Opinion: Racism and the US media | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 14.12.2014
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Opinion: Racism and the US media

The cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner show one-sided reporting in America's media. But in certain cases, says DW's Nalan Sipar, both sides are guilty of misrepresenting the facts.

"Michael Brown was the bad guy in this case," said award-winning journalist Bernie Goldberg on Fox News on November 25, the night the grand jury in Missouri decided that a white police officer should not be charged for the fatal shooting of the black teenager. "Please, America, let's not turn this kid into some kind of civil rights martyr, because that he is not."

Immediately after the verdict was announced, thousands of people protested took to the streets in protest in Ferguson. Major television networks like CNN, Fox News, ABC and NBC followed every second of the events, showing pictures of rioting and looting, of angry and, for the most part, black demonstrators smashing windows or pelting police with stones. But the question of why people were so angry and what they were demanding was given little attention.

'Protest images are attractive to the media'

"Images of violence in the streets or shattered windows are attractive images for television," said Robert M. Entman, professor of international affairs at George Washington University. Entman, whose research looks at the relationship between racism and the media, told DW that such images contribute to a lack of comprehension in society, as they provide no explanation for the protests.

The outrage over the grand jury decision in the Brown case had hardly subsided verdict when another grand jury decision over the death of 43-year-old black Staten Island resident Eric Garner set things off again.

Garner, who was arrested in July on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes on the streets, died when a police officer tackled him to the ground in a chokehold. In the struggle, the asthmatic man wheezed several times "I can't breathe," before dying of heart failure.

Chasm between black and white

Since the grand jury judgment in the Garner case on December 3, thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in almost daily protests, at times blocking major streets and call out Garner's last words. But the media seem to have learned little.

These mostly peaceful protests have been linked by the major news networks with rare police clashes. And even in the Garner case, where the question of whether the death was connected to possible police violence, the issue received little attention. The images shown on TV were intended not just to spread information but also form opinions, said Entman.

"Unfortunately, there's an ideological divide in the US and the conservative media stand on the side of the police, even if they have made a terrible mistake," said Entman. He fears that such media reports will only widen the gap between America's white and black communities. "And this is the real tragedy."

Questionable statistics

Images aren't the only thing spreading misinformation. In recent months, some broadcasters have produced dubious statistics that haven't quite reflected the truth.

On August 20, conservative radio host Larry Elder asked professor Marc Lamont Hill on a CNN debate how often an unarmed black is shot by a cop. "Every 28 hours. Every 28 hours, Larry," Hill replied, referring to a study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a human rights organization.

The website Politifact.com, a pool of journalists and editors which investigate such claims, took a closer look at the statistics. On its website, it stated that this claim had no scientific basis and was based on the work of an amateur researcher.

Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly was similarly careless with the statistics on his December 1 show, when he quoted a US government agency that claimed that the number of black Americans killed by police had dropped 70 percent over the last 50 years. Politifact also looked into this claim, concluding that the figures weren't complete and therefore unreliable.

Despite their sometimes biased reports, Fox News and CNN still have the highest ratings. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Americans watch CNN, while 39 percent tune into Fox News. NBC and ABC also enjoy 37 percent of the American audience.

However, those figures are expected to change. According to another Pew study, more and more people are turning to online sources for their news.