Commentary: Race, Journalism, and the Boston Marathon

Journalists should challenge false assumptions, not traffic in them.

Posted: 04/19/2013 03:41 AM EDT
Keith Boykin

In the past five days, we've seen bombings, explosions, poisonous letters, dramatic congressional votes and a campus shootout. I can't remember a week with so many breathtaking news stories since the chaotic days following 9/11.

Usually in times of great trials and tribulations, Americans pull together as a people. But this week seemed to pull us apart into many different directions instead.

It started when CNN's John King reported live on the air Wednesday that law enforcement authorities had identified a "dark-skinned male" suspect in the bombing case. The FBI quickly batted down that story. Then on Thursday, the New York Post ran a front-page, full-cover image of two young dark-skinned men it suggested were suspects, under the headline "Bag Men." The FBI again had to correct the media.

One of the so-called bag men was a 17-year-old high school track star named Salah Eddine Barhoum. He had gone to Boylston Street to watch the marathon just like everyone else. But he was fingered by the Post because "the only thing they look at is my skin color, and since I'm Moroccan I'm kind of dark," he told the press. Barhoum didn't plant the deadly bomb on Monday, and he was not one of the FBI's suspects.

When the FBI finally released the official images of the two suspects in the case Thursday evening, neither of them looked like dark-skinned males. In fact, they looked more like young white frat boys.

Yet in one day's time, two established media outlets had perpetuated dangerous racial profiling myths that misled the public about the suspects. Some called it "brofiling." But it would be a mistake to assume this is just about CNN or the New York Post. Instead, it's about a get-it-first corporate media culture that values activity over accuracy and feeds a hungry public that enables them.

It begins with the prejudices of the larger society. If the public demands a villain, it's easy to round up the usual suspects and find one. If they want to know who drowned those kids in a South Carolina lake, they'll believe it was a Black guy instead of their kids’ mother. If they want to know who killed that pregnant woman in Boston, they'll find another Black guy instead of her husband. If they want to know who bombed that federal building in Oklahoma City, that's a little more complicated.

Just as surely as George Zimmerman believed that unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was a gun-toting burglar, Americans make false assumptions every day about the people around them. That's why the role of the news media is to challenge those assumptions, not to traffic in them.

But when consumer demand and corporate balance sheets are allowed to dictate news coverage, the role of the reporter is changed. Their job, it seems, is to get the "scoop," get it out first, and move onto the next one, even if innocent lives are ruined in the stampede to judgment. It's no longer a quest for truth; it's a quest for ratings.

To be sure, many good reporters, editors, and producers strive for high journalistic ideals, but they too are stuck in a system that more often rewards excitement than enlightenment. Why bother to read and explain the actual text of the president's health care bill when you can find two pundits to debate a ridiculous question about death panels? Why bother to explain how the recently rejected gun background check proposal specifically prohibits a national gun registry when you can call up two activists to duke it out on live television?

When the news media operate on principles of entertainment, it's far too tempting to reinforce societal prejudices and far too easy to succumb to public demands for instant gratification. We saw that repeatedly this week with the dizzying pace of breaking news events taking place.

I've long believed the old adage that a journalist's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Of course reporters serve as a bulwark against corporate malfeasance and political demagoguery, but they also protect us from mass hysteria. This past week saw many fine examples of excellence in reporting, including journalists who got the story right and those who stayed up through the wee hours of Friday morning reporting the latest news. But we also saw problematic stories and inaccurate reports that undermine the public's confidence in what we do.

This is not CNN's proble, or the New York Post's problem or Fox News's problem. This is our problem. As journalists, we must do better. As Americans, we should expect nothing less.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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