Media coverage of Buffalo shooting reflects racial bias and double standards
OPINION: Examples of biased reporting point to the power the media has in shaping what we believe.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Media coverage of the Buffalo, N.Y., mass shooting proves that some journalists and reporters cannot handle the truth about racism in America, do not understand what is going on and cannot report on racism in a fair and responsible manner.
Payton S. Gendron, 18, allegedly shot 13 people, killing 10—all of them Black—with his AR-15 rifle in a Tops supermarket in Buffalo. It didn’t take long to identify bias in the news coverage of the shooting.
For example, voices on social media have taken the news media to task for refusing to call racism by its name, which is racism. For example, Uché Blackstock tweeted on the Buffalo coverage: “Media, stop using “racially motivated”. Stop using “racial slur”. Call it what it is. It’s “racist”. It’s “racism”. It’s “white supremacy”. Stop trying to sugar coat it.”
While some journalists are reluctant to identify racism and racial violence in their reporting of the Buffalo shooter, others identified the alleged killer as a “white teenager,” as AP did before correcting it. This, even as reporting from Ferguson, Mo., referred to the unarmed Michael Brown as an “18-year old Black man,” even though the two were the same age. Media narratives of Brown not only robbed him of his youth, but painted him, the victim, as a criminal and a “thug.”
Similarly, like the coverage of other white mass shooters, reporting on Gendron has referred to him as a “lone wolf,” which portrays him as acting in isolation and not part of a larger phenomenon or popular movement that forces others to bear responsibility. As Talia Lavin wrote in Rolling Stone, Gendron is not a lone wolf, but actually a mainstream Republican, one of those who, “fed a steady diet of violent propaganda and stochastic terror, take annihilatory rhetoric to its logical conclusion.” In his manifesto, the Buffalo assailant said that he is a white supremacist and an antisemite who drew inspiration from white supremacists on the internet. An online movement agrees with the shooter and his ideas.
Some news reports on Gendron have discussed the possible role of mental illness in the massacre. And yet, in his manifesto he relies on mainstream GOP talking points such as the “great replacement theory,” the idea that Democrats, liberals and Jews are conspiring to replace white people with Black and brown immigrants. The great replacement theory is embraced by one-third of white Americans and Republican Party leadership, including Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.)—the third-ranking Republican in the House—and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who promotes the theory and urges viewers to take action.
Carlson and others have complained about the falling white birth rate as people of color, who are reproducing at higher rates, are “invading” the country and replacing white people. Once again, Gendron repeated this common Republican talking point when he wrote: “White birth rates must change…people must achieve a birth rate…that is about 2.06 births per woman.” Gendron’s preoccupation with white fertility echoes Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s evil draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Making the case for eliminating a woman’s right to an abortion, Alito wrote: “the domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth or within the first month of life and available to be adopted had become virtually nonexistent.”
Right-wing media have attacked Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney for accusing the House GOP leadership of enabling white nationalism, white supremacy and antisemitism in a tweet following the Buffalo massacre. Tristan Justice at The Federalist said Cheney had transitioned “from a center-right lawmaker to a full-blown collaborator in the left’s cultural revolution.”
And, of course, there is the effort to humanize white supremacists and feign surprise when they go on a rampage. The New York Post reported that residents of Gendron’s “quiet hometown” of Conklin, N.Y., were “stunned” following the Buffalo shooting, with one resident saying he came from a “close-knit” and “fantastic” family. Gendron’s kinfolk even suggested he snapped due to the COVID pandemic, and they did not know he was a white supremacist. Meanwhile, online messages suggest Gendron spent months planning the attack. Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that “signs of trouble had surrounded the shooter for some time,” as he was the subject of a police investigation, and he allegedly had done a reconnaissance of his target area 200 miles from his home.
These examples of biased reporting point to the power of the media in shaping what we believe. For all the talk about the news media striving for objectivity, objectivity itself is a loaded term. As Wesley Lowery noted in an op-ed in The New York Times, objectivity reflects the worldview of white reporters and editors, whose “selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers.” In other words, whiteness is the standard form through which everything flows. Rather than seek objectivity, why don’t we strive to tell the truth and be fair about it?
And how will journalists seek truth and fairness on coverage of white supremacist violence and domestic terrorism in an all-white newsroom? How do reporters lacking any racial justice training or experience inform the public on these issues? What is the responsibility of the news media to educate readers on racism, in a country where some states have banned the teaching of racial history to schoolchildren?
If we aren’t careful with these media narratives, Payton S. Gendron will become the next Kyle Rittenhouse, a hero off to the big party with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.
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