Why is that when black people are killed, either the story is ignored, or at best, it gets only second or third-tier coverage?
The news last week coming out of Wilkinsburg, Pa. (Allegheny County adjacent to Pittsburgh) is heartbreaking and shocking to the conscience. A team of two gunmen gunned down and killed five people, including a pregnant woman, and seriously wounded two others at a backyard cookout. The death of the fetus was ruled as a homicide, which raised the death toll to six. One of the victims was shot 50 times, and one of the attackers even used an AK-47 rifle to shoot his victims in the head. By all accounts, this was a military-style operation.
Drugs were not ruled out as a possible motive. Although we might not know the whole story, this much is certain: The victims were black, no white folks were involved, and apparently this was not the work of ISIS. So, in other words, keep moving, nothing to see here.
And it is not that the ambush-style mass murder was not covered in the media but rather that it was covered in a manner that is customary when black lives are at stake — or should we say, when black deaths are involved.
Even in a nation that, far too often, is accustomed to mass shootings, these mass shootings still make front page news. However, no one seems to care about the murder of poor black people, and so the story is buried.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf linked the gun violence in urban centers to poverty and poor schools. “In Wilkinsburg, 40 percent — 40 percent — of the people live in poverty right here in Pittsburgh,” Wolf said. “There are four of the most impoverished school districts in the Commonwealth right here in Pittsburgh. Gun violence is tied to poverty, and we have to find ways to address the root cause of poverty in communities across Pennsylvania,” he added.
But really, the lack of coverage isn’t simply a matter of no one caring, but also an issue of certain people not caring. And by “certain people,” I mean the people who run the newsrooms and decide what is newsworthy. While you can count on African-American-owned media and Black Twitter to spread the word, the fact remains that the majority of newsrooms are predominantly white and male. And that goes for digital newsrooms as well as newspapers when it comes to the lack of diversity.
Sadly, at a time when people of color are poised to become a majority in America, that reality is not reflected in who reports the news. Last year, according to the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University, only 12.76 percent of the 32,900 people employed in newspaper newsrooms are racial minorities. And that number has remained steady over the past several years. Moreover, while people of color are nearly 40 percent of the population, black and brown journalists accounted for only 22 percent of television journalists and 13 percent of radio journalists in 2014.
This is nothing new. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released the Kerner Report, concluding that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” On the lack of inclusion in America’s newsrooms and racial bias in reporting, the Kerner Report said: “It would be a contribution of inestimable importance to race relations in the United States simply to treat ordinary news about Negroes as news of other groups is now treated.”
Sadly, five decades later, little has changed. Stereotypes are at play, and people in news organizations still tend to hire those who look like themselves. And when everyone in a news organization looks alike, there’s your problem. As a result, even as the country is becoming increasingly diverse, the news coverage is lagging behind, unable or unwilling to reflect the concerns and perspectives of their multicolored audience.
Meanwhile, another shooting that the media covered was last year’s Charleston massacre at Emanuel AME Church, when white supremacist and Confederate sympathizer Dylann Roof gunned down nine black churchgoers during Bible study. The media did cover the mass shooting, although they did so from the perspective of race, since the shooter was white. And black people were even more engaged in the issue because of that reality. However, the media were also reluctant to characterize the mass murder as an act of terrorism, because white men in America are not considered terrorists. This even as African-Americans have been the victims of the Ku Klux Klan and other domestic terrorists for years, with or without the news cameras and reporters showing up.
That’s why the media decided that mass shooting in Pennsylvania wasn’t all that important, or at least not important enough to be the top story of the day.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove