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.