He even sent his girlfriend, Marilou Danley, to the Philippines so that she wouldn’t try to stop him, according to all.news.yahoo.com, which interviewed Danley’s sisters. USA Today reported that Paddock purchased 33 guns in the past year. KTLA reported that he had 1,600 rounds of ammunition and 50 pounds of explosives. It is crystal clear that Paddock had every intention to bring death and destruction with him to Las Vegas.

The desperate search into his personal life to find a motive and make sense of the tragedy inevitably leads to an intimate understanding of Paddock’s personal life. That does not mean that information like his favorite type of music needs to be shared in a headline or story for that matter. 

Headlines like this humanize a man who was cold and soulless enough to murder scores of innocent people. Why do we afford humanity to people like Paddock and deny it to people like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and the hundreds of other innocent black people who are labeled as “thugs” for non violent crimes? 

If you’re black, you can die over a petty crime or a simple accident and still be labeled a dangerous thug by the media. If you’re white, you can premeditate and carry out the murder of almost 60 people and injure almost 500 more with a stockpile of weapons and you will still be treated with dignity.

All of the aforementioned victims of police brutality were just as beloved by their friends and family as Paddock was. They all had hobbies and favorite genres of music. Most importantly, they were the victims, not the perpetrators, of violence. Despite this, they are portrayed as criminals and “thugs.” Mugshots and other incriminating images are used in news articles about them instead of those that portray them in a positive light, even if they exist. 

When we constantly see “terrorist” next to middle eastern people and “thug” next to black people, it enforces stereotypes that already exist. In fact, a 2011 study done by the Opportunity Agenda strongly linked negative portrayal of black men in the media to black men having lower expectations for their own lives. 

Conversely, when we see “lone wolf” or “mentally ill” next to white people who have committed crimes, it gives them a sense of humanity. No one gets to the point of committing a crime without being brought to that point. Looking into the life of criminals and what led them there could make for some very enlightening journalism, however it needs to be done for everyone, not just white people.

Imagine the effect it could have if journalists put the same amount of effort into covering people of color as they do when covering white people. Imagine the conversations that would be sparked if journalists wrote about people who steal and tried to find their motive as well. 

There are plenty of stories that would be interesting to read, from the lives of the couple who stole $800 in baby formula in August this year to ISIS recruiters who were found living amongst us. Perhaps putting as much emphasis on the “why” when covering crime as we do on the “how” would lead to the public actually learning something. The fact that journalists will put this effort in while covering white people but not when covering people of color creates troublesome implications. People learn why white people turn to crime, and the reasons oftentimes seem very reasonable. Readers may realize that they would do the same in that situation. Once again, it brings a sense of humanity to the situation.

The fact that we don’t learn why people of color turn to crime implies to some that there is no reason, that it is simply to be expected. The few reasons we do hear are speculative. We hear Bill O’Reilly go off on tirades asking “Where are the fathers?” and claiming that “They hate us and they hate our freedom.” The real reasons are deeper, more interesting and would often require uncomfortable social change to really address the problem.

The fact is, the U.S. has a dangerous and imperialistic foreign policy that terrorizes innocent people in the Middle East, and a domestic policy that impoverishes a huge portion of the country and systematically oppresses people of color. There is a huge divide in this country between racial, economic and party lines, and a good portion of that is because there are many who don’t understand the effects of our foreign and domestic policy. The media is supposed to inform people, but most mainstream media hasn’t truly served that purpose in years. With the advent of the internet, legacy media has experienced a sort of identity crisis. 

Headlines need to be designed to get clicks and sell subscriptions to online content. Addressing the real issues in this country, the real reasons why people turn to crime, will only get your publication attacked for being “anti-American.” People have a morbid curiosity when it comes to the lives of mass shooters, so clicks are a guarantee, but feeding that morbid curiosity is the lazy solution. It feeds into damaging racial stereotypes and deepens the divide that is killing our country. 

Journalism shouldn’t just be about giving people the information that they want. Sometimes, you need to give people the information that they need, whether they want to hear it or not. 

It’s time that the media stop giving people the details about the lives of deranged shooters and start addressing the real issues, like police brutality. Sometimes people need to be forced to listen, but it’s what needs to be done in order to bring real change in this country.

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