White Suspects vs. Black Victims

A common ethics controversy in media work is the disparity between the portrayal of white suspects and black victims, mostly in the context of unarmed victims being shot by police.

The media often emphasizes a white suspect’s once-promising future and non-suspicious background while blaming the black victim for his or her fate.

A prime example of this controversy is the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by a Darren Wilson, a police officer. The New York Times ran opposing profiles of the two.

In Brown’s, the Times said the teenager was “no angel” and that he drank, used drugs and rapped vulgar lyrics.

In Wilson’s, the Times begins with a story of the officer’s heroics in an earlier incident that earned him a commendation from the police chief. It ends by calling him a “gentle, quiet man.”

This is repeated many times over by many different news sources about many different suspects and victims. The Huffington Post has a piece with many different examples of the varying portrayals.

The issue with this controversy seems to boil down to racism. The only thing that all the victims have in common is that they’re black. The only thing that all the suspects have in common is that they’re white.

Responding to or fixing this issue isn’t just a problem faced by the media. It has dominated the national conversation for years as we struggle to overcome inherent bias. It is not a problem with an easy solution.

A start to resolving this controversy is through accountability. Social media users are calling out journalists and media sources that display this bias to draw attention to its injustice.

When The New York Times published its piece on Michael Brown, the company was called out for the unfair and controversial coverage.

Other news sources have been called out for photos they use to represent victims that may make the victim seem more guilty, such as a photo of the victim in ill-fitting clothes with a serious face, or the suspect seem more innocent, such as a graduation photo.

News sources should strive for equality and fairness for all coverage of these sensitive situations. For one, photos of victims or suspects should not have such a great influence on the perception of these individuals and should be carefully chosen with that thought in mind.

Additionally, descriptions of these victims or suspects should be without bias. Quotes are different, of course, but when The New York Times called Michael Brown “no angel,” it was an unfair label.

This is an ongoing problem with no easy solution. However, if journalists strive for fairness and unbiased reporting, it will get better.

 

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The Effect of James Balog

In my senior year of high school, I vividly remember watching the documentary “Chasing Ice,” which followed one man and his team tracking the retreat of glaciers through time-lapse photography.

It may sound dry, but it was anything but. This was because the man, James Balog, was an extremely effective communicator. In fact, “Chasing Ice” was the reason that I chose to study the environment in college.

James Balog was a very convincing and successful communicator, both during the documentary and in following speeches and articles. His documentation of glacial retreat through photography and link to anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change was staggering.

Balog used photography, filmmaking, and speaking as his primary tools of effective communication. I hope to emulate his success as a communicator throughout my career in the environmental sector.

Balog, using photographs, scientific graphs and data and speech to relay the causes and effects of climate change, made a complex issue sound simple. Climate change, sometimes difficult to quantify, was a non-negotiable in “Chasing Ice.”

Balog’s photography brought artistic value to the graphs and data used, similarly to descriptive writing in an article. It was a different way of communication, but just as effective.

During his film and in a speech after, Balog used visual cues such as stacking up the Capitol Building or the Eiffel Tower in order to explain the scale of ice loss. It was helpful to imagine the retreat in sizes relatable to the human brain.

Balog compared art to science during a speech, saying that art was about the aesthetic while science was about the rational and the quantitative. He used “Chasing Ice” and his photographs to combine the two values that seemed to be at odds with each other.

He used interesting similes and metaphors, such as calling glacial ice the “canary in a global gold mine.” These lines were intriguing and, similarly to the visual cues, helped to explain the scale of the problem.

The greatest thing I believe James Balog does as a communicator is advocates. While there is value in objectivity, I believe a primary function of a good communicator is advocacy.

Balog’s film and subsequent projects support educational awareness of anthropogenic climate change. He doesn’t just give scientific data. Instead, he explains the data and then follows it up with a call for global change.

James Balog has already had an incredible effect on my life through “Chasing Ice,” and I hope to emulate his success as a communicator now and in the future.

The Beauty of “The Really Big One”

When applying to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, I highlighted my interest in scientific writing and the ability to explain scientific terminology and theories in beautiful description.

A particular article that exemplifies this interest is “The Really Big One.” In it, Kathryn Schulz writes about a powerful earthquake that is overdue to occur in the Pacific Northwest for The New Yorker. Schulz seamlessly blends vivid, detailed descriptions with scientific explanations.

Schulz begins with the story of a seismologist, Chris Goldfinger, who was in Japan at an international meeting on seismology when the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck, causing death and destruction. She describes the ground as it “snapped and popped and rippled,” creating a beautiful image of a natural disaster. Events like deadly earthquakes are always interesting to read about and I was quickly hooked.

From there, Schulz introduces the concept of fault lines and tectonic plates, again combining scientific terminology and eloquent imagery. She explains tectonic plates as “slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans.”

Schulz does more than just describing tectonic plates, however. She also includes an activity to help the reader learn what exactly is happening between the North American and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates. By using your hands, you can explore how the plates are interacting and how an encounter between the two will cause a devastating earthquake.

Additionally, Schulz does a remarkable job of using doomsday language to describe what could be the consequences of the earthquake and the following tsunami. A quote I found particularly chilling remarked, “Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin.” The line causes goosebumps and paints a vivid, terrifying picture of what the earthquake will bring.

The beauty and urgency of Schulz’s writing made me feel panicked and nervous, as if I was truly witnessing this hypothetical albeit seemingly inevitable destruction. I live in the Midwest, far from where this earthquake would hit, yet still found myself anxious for its arrival.

Throughout the article, Schulz peppered in surprising details among interviews with officials, historical lessons, and scientific explanations. By adding shock value, the story continued to be interesting and engaging.

Schulz’s article wasn’t necessarily challenging to read, which I believe was a good thing. She took a scary but fascinating subject and explained the nuances simply. I understood the transitions and connections she made throughout the story. Schulz was able to successfully make the science behind the future Cascadia earthquake easy to understand and intriguing to read about.

As stated above, I had read this article before and it was, and continues to be, an influential factor in my decision to pursue journalism as a major and as a career. With this in mind, I wouldn’t suggest any differences for this story. Schulz wrote an influential article that perfectly navigated how to make a scientific, environmental topic appealing and understandable to all readers.