Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.
“Today, I realize now that my fight for justice and reconciliation, perhaps much like your fight, is but a small battle in a larger war over America's narrative,” wrote African American producer Austin Cross, in his moving piece last week in LAist.com, the non-profit digital outlet of Southern California Public Radio which runs KPCC in Los Angeles.
One year ago, I wrote a piece on the ethics of reparations for African Americans. My focus in that article was on the vexing problem of two different narratives Black and white America have on anti-Black racism, even in the 21st century. Towards the end of this piece, I noted this: “So it would seem that the dual, unreconciled and conflicting narratives will likely perpetuate more conflict.”
What started as the #GeorgeFloyd protests has now swollen into a long overdue national reckoning. It has struck deep into the heart of white America’s narrative about race. There is now almost the sense that America is at a tipping point regarding real police culture change.
Narratives are the pathways along with which we tell stories, said Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in a podcast last year. Those pathways can subtly or explicitly promote white supremacy or dominance. Or they can lead to equity and justice for African Americans, in which case stories will not accommodate support for repressive police culture and white hegemony.
The white narrative has framed Black men as dangerous and guilty. “So, for me, you can’t understand these present-day issues without understanding the persistent refusal to view Black people as equals. It has changed, but that history of violence, where we used terror and intimidation and lynching and then Jim Crow laws and then the police, created this presumption of dangerousness and guilt,” says Stevenson in an interview with the New Yorker last week.
In contrast, Black narratives directly call out oppression over centuries. “We are in a fight 400 years in the making. Dismantling a global system that was created to profit off of our subjugation and oppression, will not be swift or easy,” wrote Sara Lomax-Reese, president of WURD FM, a black-owned radio station in Pennsylvania.
The word “narrative” is an important one for journalism ethics. In every democracy (not just America) with political and cultural conflicts ongoing, journalists select, legitimize and sustain one narrative over another. Is it “justice” or “law and order”? Selecting one thoughtfully is itself a decision with deep ethical implications. But even before that, being aware of this choice in narratives is the real first step.
Traditional journalism in America (newsrooms dominated by white leaders and journalists) has been guilty of perpetuating the violent stereotypes about Black men around dangerousness and guilt. This has only made it harder to change police culture. Plenty of news writing is simply set implicitly or recklessly within this narrative. Editors are so obsessed with neutrality and objectivity that they engage in “both-sidism” in the name of “diverse perspectives” across the board.
If you wanted to hear Black voices representing themselves, their journey and stories rooted in a historical context, white legacy newsrooms have never been the place to go.
Indeed the #GeorgeFloyd meltdown has brought to the fore a whole generation of newsrooms whose stories include and represent the pain, anguish, rage, and the lived experiences of Black Americans. One of them is Unicorn Riot, a non-profit media collective founded in Minneapolis that now covers the Twin Cities, Boston, Denver, and Philadelphia. Unicorn Riot specializes in livestreaming.
In this livestream of a protest over media bias outside WCCO, a CBS-owned television station in Minneapolis, a black woman says this: “It is time to hold our media accountable. For a very long time in the Twin Cities, we Black and Brown people have been painted as vicious predators, who need to be restrained, who need to be jailed.” Writing about Unicorn Riot coverage of #GeorgeFloyd in the New Yorker, Troy Patterson says that its “coverage is impressive for its intimacy with the community and unrivaled in its ability to tell the story patiently, in hour upon hour of searching the streets for clarity.”
In another LAist.com story, “The longest American war is the American Civil War, and we're fighting the last battles of the American Civil War right now,” said civil rights lawyer Connie Rice in an interview with Larry Mantle recently. Rice, noted how hard it has been to change police culture in America.
Both LAist.com and Unicorn Riot are just two examples of many local and smaller newsrooms that have rejected the white narrative and taken the side of justice. In the meantime last week, battles erupted in many legacy newsrooms as the white and Black narratives collided in the #GeorgeFloyd reckoning. New York Times’ Opinion Editor James Bennet has had to resign over his letting Senator Tom Cotton’s “Send in the military” opinion be published. And the Philadelphia Inquirer’s executive editor had to admit that it was wrong to publish the “Buildings Matter, Too” headline.
For some years, many voices have been pointing out that journalism’s traditional codes of ethics, “seek the truth, be accurate, be fair, and be transparent and accountable,” have never been enough to remedy both exclusion and misrepresentation of people of color in America. The focus on facts and information has produced fine, award-winning investigative and impactful journalism. And yet, in its culture, legacy journalism has been disinterested in choosing narratives that represent black Americans as equal humans with the same dignity as everyone. Not surprisingly the movement to reform journalistic culture has received a shot in the arm from the #GeorgeFloyd nationwide reckoning, as has the one to reform police culture and criminal justice.
Writing poignantly in the LA Times last week, Kareem Abdul Jabbar used the word “should” in a sentence. This usually signals that an ethical choice or outcome is coming: “What you should see when you see Black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.”
If there is one goal for ethics in journalism, it has got to be to help people see what should be seen and not simply feed us what we fear.