In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last month there has been some soul-searching among American journalists about media coverage. Was it racist? Was it fair? Did the police get a better press than the protestors?
The New York Times’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, admonished the paper after complaints from readers about its description of Brown in a front page profile as “no angel”.
She called the choice of words “a regrettable mistake” and “a blunder”. She also felt it necessary to point out that the writer of the article, John Eligon, is black and “attentive to many of the issues in the Ferguson case.”
He told her that his piece presented a “mostly positive picture” of Brown. And the Times’s national editor, Alison Mitchell, defended Eligon’s profile as “a sensitive, nuanced account.”
The other problem was that the article ran alongside a profile of the police officer, Darren Wilson, who fired the shot that killed Brown.
This piece was considered by some critics to be softer in tone than the one on Brown. Sullivan commented: “Its pairing with a profile of Mr Wilson seemed to inappropriately equate the two people.”
An article in the Columbia Journalism Review raises further questions about the Brown coverage by considering whether it revealed “broader issues of bias” in terms of the crimes chosen as being newsworthy.
It cites an analysis by Media Matters for America which found that the reporting of black crime suspects by four New York TV stations was disproportionate (see the graphic).
A similar point was made by Nick Wing in a Huffington Post report: “Media treatment of black victims is often harsher than it is of whites suspected of crimes, including murder.”
There have also been studies that show how white people suffering from crimes get more coverage than black victims, known as “missing white girl syndrome.” The term was coined, says the CJR writer Alexis Sobel Fitts, “to reflect the deluge of coverage when a young, affluent, white female goes missing — and the dearth of coverage when children of colour disappear.”
Revelations of this phenomenon of underlying prejudice are hardly new. The American Journalism Review presented a study about the skewed coverage in 1995.
And the same situation has been explored many times over in a British context. A report by Cardiff university’s journalism school in 2011 showed how ethnicity played a large part in the level of crime coverage. People of colour were more likely to be portrayed as perpetrators than white people and less often as victims than white people.
Journalists, and editors, are often confronted by this fact but it has been happening for generations and no change is in sight. Its latest manifestation occurs in the unbalanced reporting of migrants. Their crimes are highlighted. Their victimhood is underplayed.
Surely we should realise how this plays out in the wider community by fomenting prejudice. Biased media coverage is just one reason why racism continues to divide societies here and in the US.