Negligent Choices by the Media Can Lead to a Shorter Life Expectancy for Black and Brown People
August 22, 2018
An Open Letter to Journalists and Newsroom Editors,
Recently, teenager Nia Wilson was on her way home from a family event when she was stabbed to death in Oakland, California.
Some local outlets responded by reporting about this tragic injustice in deeply problematic ways that echo similar trends we have seen in media in response to the deaths of people of color, whether as a result of community or state violence. Local television outlet KTVU chose to use a picture of her holding a cell phone case that resembled a gun. The San Francisco Chronicle also reported on Nia’s murder under the egregiously irresponsible headline of Two Lives Taking Separate Paths Clash on BART Platform, Ending in Death. (The newspaper changed the headline after an outcry).
For more context on this unethical reporting, read the joint statement put out by The National Association of Black Journalists, the Bay Area Black Journalists Association, and the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. We fully support this statement. But, as outraged as we are at this deeply troubling and unethical reporting, this is not new for Black families and communities.
Also recently, the editorial boards of more than 350 newspapers around the country answered the Boston Globe's call to speak out in defense of the #FreePress. With journalism under constant attack, we know that now is the time for us to support journalists - but we must also ask that they do better. A free press must use its power responsibly on behalf of all communities.
As communications professionals, we regularly work with journalists like you in newsrooms across the country on important stories, particularly about communities who are directly impacted by injustice. We work with these communities to think through how stories about them are framed in media outlets, because how these stories are told defines whose lives are valued and whose aren’t.
Yet, for as much collective thinking as we do on framing, ultimately, we don’t have a say in how you cover the stories we pitch. More importantly, people about whom you report have no say on the words and images you use to portray them.
The public relies on you for information. Media is one of the most powerful tools we have to shape perceptions. With that responsibility and power comes a great opportunity to be truly ethical in every way. You determine whether a story is reported on, and whether that reporting is fair and accurate. You determine whether the implicit and sometimes very overt bias of newsrooms continues to keep our country on the treacherous path of racism.
And yet, historically and continually, when reporters cover stories that involve the murder of a Black person, the narrative remains one where the victim is dehumanized and criminalized, and in many cases is actually made to bear responsibility for their own death. Whether as a reporter, as editor or a news director, you and your peers are the ones who can finally end the distorted and dangerous portrayals of Black people.
You can, and should, take this opportunity to have your newsrooms reflect all communities and our highest ideals of equity, dignity, and fairness. For this, you have the 1st Amendment on your side, balanced with a code of professional ethics that clearly outlines a promise to minimize harm in the communities that you cover in your reporting.
We see three immediate and actionable steps you can take, to align yourselves with the principles and ethics of professional journalism, in service of human dignity for all people:
1. Listen and learn. Take this issue seriously. Understand power structures and listen to the communities most impacted. Hire people of color. Ask communities of color. There are best practice guides to follow here and here. There are more, if you are willing to look.
2. Take responsibility. As newsroom professionals, you must approach your work knowing you come to it steeped in centuries of anti-Black racism. This is especially true if you are white -- and statistically, the data shows if you work in a newsroom, you are much more likely to be -- and even more so if you think you are immune to it. The deeper truth is that many newsrooms are still dominated by white leadership structures that reinforce and perpetuate disastrous reporting practices that harm people of color. White reporters and editors bear an even greater responsibility to recognize and counter this in themselves and their reporting.
3. Hold your peers accountable. This month also happens to mark four years since another teenager was killed and maligned for his own death: it was on August 9, 2014 that Michael Brown was shot and killed by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. If you need a reminder about the dangerous language used both by Wilson to justify his murder of Brown, or the media coverage related to it, you need look no further than here or here. As professionals, when you see others using language that dehumanizes, do not stand for it. Use your platform to correct and demand better of your profession.
The responsibility for how the stories you report and publish are framed rests squarely on your shoulders.
For people of color and especially Black people, this can literally mean life or death.
Naomi Abraham, Brooklyn, NY
Bilen Mesfin Packwood, Oakland, CA
Claudette Silver, Asheville, NC
Maya Trabin, Berkeley, CA
Shanelle Matthews, Brooklyn, NY
Malkia Cyril, Oakland CA
Molly Haigh, Washington DC
Dina Sigal, San Francisco, CA
Amanda Cooper, Alameda, CA
Jennifer Smith-Camejo, Miami, FL
April Thomas, Oakland, CA
Irene Schneeweis, Brooklyn, NY
Grant Stancliff, Columbus, OH
Beth Trimarco, Oakland, CA
Ana Tellez, Berkeley, CA
Jess St. Louis, Greensboro, NC
Zaineb Mohammed, Chicago, IL
Marrion Johnson, Oakland, CA
Virali Modi-Parekh, Oakland, CA
Kerry Leslie, El Cerrito, CA
Emily Szklarski, New Orleans, LA
JD Davids, Brooklyn, NY
Jessica Pace, St. Louis, MO
Rebekah Miel, Durham, NC
Isobel White, Berkeley, CA
Anna Ghosh, San Francisco, CA
Ann Whidden, Oakland, CA
Aruna Jain, Washington D.C.
Bethany Woolman, San Francisco, CA
Meredith Fenton, Oakland, CA
Dani Marrero Hi, Mission TX
Ryan Schleeter, San Francisco, CA
Marzena Zukowska, Washington D.C.
Debayani Kar, Brooklyn, NY
Vanessa Barrington, Oakland, CA
Katrina L. Rogers, New Orleans, LA
Jess Jollett, Oakland, CA
Karen Topakian, San Francisco, CA
Chelsea Fuller, Alexandria, VA
Jen Carnig, New York, NY
Jill Marcellus, Oakland, CA
Brian Crawford, Raleigh, NC
Anna Castro, Austin, TX
Jacob Swenson-Lengyel, Philadelphia, PA
Uliya Yashtala, Brooklyn, NY
Nitza Thien, Richmond, CA
Catherine Leslie, Berthoud CO
Alana Black, Oakland, CA
Jenny Park, San Francisco, CA
Tracey Wood Mendelsohn, Brooklyn, NY
Paul Bowman, Winchester, VA
Jen Soriano, Seattle, WA
Deborah Farrell, Berkeley, CA
Grover Wehman-Brown, Alameda, CA
Adiel Suarez-Murias, Washington, D.C.
Janna Zinzi, Los Angeles, CA
Shelly Spoeth, Atlanta, GA
Joseph Phelan, Brooklyn, NY
Irene Rojas-Carroll, Oakland, CA
Linda Loranger, Bethesda, Maryland
Sahar Driver, San Francisco, CA
Adrienne van der Valk, Montgomery, AL
Kathleen Pequeño, Brooklyn, NY
Shineh Rhee, Los Angeles, CA
Airial Clark, Oakland, CA
Nadia Iqbal, New York, NY
Hermelinda Cortés, Singers Glen, VA
Susy Chavez, Tucson, AZ
Rachel Dearborn, San Francisco, CA
Amie Newman, Seattle, WA
Katherine Schaff, San Francisco
Katie Smith, Los Angeles, CA
Doyle Canning, Eugene, OR
Celia Alario, Carpinteria CA / Moab UT
Samantha Robles, Austin, TX
Cynthia Foster, Los Angeles, CA
Kelly Ingram, TRENTON, NJ
Lori Dorfman, Berkeley, CA
Tasha Moro, Brooklyn, NY
Neshani Jani, Oakland, CA
Michaela Leslie-Rule, Oakland, cA
Nazly Sobhi Damasio, Chicago, IL
Micky Jordan, Richmond, Virginia
Nati Linares, Staten Island, New York City
Heather Appel, Oakland, CA
Mary Schindler, Oakland, CA
Ashley Dixon, Independence, KS
Dee Mandiyan, Brooklyn, NY
Stephanie Boarden, Brooklyn, NY
Renee Slajda, New Orleans, LA
Becky Smith, Minneapolis, MN
John-Michael Torres, Mission, TX
Shana DeClercq, Berkeley, CA
Tamiko Beyer, Dorchester, MA
Charlie McAteer, Seattle, WA
Holly Minch, Oakland, CA
Trina Stout, Portland, OR
Eleonore Wesserle, Minneapolis, MN
Jordan Flaherty, New Orleans, LA
Eteng Ettah, Washington D.C.
Taraneh Arhamsadr, Oakland, CA
Meghan Pluimer, San Leandro, CA
Catherine Brozena, Oakland, CA
Monique Webster, Berkeley, California
Susan Stancliff, Spokane, WA
Michal Wisniowski, Oakland, CA
Sign the letter today!