Benign neglect in reporting black news

Wiley Hall

December 20, 1990|By Wiley Hall

YOU MAY have noticed that this newspaper has been paying increasing attention to the black community.

You may even have noticed that the more we try to report on them, the angrier many blacks become at what they perceive as inaccurate, biased and stereotypical coverage.

But this may surprise you: We aren't doing it on purpose.

I know my colleagues. I know myself. I know that we aren't part of some vast, racist conspiracy to make blacks look bad.

So how does it come to appear that way?

Last year, The Nation magazine published a special issue, "Scapegoating the Black Family" which compared newspaper portrayals of blacks during the early 1900s to portrayals today.

In the early days, the press focused on the breakdown of the family: the promiscuity of the young, the irresponsibility of the men and the helplessness of the women. Coverage was so tilted toward the minority of blacks who were addicted to drugs or engaged in crime that the atypical appeared to be the typical.

The same charge is made about press coverage of the black community today.

So the question is worth asking: If the media are not malicious, why do we so often get it wrong?

I believe there are a lot of reasons, most of them related to prejudices and stereotypes, to questions we do not ask, to assumptions we do not challenge.

Here are three examples.

* We gravitate toward village idiots. Blacks often complain that -- the press quotes inappropriate leaders and spokespeople for the "black community," but the problem goes deeper than that. In fact, we frequently present the extreme voices of the black community in stories, while we choose mainstream voices in a similar story about whites.

Sometimes it is appropriate to a story to focus on the fringe, just as sometimes it is appropriate to illustrate the feelings of the mainstream. But the fact is we don't know the difference between the two. We don't know because historically the depiction of blacks has been so distorted.

* Our sources are no smarter than we. Ideally, we rely on our sources to correct our own misperceptions about a story, but what do we do when our sources frequently are as insensitive or ignorant as we are? Thus, police and prosecutors feed our stereotypes about young blacks as criminals. Social workers focus our attention on the dysfunctional black family. Educators frequently are so paranoid that we can barely get them to the phone, much less rely on them to correct our misconceptions about the learning potential of black youth.

Finally, with a conservative national government in power, a government that apparently has made a political calculation to oppose traditional civil rights causes, the perceptions of "experts" are not just unreliable; they are downright suspect.

* We tend to downplay complaints of racism. Many believe it's far too easy for blacks to whine about racism -- that blacks use the charge of racism to explain away their own shortcomings. At the same time, ironically, the complaint in the black community is that blacks too often are unwilling to challenge racism.

So the mainstream press gives scant attention to discriminatory hiring and promotion policies, to the discriminatory lending policies of the nation's financial institutions and to any number of similar examples of racism in practice. This benign neglect plays into the hands of conservatives who tend to argue that discrimination has been grossly exaggerated.

All of these errors have implications both for members of the press and for blacks who are concerned about how they are depicted. Reporters should be like Santa Claus: Check that list of assumptions, and check it twice, when covering black issues.

But it is equally important that the black community understand that these errors are just that: errors.

We have an obligation to get it right. We ought not be allowed to duck that obligation.

Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

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