Why did media make so many mistaken assumptions about Boston Marathon bombers' race?
WASHINGTON D.C. --- Now that we know the men who seem to have placed the bombs at the Boston Marathon were Eastern Europeans who weren’t dark-skinned and may have been from Chechnya, what do we do with all the misleading, race-based assumptions that flooded media this week?
CNN analyst and Democratic strategist Donna Brazile had a suggestion, speaking at a forum I also attended Thursday on Race in the Race for the Presidency at George Washington University. She suggested CNN reporter John King should apologize for airing a vague description that the bombing suspect was a “dark skinned male.”
“I cringed,” said Brazile, when asked about the description by GWU professor Frank Sesno, a former correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief for CNN himself, noting that the description inviting profiling of a wide range of non-white people. “I think an apology is due.”
King’s description also drew rebukes from the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for its vagueness and invitations to racial profiling. The description itself seemed an attempt to avoid such charges - focusing on the suspect’s possible skin color rather than a presumed ethnicity.
But King’s reporting blunder revealed two important facts about the modern reporting environment. First, there is enough diversity in America that providing a criminal suspects presumed skin color is really no help at all in finding the culprit.
And it is not enough, in such heated circumstances, for journalists to accurately report what law enforcement thinks at the time. They have to be careful not to pass along law enforcement's mistakes as cold facts.
It is sad to note that this incident has led some to accuse reporters themselves of being racist, when there's no proof of that at hand. As I note in my book, Race-Baiter, it is easy for people to act on or enable stereotypes without actually being racist. Such notions are persistent, comforting and a consistent part of society in so many ways, it is easy for journalists and media figures to echo such notions, particularly if they are not vigilant.
There's a reason groups such as the NABJ advise against using vague descriptions which might enable racial profiling. It's not about hurt feelings or political correctness; it's about providing accurate reporting and useful information.
Beyond King’s unfortunate reporting, the New York Post highlighted two men on its cover Thursday with the inflammatory headline, “Bag Men,” including a 17-year-old Moroccan who insisted on his innocence to media afterwards.
The Post also initially reported that 12 people had died in the bombing, when the death toll currently stands, days later, at three. Such headlines seem rooted in echoing – and selling papers by exacerbating – the wave of hysteria and anti-Muslim paranoia which swept through the nation in the wake of the bombing.
That the newspaper has tried to defend its reporting only makes the problem worse, as average consumers are left to wonder if they can trust anything passed along by the news media is the early aftermath of a traumatic disaster.
NBC’s justice correspondent Pete Williams has stood out as an example of measured, well-sourced reporting, pushing back against mistaken reports of an arrest on Wednesday and revealing .
Salon columnist David Sirota weighed in with a column titled “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American,” noting that white privilege allows murderous terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh to be seen as lone wolves, while terrorists of a Muslim background are seen as part of a conspiracy, even if they are also lone nutsos.
But the column title also revealed a suspicion also percolating in some areas of social media that the bomber might have been a white American in McVeigh’s style. As we learn more about the men zeroed in by police this morning, it seems obvious both assumptions were dead wrong.
What we should learn from this debacle, is that any speculation is domed to be wrong. But in an age of endless cable TV pontificating and Twitter-fast news reporting, pining for the days when journalists could wait for corroboration seems quaint.
After each post-disaster debacle reveals itself, media critics like me write columns like this pining for restraint and sensible reporting. But if the widespread mistakes in reporting on Newton and Boston weren’t enough to convince media outlets to step back in such reporting nothing will.