The media** is biased. But so are we. Let me explain.
A few days ago, I ran with a local runners’ group, and we paused at a beautiful “Love” mural to have a moment of silence for “people suffering all over the world… especially in Paris.” Save for those of us catching our breath in the chilly fall air, all was still and then one runner said “And Kenya!” I glanced in his direction, undecided if I appreciated his spontaneous candor or if I was annoyed by his marring of this solemn moment. That dichotomous feeling has plagued me for the past few days. After the run, I caught up with the outspoken fella -who turned out to be Ethiopian-American- and asked, feigning curiosity, “What is the capital of Kenya anyway?” He drew a blank and when I used my acting chops to affect an aha moment, I said “I think it’s Nairobi… yeah that’s it.”
The next day, I asked my intelligent, worldly coworkers the same question and only one could recall it. Meanwhile, my social media timeline included quite a potluck of views: some friends posted their favorite memories in Paris (read: a honeymoon snapshot at the Eiffel) and ferocious debates ensued as folks charged “the media” with focusing only on the Western world, ignoring the tragedies of developing countries in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.
I agree; “the media” is not interested in providing equal coverage to all people and all countries. I also believe that the media’s lack of focus on issues in poorer, blacker, and browner countries is part of general systemic racism and prejudice. But the media is also influenced by something else, something even more powerful than prejudice: ratings. And ratings are driven by what we the people look for and watch. Let me give you an example.
When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the story was picked up by “Black Twitter”, and as frustration, anger and rightful interest in the story grew organically, it hit the mainstream media outletss. People FORCED the media to pick up the story by illustrating their interest in the story and convincing the media that it was a story worth telling. Facebook didn’t have to compel folks to take pictures in hoodies; people did it on their own.(My pastor even preached in a hoodie that weekend.)
Fast forwarding to April of this year, I was sitting in traffic when an NPR reporter gravely shared the details of the brutal attack at a Kenyan university killing 147 people, primarily students. I called two Kenyan friends to ask if everyone they knew was safe. I discussed the event with A GroupMe group of super smart friends that tend to follow world news. I did grieve about the horrible atrocity of it, and mention Kenya in my prayers. But in reality, I did not do much of anything. I did not change my profile picture. I did not write a blog post. I don’t even think I mentioned it on Facebook. And neither did too many other folks, notably not even the folks complaining about the disparity of coverage now.
Here’s the thing: coverage of the Kenya terrorist attacks seemed to last as long as people were willing to follow it. If anyone ignored it, it was viewers, tweeters, and readers who saw the news and kept scrolling. Despite the absolutely barbaric nature of the attack, I don’t know how many churches mentioned it that Sunday. (Mine didn’t). But what if we’d all been paying attention? What if we’d all seen the ticker on the bottom of CNN about it and asked more questions?
James Baldwin in Paris
Admittedly Black Americans may feel a closer tie to France than we do to developing countries in Africa. We have a history of escaping America for the relatively freer streets of Paris (See Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, Nina Simone). Moreover, the majority of Black Americans have a vague and complicated relationship with the continent of Africa because of our not so voluntary migration here and not enough of us have gone back for a visit.
So in short, yes, the media should produce more stories about atrocities and triumphs in every region of the world. We shouldn’t have to force the general media to care. But this is a fixable problem. As consumers, we create the demand for content about international black and brown news. Once we finish complaining that we don’t all have Kenya or Lebanon flags options for profile pics, here are a few ways we can be a part of the solution:
- Listen to the International News – preferably not an outlet that is just going to tell you what you want to hear (Read: Not Fox News, MSNBC). Spend at least 15-20 minutes reading or listening to international news daily. For anyone with a daily commute in their car, it’s as simple as tuning your dial to NPR or the BBC News.
- Adopt a country that traditionally receives less coverage in the media and make it your job to be up on all things say… Mozambique. Set a Google alert, use search engines, subscribe to their local newspaper, magazines, and social handles. (Then tell the world what you learn; make it contagious!) And not just the terrorist attacks. Defining countries by their tragedy is more than depressing; it distances us from them.
- Make that country personal. We have a relationship with Paris, because ya know… who doesn’t know about the city of love? Who hasn’t daydreamed about eating croissants while adding their lock to the Pont des Artes bridge? Actually, you can’t do that anymore. Pray for people in Pakistan, Ethiopia and Uganda the way you would for your brother or sister. Think of Ethiopia as the more than a country struck by famine and poverty, but as the home of the eskista dance, flavorful injera bread, beautiful churches and temples and so much more. Instead of Paris, consider some less traditional alternatives for your next international trip, your honeymoon, or getaway. This helps those stories to not feel like remote events that happen “over there in the general direction of far away” and more like “The beautiful city where I tried hookah for the first time.”
Or you could just blame the media a la Ted Cruz. And I get it. Voicing concerns is valid. But then what? Let's do better.
**I hate when people make general references to "the media." Be specific.