The media embargo on "the B word"

This is one of those problematic stories which generally devolves into acrimony before you get a chance to wrap your head around the facts. I’m not the first person to bring it up – in fact I’ve seen it mentioned multiple times by the Hot Air commentariat – but the examples in high profile cases seem too weighty to ignore. The question at hand involves the media descriptions of suspects and victims in high profile crimes and the ever present, complicating factor of racial tensions in America.

For the more heavily weighted side of the scale we need not look very far. Most of you probably remember the mainstream media coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting. The New York Times provides just one of many, many examples of the descriptions we read. (Some emphasis inserted in the following examples.)

Facing mounting protests over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a neighborhood watch volunteer, the Sanford City Commission voted on Wednesday that they had no confidence in the city’s police chief…

Mr. Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic, told the police that he shot Trayvon in self-defense after an altercation.

The most recent – and high profile – case was that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. CNN was only one of countless outlets which chose to characterize the story in the same way when it first broke.

Brown was African-American. Police have not identified the shooter, but a witness told CNN on Tuesday that the officer who opened fire is a Caucasian male.

But those weren’t the only instances in the news recently. There was also the case of the undoubtedly unjustified shooting of Levar Edward Jones in South Carolina, as reported by the LA Times.

“I just got my license! You said get my license!” Jones, who is black, shouted at Trooper Sean M. Groubert, who is white, as Jones tumbled to the pavement, wounded by at least one shot.

Still not enough? Here’s the opening graf of NBC’s story about the shooing of John Crawford III in Ohio.

On Monday a grand jury convened to decide if a white police officer should be indicted in the shooting of an unarmed black man.

You may be noticing a pattern here. And in the case of at least a couple of media observers, you aren’t alone. They questioned why – in light of and compared to the above examples – the national press experienced a virtual vacuum of coverage when Dillon Taylor was shot by a police officer. (You can follow that link yourself to see what the difference might be.)

A similar silence of the talking heads seemed to descend over the case of two white reporters who were beaten by a gang of more than 100 thugs in Virginia.

But it’s not just cases of police shootings or media figures where this unequal dosage of coverage seems to take place. Violent attacks of all stripes make their way into the news on a regular basis and in many cases the precise opposite of the above pattern seems to show up again and again – but only in certain cases. Take, for example, the media coverage of the brutal attack on Meredith Cole and her boyfriend in Springfield, Missouri earlier this year.

Springfield police are looking for a group of people who brutally beat a couple in downtown Springfield. Police have not made any arrests. They hope someone seeing the video will identify the attackers.

One of the victims, Meredith Cole, says the attack started while her boyfriend, Alex, was working as a DJ at the Outland Ballroom. She said she was approached by a group of men outside the club, and they began to sexually assault her. Cole says she returned inside the club to alert her boyfriend, who then left the club to try to identify who her attackers are.

Well, if the news station is really interested in helping the police identify and locate this group of men, perhaps they could have included a few adjectives. But even after reading the entire article and listening to the reporter’s description, you would have no idea what the group of people looked like unless you watched the video.


Another case involving even more suspects took place in a Kroger parking lot in Memphis, Tennessee, where a gang beat down a customer and kicked him until he was unconscious. The reporting in this case is remarkably similar.

Officers arrested and charged 10 teenagers and one adult as of Monday evening in the attack that happened in a Kroger parking lot…

Three people were injured Saturday night by a large group of teenagers who came from a nearby CiCi’s Pizza restaurant. Two Kroger employees, ages 17 and 18, were jumped while trying to stop the initial attack on a 25-year-old customer.

In the case of the Kroger attack, the community came forward despite the similar lack of adjectives demanding to know why this wasn’t being treated as a hate crime. (In case you hadn’t guessed, the customer was white and the large group of teenagers were black.) The police chief was forced to come out in a later presser to declare that they couldn’t treat it as a hate crime because the victims included “both white and African American victims.”

What they don’t mention is that the second and third victims – both store employees, one of whom is black – were only injured after they rushed outside to attempt to stop the beating. The statements also fail to note that the original, undedited video of the gang assault includes the voice of an observer laughing hysterically as she yells, “They got a white dude!” (The video follows. Viewers are warned that the content includes graphic violence which many will find disturbing.)
Action News 5 – Memphis, Tennessee

In all these instances we see a pattern which deserves an explanation from the nation’s media gatekeepers. If America’s reporters are so concerned about race relations in the country that such descriptions are included immediately when discussing a case where a white person is charged with injury to an African American, how is such discussion less valid when the roles are reversed? Violence takes place all the time, and the fact is that both attackers and victims cover the full spectrum of skin tones. If it’s an important question for us to ponder as a nation, are not all examples pertinent to the discussion? As much as some of these news outlets may hate to admit it, black people do, on occasion, commit acts of violence. And sometimes the victims of that violence are white.

But somehow that’s not a story. When reporting those types of crimes, there is an embargo on The B Word. You never read a headline where “a black man” or ” a black cop” stands accused of this or that crime against “an unarmed white man” or “a young white woman.” I was reminded of this yet again watching all the coverage of the arrest in the disappearance of Heather Graham. Read this thirty paragraph story at HuffPo about the arrest of Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., a suspect in the case. If you open that page and place your hand over the picture of Heather you would have no clue as to the races – or even general descriptions – of the persons involved.

Why? Of course, even posing the question immediately brands me as a hopeless, hateful racist in the minds of half the nation and the conversation immediately shuts down. But a responsible media, if they truly wanted to have a frank conversation about racial conflict in America, would be honest enough to tackle this issue.

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