Media’s Rush to Get It First Opens Door to Racial Profiling

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  • Dead air. It’s the bane of a broadcaster’s existence.

    Dead air is that pause that is too long, that allows listeners or viewers to change stations, that costs a station advertising and ratings points. Engineers, producers, news directors, reporters who allow dead air on their station or network are looking at termination.

    And so in the wake of a major disaster, like the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week, when the networks cut away from regularly scheduled programming to report the news in real time, there can be no dead air; it has to be filled up with information – even if it just speculation and even if that speculation is stereotypical.

    In this age of Twitter, texting, Instagram, Facetime and expanding public access to digital media, traditional reporters find themselves competing with people who are not trained to stop and think about the (mis)information they are spreading. Sometimes, the reporters contribute to it, too.

    Various media outlets provided a diverse group of suspect profiles in the attack from Muslims to disaffected white right-wingers to two young men perhaps tainted by the strife of their native Chechnya where, it turned out, they never actually lived.

    At first, officials shied away from calling the bombings terrorist attacks because terror and terrorism automatically trigger an image of “radical Muslim extremists” from the Middle East, an image born of the indelible imprint that the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks embedded in the American psyche.

    Then President Obama declared that any seemingly random attack that targeted innocent civilians and created havoc, death and injury was, indeed, an act of terrorism.

    At that point, we didn’t know who did it, but it didn’t stop the news media from speculating and many of the rest of us from playing super-sleuth, taking photos, comparing them against police descriptions of possible suspects and, in the case of the New York Post, identifying the wrong people as suspects.

    CNN’s John King erroneously reported that authorities had arrested a suspect who would be brought in to federal court for arraignment. The only description provided, King said, was that the suspect was “a dark-skinned male.”

    Instructors in even the most basic, introductory news reporting classes in journalism school tell their students that such vague descriptions open the door to racial profiling. I had a field day last week talking to my students at Morgan State University about confirming information before passing it on. Many sources in these kinds of cases ask for anonymity because they are talking to reporters without clearance from their superiors, but it is important, I told my students, to always ask how the sources know this information.

    “[King] and several others who disseminated bad information throughout the day, broke clear rules by repeating information from a single source that lacked a second confirmation. They eventually came up with other sources, but only eventually,” PBS Washington Week in Review anchor Gwen Ifill wrote about the incident, without naming King specifically.

    “My friend’s error was compounded when he added useless detail. Having dark skin is not a useful descriptor in a multiracial society. It only stirs fear and free-floating suspicion unless yoked to something more specific — like hair color or clothing or other more telling detail.”

    But wait! There’s more.

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