For decades, the mainstream media has helped shape the narrative that Black and Brown men who cause harm are irredeemable and should be incarcerated. This has been done with dehumanizing words including “brute,” “thug,” “inmate” and “felon.” As well as through repeatedly showing sensational, click bait stories of Black and Brown men committing random acts of violence on the evening news and in the headlines of newspapers. All these stories send the message that our cities won’t be safe until these men are incarcerated.
According to one study, when a mass shooting takes place, white shooters are most often referred to as “victims of society” – under undue stress. The same study shows that the media is 95 percent more likely to call a white shooter mentally ill than a Black shooter. The disparities paint white shooters as victims of their circumstances, and Black and Brown shooters as being worthy of blame by virtue of a moral failing. These images and labels have caused many in society to view Black and Brown men who harm as inherent threats to safety and therefore disposable.
As Michelle Alexander said in her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” “we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.” Today’s practices of mass incarceration, systemic racism, and policing are akin to slavery, segregation, and slave patrols. And the labeling has oftentimes been done by editors, reporters, and journalists. The results are telling:
- Black men are 5 times more likely to be imprisoned in this country than whites where they subjected to sexual and physical violence while inside.
- Black and Latinx men are more likely to receive harsher sentences than white men are -- even when convicted of the same crime.
- Black and Latinx men are 1.3 times more likely than white men to be murdered by police.
In recent years, some progressive media outlets and elected officials have pointed out how criminalizing labels can reinforce this damaging narrative. Yet, most mainstream news outlets continue to practice the same harmful practices mentioned above.
If news outlets want to be held accountable to the public they serve, especially Black and Brown communities who have been most harmed by their reporting, they should start doing the following:
- Acknowledge how decades of racially biased and irresponsible reporting have helped to fuel the mass incarceration of countless Black and Brown men.
- Produce news stories that highlight programs that address violence without relying on incarceration, such as restorative justice and violence intervention programs.
- Talk to victims of crime, especially Black and Brown survivors, to see if they would select an alternative to incarceration if given the choice.
- Stop continuing the victim/criminal binary. Many Black and Brown men who are survivors of crime have also caused harm in the past and might commit a violent act in the future (especially if placed in carceral setting where they stand a high chance of being re-victimized). Show this reality, talk to these victims, and report a full, nuanced story – not media bites and fearmongering click bait.
We are a generation that has easier access to information than any that has come before us. With such an abundance of information comes a responsibility to ensure that stories are told fairly, honestly, and paint a full picture of the details. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance, and this type of discrimination can no longer be tolerated.