White bias in media is ruining your life, whether you realize it or not

Still from the video taken by Diamond Reynolds after police outside St. Paul Minnesota fatally shot her boyfriend Philando Castile. (via Youtube)
Still from the video taken by Diamond Reynolds after police outside St. Paul Minnesota fatally shot her boyfriend Philando Castile. (via Youtube)

I don’t usually shout at my radio.

But sitting in my car last week listening coverage of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on KUOW, I found myself literally screaming at the top of my lungs, “Are you fucking shitting me?!?”

A man was shot dead in front of his girlfriend and his four year old child and what was the story? How calm and composed his girlfriend was while dealing with yet another case of irrational white fear ending a black life — that she had the presence of mind to document their compliance with the police.

The journalist, St. Paul Pioneer Press Reporter Frederick Melo, being interviewed on the syndicated program Here and Now, did not clarify why Castile was stopped. There was no attempt to contextualize this as a part of the ongoing genocide against black people.

White bias is the standard for objectivity.

What I heard was a reporter using neutrality as a weapon to cast aspersions on a dead man, and to leave space for empathy for a murderer who broke his promise to protect and serve.

That’s not journalism, that’s #journalismsowhite.

Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas coined the hashtag in a viral post that called out several major news outlets, including the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, POLITICO, and CNN for the perpetual lack of diversity in their choices of editors and columnists. Vargas went on to say that the American newsroom is even less diverse than it was in 1999.

According to a recent survey conducted by AAJA Seattle, the majority of journalists in Seattle’s major news outlets are white as well. No surprises there. The survey is just a quantitative way to attempt to validate the truth of the experiences of people of color, because white people have difficulty hearing the truth when it’s unflattering. We must back up the truth with facts, data, measurable information. And even then there are some who would say, “well Seattle’s a pretty white city, maybe those numbers are just proportionate.”

Results of a survey of diversity in Seattle newsrooms conducted by AAJA recently. (From a <a href="https://medium.com/@audreycarlsen/how-diverse-are-our-local-newsrooms-38cda3de89c7#.v0shbclk7">Medium post</a> by Audrey Carlsen)
Results of a survey of diversity in Seattle newsrooms conducted by AAJA Seattle. (From a Medium post by Audrey Carlsen)

The numbers tell a piece of the story, but the actual impact of #journalismsowhite is so much bigger. In preparing to write this piece I conducted several interviews with people in my community who had demoralizing experiences with white media, from the black man who was completely misquoted because a white journalist could not tell the difference between the two black men he interviewed, to the white woman who was subjected to death threats following an interview with a local shock jock who tried to brand her as a “reverse” racist for supporting yoga classes for people of color.

But then I turned on the radio to one of my favorite so-called liberal media outlets and listened to coverage of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile that made me want to punch someone in the face — and I realized I am done proving racism. I feel absolutely no need to further document, quantify, or justify what I know to be true.

White bias is the standard for objectivity. The only reason we even pretend that objectivity is possible is because white culture tells us we should. I have no interest in objectivity — in fact I distrust anyone who thinks that they are somehow able to be a neutral outside observer. What are you outside of exactly? Certainly not the constructs of race, power, or privilege.

The most I will concede is that journalists can create forums for multiple viewpoints to be explored in a way that is equitable — but that seems not be a big priority in mainstream media at the moment.

So what happens when white bias is the norm? Unsurprisingly the voices of people of color are marginalized.

It’s not just that people of color want more representation in media. We crave realistic representation that affirms our humanity.

Last fall I visited a journalism class at the UW as a guest presenter with activist and writer James Akbar Williams and Marcus Harrison Green, founder of The South Seattle Emerald. Green recounted the story of meeting a young man and asking him about his community, and hearing him say that “nothing good ever happens in Rainier Beach.”

As a resident of Rainier Beach I know that to be categorically untrue — yet if you look at what our white media has to say, you might assume this a place where only crime, gun violence, and weed smoking happen — because that is the story they choose to tell over and over again. The danger is in the repetition.

From childhood we are inundated with information that builds us into who we will become as people. What we learn in school, from our family and friends, and through our media — whether experienced through fictional characters on TV or through the actual news — has an impact on our self-perception. This is the danger of #oscarssowhite and #journalismsowhite.

It’s not just that people of color want more representation in media. We crave realistic representation that affirms our humanity.

Instead white media answers us with tokenism, saying, “okay you can have your one black show or your one Latina character or your one Asian news anchor who is going to integrate our news office and only cover POC issues, though of course with a white gaze.”

This is a grossly insufficient attempt at a solution — one that exposes a misapprehension of the problem.

Andre Taylor, whose brother Che Taylor was killed by Seattle police earlier this year, speaks at a vigil about police shootings last week. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)
Andre Taylor, whose brother Che Taylor was killed by Seattle police earlier this year, speaks at a vigil about police shootings last week. (Photo by Chloe Collyer)

I never wanted to be a journalist. Of all the styles of writing, it was my least favorite because it seemed to leave little room for creativity. I wrote my first article expecting it to be rejected, not because it was poorly written, but because I put so much of myself into my writing. I didn’t think it could be classified as news because that’s what my white teachers taught me. My editor did not agree, and we began working together on a regular basis.

When I called my dad to tell him about it, he said something flippant like don’t be that asshole who is sticking the microphone in the face of someone who’s family just got killed and asking them how they feel about it.

Over the past three years I’ve met with this attitude over and over. I accidently found myself with a platform and an ability to tell our stories, but what I have encountered are people in my community who have been so traumatized by #journalismsowhite that they choose to silence themselves.

They are afraid of the white gaze because, despite so called journalistic integrity, the combination of unchecked bias and rushed deadline writing has produced some damaging, often blatantly wrong, and certainly un-nuanced reporting.

It is only after carefully cultivating relationships that people have begun to trust me enough to share their truth. And when they read what I write, whether or not they agree with it, they at least feel like their humanity has been affirmed. Like all human beings, we want to be seen and heard and understood, and #journalismsowhite has been used to silence, villainize, and “other” people of color.

People in my community have been so traumatized by #journalismsowhite that they choose to silence themselves.

What people don’t seem to realize is that this is not a black problem or a POC problem; white bias is problematic for all of us, regardless of how we identify. Racism is a form of insanity that strips away our ability to see the humanity in other people because they look differently than you do.

When you stop seeing humanity, you yourself become less human. And that is what is happening and what #journalismsowhite is perpetuating.

That is what is happening when the first question a journalist asks when a black man is indisputably murdered by the police is not “what are the facts?” but “what did that black man do to deserve it?” Commentary on how calm a black woman can be while video taping a police officer that’s just shot and killed her boyfriend in front of their four-year-old is not journalism. It’s a violation of her humanity, and mine and all Americans’, white or black or any color on the spectrum.

Like Vargas tweeted, “We are the stories we tell and we suffer when we can’t see each other.”

Now is the reckoning. We must see one another and be seen in a way that rebuilds the humanity that has been eroded by white bias seeping under our skin. It starts by acknowledging that this is a problem and that it is our responsibility as media to address it and as members of the human community to hold our media accountable to a higher standard.

The way I have been trying to address this through my own writing has been becoming the counter narrative, looking at the story being told and attempting to provide information to supplement. But that is a stopgap measure. The truth is the stories of people of color, our thoughts, feelings, and perspectives are not counter narratives. We are a part of this country and we deserve to be respected.

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4 Comments

  1. Reagan, thank you for this. Well said! My favorite quote: “Racism is a form of insanity that strips away our ability to see the humanity in other people because they look differently than you do.” Brilliant!

    1. Set your mind on the things that are above,not on the things where moth and rust corrupt.
      God is no respecter of persons.
      IT is the Spirit that gives life,the flesh profits nothing.
      Eph.6, our wrestling is not against flesh and blood,but against the world rulers,authorities in the air…..

  2. So what is your problem here, that the reporter stuck to the FACTS instead of a narrative? WTF do you think reporting is about?? This article is a steaming pile of shit.

  3. Hi Hugh, Thanks for taking the time to engage with my work. Allow me to clarify, I have no problem with facts. I do have a huge problem with white bias. And the fact that you can’t tell the difference between the two is the real problem I am having with white media right now.

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