These Four Headlines Highlight How Racism Subtly Permeates The Media

There is a marked difference in the way the media treats white criminals and black crime victims. There’s also a marked difference in the way they treat white shooters, like the Oregon gunman, and like Dylann Roof, and the way they treat shooters of other colors and ethnicities (particularly Arabs and black people). One Twitter user, @THECAROLDANVERS, posted photos depicting this, ahem, phenomenon. What’s the difference? See if you can spot it below:

Oregon Shooter 'Innocent' Tweet

Trayvon Martin 'Guilty' Tweet

Dylann Roof 'Innocent' Tweet

Michael Brown 'Guilty' Tweet

White shooters inevitably seem to be described as quiet loners. Their shooting rampages came out of the blue. They were mentally ill, or they must have snapped. While the media does discuss some of the things in their manifestos, or their diaries, or on their social media profiles, the headlines portray them as people for whom something must have seriously gone wrong. Such sweet, innocent people could never commit such heinous acts otherwise.

By contrast, you have two black victims of violence—Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown—whose headlines show why they were bad people. It’s a subtle, yet very racist justification for their deaths. They weren’t even the ones perpetrating the violence, like the two white shooters above. They were victims, and the media worked to make it appear as though they somehow deserved to die.

According to The Huffington Post, this isn’t a standard media practice, but it happens very frequently nonetheless. Critics of the practice call it a form of character assassination when the victim is black, and portrayed as a thug in some way. Some more examples of this shameful practice are below, via The Huffington Post:


“Ala. Suspect brilliant, but social misfit”

That’s how the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal chose to present the story of Amy Bishop, a former college professor who eventually pleaded guilty to killing three colleagues and wounding three others at a faculty meeting in 2010.


“Montgomery’s latest homicide victim had history of narcotics abuse, tangles with the law”

And that’s the headline ran about the shooting death of a 25-year-old black man in Alabama earlier this year.


“Oregon school shooting suspect fascinated with guns but was a devoted Mormon, friends say”

This Fox News headline quoted friends shocked that 15-year-old Jared Michael Padgett had entered his high school heavily armed and killed a classmate, injured a teacher and took his own life.


“Police: Slain Lakeland Teen Had Been Shot Before; Death Possibly Drug-Related”

But in Florida, this headline in the Ledger focused on a police account that made the death of a black 19-year-old seem somehow expected, or at least unsurprising.

And so forth. Click on the link above to see HuffPo’s full list. It’s quite extensive.

A piece from the Maynard Institute of Structural Inequality (MISI) discusses media coverage of white crime victims versus black crime victims. White victims tend to be overrepresented, while victims of color, particularly black and Latino victims, tend to be underrepresented. This is because the media is a business that must cater to its audience. The markets with audiences that are predominantly white want those people to empathize with crime victims, because empathy brings in more readers, ratings, and revenue. They believe that white people cannot empathize as easily if the victims are people of color.

MISI says that journalist and community activist, Thandisizwe Chimurenga, finds the focus on criminal histories of victims of color disturbing. She says:

“When you have crime victims who are of color, in particular black or brown, reporters always ask if the crime was gang-related. I often wonder why that information is important to the story. Is it a subtle type of thing like, well, maybe they got what they deserved?”

Following Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was trending all over Twitter, according to HuffPo piece. The purpose of that hashtag was to ask the question, “Which photo of me would the media use if I were gunned down?” People posted photos of themselves, side by side, and asked that question. It was designed to explore whether the media would choose a picture that portrayed innocence and purity, or guilt and evil. It asked whether the media would make it look like you deserved to die.

The media, in portraying white shooters and victims as innocently as possible, while portraying black victims as obvious menaces to society, perpetuates the institutional racism that makes it hard for their audiences to empathize with victims of color. They even help it remain deeply entrenched, when it’s something we would be well advised to do away with.


Images of Chris Harper-Mercer, Dylann Roof and Michael Brown via Twitter. Image of Trayvon Martin by David Shankbone. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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