Commentary by Professor Karen M. Turner
Every January when I offer my spring semester online course, Race and Racism in the News, I ask my students to list and briefly analyze the media coverage of their three most important race related stories from the year before. When they do this exercise later this month, they will have a plethora of stories to choose from.
There were so many 2014 stories about race but the tone was set for the year with the outrageous controversy around the backlash caused when Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman, who had just made the play of his life, “ranted” on January 19th to reporter Erin Andrews. The criticism of the then 25-year-old and the vitriolic tweets laid the foundation for the sometimes mediocre job media would do in the coming months covering a story clearly about race involving young men of color. To counter the allegations that Sherman was just a highly paid “thug,” his educational accomplishments – he’s a Stanford graduate - were touted. See he’s not really a typical thug! Thanks to some of the reporting, we got to know him over the intervening weeks.
Sherman was closely followed by Sterling. In April the damning taped conversation between L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his then girlfriend V. Stiviano became public. Sterling didn’t want V. to hang out publicly with black people by bringing them to “his” games. The comments were ironic since Sterling had a team full of young talented African American men, a black coach and an active fan base that includes people of color. Much of the coverage was of incredulous sports figures outraged and hurt by the comments.
This story was closely followed by the unrelenting attacks on the Voting Rights Act that didn’t garner nearly the traction the Sterling story received. Also Saturday Night Live returned to the spotlight when newly hired writer Leslie Jones told slave jokes that fell flat. SNL was first in the news in January when it hired black female writers Jones and LaKendra Tookes, and its first black female cast member since 2007, Sasheer Zamata.
Peppered throughout the year were good news stories like the appointment of the first Native American woman as a federal judge, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the success of Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons and its star pitcher Mo’ne Davis.
But then came August 9th. The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri began a litany of high profile stories. Over the next several months we read about young black men being shot or choked to death by police, the protests that followed the killings and the subsequent legal vindication of the officers, since those involved were not indicted.
Stories about communities of color challenged and continue to challenge our newsrooms. It’s important for media to provide a context but how can they when so many of those reporting these stories can’t relate. How many reporters and editors have had the “police conversation” with their children - male and female?
In July 2013 when talking about the Trayvon Martin ruling, President Obama challenged Americans to do some soul-searching around our difficult racial history. It was not the first time we’ve been asked to have such a conversation. In 1997, President Clinton established his “Initiative on Race.” But over a year ago it was an African American United States President initiating action – someone who has experienced the challenges, pain and sometimes humiliation of living as a black man in America. So what’s the role of media in this soul-searching process? Journalists strive to be objective. However, journalists are people too. They see the world through their eyes – their own experiences. Without those in the news media accepting they too must participate in this soul-searching process, before they can adequately and accurately cover race in America, the richness of the coverage will be undermined. Media contribute to our inability to have a robust conversation about race. Stereotypes are perpetuated. It’s the norm for segments of the public to see an unarmed African American male as a thuggish black boogieman –Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Richard Sherman – or a 12-year-old Tamir Rice being mistaken for an adult or an Eric Garner selling cigarettes being choked to death – black lives do matter!
I have been facilitating an open and frank online anonymous dialogue in the Race and Racism in the News course since 1997. I challenge students to confront their biases. Yes though they’re millennials and many feel they are living in a post-racial world, they still have biases. This process isn’t easy and it isn’t always pleasant for any of us, including me. But if journalists are going to have the capacity to report and not repeat…to help frame this important conversation in a meaningful way through unbiased nuanced reporting, they must first be willing to step outside their own comfort zone to be honestly introspective. This is what the president has challenged us to do. This is my educational contribution to the next generation of journalists and media consumers.
About Karen M. Turner
Karen M. Turner is an associate professor and director of the broadcast journalism concentration in the Department of Journalism at Temple University. She is also the director of the Academic Center on Research in Diversity (ACCORD). Professor Turner served as department chair from 2000-2003. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in broadcast journalism, performance, race studies, and media law and ethics. She is a 2013 recipient of the Lindback Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award and was selected the inaugural recipient of the School of Communications and Theater’s Innovative Teaching award in 2004. Turner was awarded a Spring 2011 sabbatical to take a reflective look at her online race media studies course that she’s taught since 1997. Before joining the Temple faculty in 1992, Turner was the press secretary to former Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell. She has extensive experience as a radio journalist and talk radio interviewer having worked in such markets as Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and New Brunswick, NJ.