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Racial Profiling and the Media

Armed Police in Ferguson
Ferguson, Missouri: Tension in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death. Source: CNN

Recently, widespread attention has been  devoted to instances of racial profiling, about the tragic lives of the victims of racial profiling, about how “wrong” racial profiling is, and about what we, as members of the community, should do to eliminate such activity. There’s just one problem, though.  None of this incessant and often repetitive dialogue has truly led to change and improvement of our society.  The media simply creates sensationalism, and not sensibility; the mainstream media is more concerned with headlines than actual issues.

The Trayvon Martin case was supposed to be the last of its kind.  Not three years later, another young man, Michael Brown, was killed in a similar situation.  Repeated instances of everyday racism are only reported on if famous people are involved, such as former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling and former Atlanta Hawks majority owner Bruce Levenson.  The public has become more and more jaded with cases like these and the repeated media coverage of only high profile cases neither mitigates the everyday realities of racial profiling nor makes a difference in our society’s views on these issues.

The media tends to only cover those sensational cases and ignore the everyday ones.  The recent events of Ferguson, Missouri became worldwide news only when the riots commenced and escalated, and not initially when Michael Brown was shot and killed. It seems that one death or one person being brutally discriminated against does not matter.  Only when such an incident causes mass protests do the major media outlets address such an issue.  To them, riots and disorder and clashes are newsworthy.  A black man being shot dead again?  No way.

Contrast this to the media coverage of John Crawford III, a black man who was shot and killed by white cops in an Ohio Walmart on August 5 this year, but whose death did not foster riots or protests.  Someone in the store called the cops because Crawford was carrying an unloaded BB gun that Walmart was selling.  When the police arrived and told him to drop the gun, he told them it wasn’t real. Police fired and killed him.  Surely, this is as unjust as the Trayvon Martin and Ferguson shootings, but none of the major media companies in the United States reported on this because there were no riots and disorder after this incident.  A September 22nd search of “John Crawford” on yielded exactly one opinion article written on September 19 – a full month and a half after the incident – and three articles that very briefly mentioned his name.  For those who doubt CNN, a “John Crawford” search on Al Jazeera America yields exactly three relevant articles that only briefly mention his name. Clearly, it’s the riots that the media cares about. They are not interested in changing racial profiling but rather capitalizing on it.

The media claims that their “widespread broadcast” of such issues will lead to change and a better society.  Perhaps the opposite is true.  By focusing on the same story-lines with so much repetition, the media risks tiring audiences on both sides of the issue.  Ferguson was on the televised world news of all the major media companies every day for over a week.  However, once the scene had calmed down, the media failed to emphasize the changes that were needed or coming.  Ferguson had pledged to change its policies regarding the court system, police department, and arrest warrants.  The major media outlets, meanwhile, failed to follow up on these coming reforms.

Racism is no longer as rampant as it had been in the 1960s, but in the last couple decades, how much have we progressed?  Not much; news stories conjure up memories of other unjust shootings in recent years, like déjà vu. I do not have a foolproof solution to ending racial profiling and the dehumanization of minority races in America, and I understand that the major media outlets need to make a profit, but to only profit from racial profiling is just plain wrong.  After Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, there has definitely been dialogue around these issues. However, major media outlets failed to report on this dialogue, and only alternative news sources shed light upon the emerging discourse.  It is the duty of these media companies to find a balance between reporting on sensationalist news and using their influence to bring about societal change.

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