This is the transcript of The James Cameron Memorial Lecture entitled ‘Democratic Inbalance:Who Decides What’s News” delivered at City University in London on Monday February 22nd
AS a language student during the dying days of the Soviet Union I lived with a woman and her son in what was then Leningrad and now St. Petersburg. Every week day evening around 8.45pm my hostess would get herself ready to take their dog, a cocker spaniel called Redek, for a walk. Since I’m no lover of the cold and not a great lover of dogs I would watch with bemusement as she readied herself and Redek for the trip to the local park. By 8.55 she’d be out the door. You could set your watch by it.
Everybody has their routines and I thought little of it until Spring came and I decided, one night, to accompany her. I noted a slight urgency in her voice as she stood by the door, lead in hand, while I combed the flat for my hat. We made it out on time – though on time for what wasn’t exactly clear – and arrived at the park to find scores of dog owners already there. “What’s this?” I asked. “It looks like a meeting.”
“We call it the “dog hour”,” she explained. “It’s when the state news, Vremya, is on. We don’t want to listen to the propaganda so we walk our dogs.”
A collective, non-showy act of civil disobedience against a political culture that had left information sources so polluted they were no longer worthy of even of decoding.
There’s been many a day since then when I have looked at what passes for news, in screen or in print, and wished I did like dogs just so I could take one for a walk in those moments and see who would join me. Not because we live in a totalitarian state that dictates what the news should be; but because we live in an ostensibly democratic state in which the fate of large sections of society are written out of the news agenda in ways, which I will illustrate, force a reckoning with the nature of the democracy that we live in.
Roughly 25 years ago – none of us are getting any younger – I enrolled in this very university as a post-graduate student on the Newspaper Journalism course. Though I thoroughly enjoyed myself, anyone who was here at the time will tell you that I was neither the best nor always the most cooperative student. Nonetheless some things stuck with me.
During the first few weeks or so we were introduced to a number of quotes encapsulating what constitutes news in an sense. They ranged from George Orwell’s “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” to Lord Northcliffe’s definition, that “journalism [is] A profession whose business is to explain to others what it personally does not understand.”
Among them was probably the most widely known aphorism regarding what constitutes a story. Attributed to either Alfred Harmsworth an early 19th century British newspaper magnate or New York Sun editor John Bogart, of the same period, it stated simply. “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” Now every now and then in 2000 in Santa Cruz California, 2007 in India, 2008 in Brazil or 2010 in Connecticut – Wikipedia is a wonderful resource – a man really would bite a dog and sub-editors would lick their lips and dust off the headline. But given how many dogs we assume have bitten people we can safely say the rule still holds.
But over the past few years I have wondered if there might not be an addendum to that adage – a qualifying footnote to what seems like the obvious. Because sometimes events derive their potential news value precisely because they happen so often. That there are things that happen with such regularity and predictability that journalists have simply ceased to recognise their news value – not least if those things are least likely to happen to the people most likely to be journalists. That much of what we have come to accept as commonplace has dulled our curiosity to why so much of what is commonplace is unacceptable; that given the prevailing and escalating inequalities and inequities we simply do not occupy the same worlds we portend to cover – even when those worlds are right on our door step.
That there is value in asking:”Why do dogs keep biting people” “Who owns these dogs?” And “Why do the same people keep getting bitten.” I’m going to make the case for why this matters primarily with reference to the United States, since that is where I have been reporting for the past 12 years. But I am confident that the overarching points work as well here in the United Kingdom or almost anywhere else in the Western world.
Now the British can be bashful. Not long after I started working at The Guardian someone who was looking for me in the office asked someone to point me out to them. There were only a handful of black journalists at the time but still the person described me as “The short stocky guy with the earring.” So to avoid any confusion tonight, I am a black journalist who will talk about things that largely, but not exclusively, relate primarily to black people. But make no mistake. The points I make are universal. They relate as keenly to why the media has made such a mess of reporting Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, as to how we misunderstood the riots of a few years back and continue to misunderstand many of the root causes of terrorism.
IN her biography of Harlem Renaissance writer, Zora Neale Hurston, Valerie Boyd explained why it was so difficult to track Hurston’s whereabouts during her early twenties . “In 1911 it was relatively easy for someone, particularly a black woman, to evade history’s recording gaze,” wrote Boyd in Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. “If not legally linked to a man, as daughter or wife, black women did not count in some ways – at least to the people who did the official counting.”
The question of who counts and whom is counted is not simply a matter of numbers. It’s also about power. Collecting information, particularly about people, demands both the authority to gather data and the capacity to keep and transmit it. Those who have both the authority and the capacity need to feel that those they are keeping tabs on matter. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, as the dead floated in the street and the living were stranded on highways and rooftops a huge crowd of mostly black and poor people descended on the city’s convention centre. When asked why relief organisations had been caught off guard the hapless director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, responded: “We’re seeing people that we didn’t know exist.”
Hence the title Democratic Imbalance: Who Decides What’s News. Because the growing political and economic inequalities, both within nations and between them, is not only replicated in journalism but is increasingly being amplified by it. The upshot is an elite consensus, episodically shattered by the intrusion of more democratic forms of new technology, but never ultimately displaced.
In short not everybody counts and, therefore, not everybody is counted. We know, for example, how many US soldiers died during the Iraq invasion because the US government had to keep record. One can only imagine the outcry if they didn’t. But we can only guess how many Iraqi civilians or insurgents have died because there was no Iraqi state to count them and it was not in US interests to keep a tally, let alone learn their names. We know how many US police officers are killed in the line of duty in any given year, but there is no national tally for how many people are killed by US police officers.
It is revealing that as far as anyone can make out there has not been an increase in the number of black people being killed by the US police in the last couple of years. What there has been is a growing political awareness has forced a reckoning with a reality that has existed for several years. These shootings are not news in the conventional sense. They are neither rare nor, to the communities involved, particularly surprising. They are news simply because those who make the news – us – can no longer ignore them. Because, as was the case with Trayvon Martin, facebook and twitter smelled a rat before we could. The world hasn’t changed; what’s changed is our ability to pass off the grotesque as unremarkable.
When I interviewed the late Maya Angelou in 2002, she told me that the September 11 attacks of the previous year were understood differently by African Americans. “Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America,” she said. “But black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.” It is that state of terror that has been laid bare these last few years.
The American media episodically “discovers” this daily reality in much the same way that teenagers discover sex – urgently, earnestly, voraciously and carelessly, with great self-indulgence but precious little self-awareness. They have always been aware of it but somehow when confronted with it, it nonetheless takes them by surprise. And then their surprise becomes the news – “Crikey look what I’ve found out” – rather than the news itself – “Goodness, look what’s been going on while I’ve been looking elsewhere.”
I want to illustrate this point, at some length, with examples from a book I have just written called Another Day in the Death of America which comes out in November. The book is premised on the fact that every day, on average, 7 children or teens, are shot dead in America. I picked a day at random – November 23rd 2013 – and then set out over the next two years to find out who these kids were, seeking out everyone who knew them from their parents to their pastors and basketball coaches. 10 kids were shot dead that day across the country – the youngest was 9 the eldest just a few days shy of his 20th birthday.
One of them was Samuel Brightmon, a 16-year-old kid who was shot dead in South Dallas while walking down the street with his friend. Under the headline “Teen Fatally Shot While Walking Down Street” The Dallas Morning News wrote: “Police are investigating after a teenager was fatally shot Saturday night when walking down the street in Southeast Dallas. Police say Samuel Brightmon, 16, and another 16-year-old were walking in the 7300 block of Schepps Parkway around 11 p.m. when they heard gunshots. As the teens tried to run away, Brightmon was shot and collapsed in the street, according to police. Brightmon was taken to Baylor University Medical Center of Dallas where he was pronounced dead. No suspect has been identified.”
That was it. They didn’t have an awful lot to go on. The police report is similarly minimal, adding only that it believed the shooting was not gang related. In the days to come there there was no profile; no testimony from his school friends or teachers. No sense of who he was let alone why he was killed. A young man was removed from the planet and just got a paragraph. How can that be?
Samuel Cordrey Brightmon, known to his family as “Dey Dey”, was a sweet tempered, fragile young man – a homebody who’s best friend was his younger sister Whitney who as often as not fought his battles for him. Just coming out of his shell, he’d recently been elected vice president of his school council. The women in his extended family described him alternatively as the son they never had or wished they’d had. His father worried that he was too good-natured for city life. “My most fear for him was because he’ll befriend anybody. He ain’t never met no stranger. That’s his type of mentality. He’s so naïve.”
SUCH was the short life whose death received such short shrift in the Dallas media. I spoke to a Dallas Morning News reporter who had done one of these Sunday crime blogs – which was where Samuel’s death was recorded. They described it as a shift with a macabre but predictable routine with the day starting busy. “If something’s going to happen then it will usually happen between the hours of midnight and 4 am,” they said.. “The kind of time when your mother tells you nothing good happens.” Shootings, drunk drivers and domestic violence are the staples from the Saturday night before. “There’s a police data base that I go to and then I make calls. I search for murders, sudden deaths, aggravated assaults. It’s pretty common to have at least one shooting although they’re not always fatal.”
It’s their task to record it, not to follow it up. So when the day was done they hand the stories over to the the regular crime team which would take up the weekend stories they think are worth running with. Samuel’s death didn’t make the cut.
That didn’t surprise them. Indeed it would surprise very few. Pleasant Grove, the area where Samuel was shot, is poor, black and on the South side of Dallas and is disparagingly known as ‘Unpleasant Grove”.
Shootings were common there, confirmed the journalist. “People are desensitised to it. They reason that’s just where bad things happen.” I heard this refrain often when talking to the journalists who’d covered that day’s shootings. Clearly, I was the only one who had called them to follow up on the story. They would kindly rifle through their notes and tell me what they knew and, if they’d been to the crime scene, what they had seen. Invariably, when I asked if they had any contact details for family members I could speak to or if there had been any developments in the investigation, they would, explain, somewhat matter-of-factly, why they had moved on. “Unfortunately homicides are not uncommon in that area,” said one. “Unless something unexpected happened it just wouldn’t be the kind of story we’d follow up on,” said another.
As a journalist myself I understand this. I have no idea what happened to Jesus Josef, an 8-year-old Haitian boy, whom I met in the Dominican Republic in 2005. He had turned up at a refuge center with his neck twisted from carrying heavy loads and his shoulders bearing welts from the mistreatment of the family who had bought him and used him as a domestic slave. Nor do I know the fate of Kulo Korban, whom I met in Sierra Leone in 1998, who had both his ears and three fingers amputated by rebels in the conflict there. After a week reporting from both places I moved on.
I write this with neither pride nor guilt. There is a level of detachment inherent, and arguably necessary, in the profession. Without it one would become emotionally depleted. Moreover one is constantly gauging what more there is to say and who would be listening if you said it. Outlets have limited resources. Editors have to justify budgets for keeping you in a certain place or sending you back to trace each individual story which in turn must be balanced against what other new stories one might be missing. Journalism is not social work. And even social workers, to be effective, must move on.
That said, these are little more than rationalisations for how I, and other journalists, exercise our relative power. Another rule of thumb I learned while studying here was that – with the obvious exception of personal essays – as journalists we should never make ourselves the story. That has always made a lot of sense to me. There is nothing more irritating than reading an interview or a profile and learning more about the interviewer – how they feel, what they’ve done, whom else they’ve interviewed – than the interviewee. There is a worrying trend, particularly in magazine journalism, that we can only understand a story when it is told in the first person.
That said, it must also be acknowledged that journalists are always in every story we write for the very obvious reason that we write them. It is that very fact that gives lie to the bankrupt notion of objectivity in journalism. We are people, not algorithms. We bring something to the stories we do – life experience, a worldview, our craft, our assumptions and presumptions our myriad identities and allegiances – in short ourselves. The more powerful we are the less likely we are to acknowledge that we bring anything at all of course. Straight people are never asked when did you first realise you were straight; as a male foreign correspondent with a kid nobody asked me how do I balance my job with childcare.
Now of course whatever it is you bring you had better bring the facts with you. Without them you’re no real use to anybody as a journalist. But let’s not pretend that the facts are some neutral entity. They come through you. They reflect the priorities you lay out. They exist in relation to other facts you wither may not know or may have discarded.
‘The facts speak only when the historian calls on them,” EH Carr argued in his landmark essay, The Historian and His Facts, almost 50 years ago. And for historian here read journalist. “It is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context … It is the historian who has decided for his own reasons that Caesar’s crossing of that petty stream, the Rubicon, is a fact of history, whereas the crossing of the Rubicon by millions of other people before or since interests nobody at all……The facts of history never come to us pure, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form. They are always refracted through the mind of the recorder.”
We choose whose stories are told, whom we go back to and where these resources are deployed. And those choices are not objective. They are made on the basis of what stories we subjectively consider are worthy of being told at any given time. The fact that most media outlets are commercial enterprises is of course a factor. The more a story costs and the less likely it is to bring in readers (and therefore revenue) the less likely institutions are to invest resources in it. But it is not the only factor and generally not the most important.
Even without the profit motive, news values are not human values. If they were, the front page of every newspaper and leading item on every bulletin would be “Child dies of hunger”. But since we know that millions in the world don’t have enough to eat and that at any given time a child somewhere may perish from malnourishment, it is not deemed news. In all likelihood a newspaper that decided to run that headline every day would sell precious few copies.
Some call this compassion fatigue. But in her study of responses to the reporting of atrocities Susan Moeller argued it was not fatigue but avoidance that averted people’s gaze. “We’ve got compassion fatigue, we say, as if we have involuntarily contracted some kind of disease that we’re stuck with no matter what we do,” she writes.
In States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering Stanley Cohen argues that the avoidance comes from a lack of empathy: “The problem with multiple images of distant suffering is not their multiplicity but their psychological and moral distance. Repetition just increases the sense of their remoteness from our lives. These are not our children; we have no bond with them; we can never experience their presence; all we know about them is that they exist for that dislocated thirty seconds during which the camera focused on them.”
That general sense of remoteness is clear from not just the cursory way in which the deaths of these kids are reported, but in the way that many understand them. It was intriguing to me how many people, when I told them about my book project, immediately wanted to know how many of the deaths were gang-related, as though that might provide some acceptable context in which a child or teen might be shot.
The first comment in the short online story of Samuel’s death came from Marg Bargas, who wrote: “I have two adult kiddos and there’s no way they would’ve been out walking streets after dark, AND I always knew where they were. I do not blame the victims but all parents could do better.” A mother has just lost her child and this is your contribution to the discussion. There is no empathy here – the assumption is this simply could not have happened to me because I’m a better parent. The fact was Samuel was accompanying his friend, Denzell, on the 10 minute walk back to his his grandmother’s house after a family night drinking cocoa, playing UNO and watching a movie with his mom, friend and sister. His mother, a loving and attentive parent, knew exactly where he was; she just couldn’t save him. This is how we have come to a stage, in America certainly, where black parents have to make the case for why their unarmed child should not have been shot.
“The way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe,” wrote John Berger in Ways of Seeing. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” What is truly unsettling is that when some people see that a black kids has been shot they are far more comfortable blaming the kid and his family than the shooter and the society that allows guns to circulate so freely. And some of those people are journalists.
So the fact that sections of the public don’t want to know about certain kinds of repetitive suffering does not make the fact that the media does not report on it less problematic. First it is, to some degree, a self-fulfilling prophecy. By failing to report child hunger consistently we cease to think about it and come to accept it as an unfortunate, intractable fact of life. Since it’s unlikely to be reported it’s less likely to be discussed. The less we talk about children starving the less we talk about why they starve and what we might do to feed them and the less public pressure there is on politicians to address starvation. Indeed, this is where the issue of democratic imbalance is most keen. For how can we expect legislative action about issues that are not discussed or which are only discussed in certain ways.
Our ability to shape public opinion and policy should not be underestimated. For several months last year the British public was being fed xenophobic and, as often as not, ill-informed journalism about refugees- particularly from Syria. To read it you wouldn’t know that, compared to poorer countries like Jordan and Turkey, let alone wealthier ones like Germany and Sweden, Britain accepted precious few refugees. Sun columnist Katie Hopkins described them as cockroaches. Then came another act of journalism that turned the conversation on its head: the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, face down in the surf, in red t-shirt, blue shorts, and trainers. Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis in reverse, the “insect” became a person. Not a cockroach but somebody’s son. And only then could the mob be momentarily marginalised and the polity embarrassed into reckoning with its moral and legal obligations.
Second this reasoning comes with a set of assumptions on behalf of those who make editorial decisions about who ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ want to know and what ‘we’ think ‘we’ know already. I remember seeing this in action while at The Guardian one morning when an editor came in and asked if anyone had seen Jamie Oliver the previous night. “I love Jamie Oliver,” he said. At the 10.30 conference, when editors from various sections told the rest of the paper what they were planning, it was announced that this particular section’s cover would be ask “Why do we love Jamie Oliver.” The next day the cover story was “Why does Britain love Jamie Oliver.”
Such is the seamless transition from ‘I’ to ‘We’ when it comes to projecting your priorities in the media. For those who have always assumed that they can speak for others and that their voice will always be heard, understood and respected – no translation is required. “The ideas of the ruling class,” Karl Marx once pointed out, “are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” That doesn’t mean those ideas can’t be challenged, engaged with or that there might not be some plurality among those ideas. But broadly speaking, they drive the tide against which other competing ideas must swim.
This is where the distance and the challenge of empathy comes in. To go back to our previous example, the further you are from experiencing child hunger or knowing anyone who has experienced it, the less likely you are to see it as a priority or to see its victims as newsworthy. Put bluntly, a child dying of hunger is a far more newsworthy event for those who know the child than for those who don’t and are never likely to.
“The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event,” wrote Walter Lippmann in his landmark book, Public Opinion. “That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts….Our opinions cover a bigger space, a longer reach of time, a greater number of things, than we can directly observe. They have, therefore, to be pieced together out of what others have reported.”
So news values are not an objective account of the most important things that have happened in any given time and place. They are the sum total of the priorities and received wisdom of those who provide the news. And ‘those who provide the news’ are not a representative group. In 2013 The median personal income in the US was $24,062, 30.4%% of the country have degrees while racial minorities comprise 39% of the population. American journalists earn a median salary of $50,028, 8.5% of them are from minorities and 92% have degrees. The British figures are less skewed in terms of income and race but nonetheless an analagous, if not quite as sharp, imbalance remains. So newsrooms are considerably whiter, wealthier and better educated than the population in general.
What I am not saying here, and I couldn’t emphasise this enough, is that only hungry people can write about hungry people. That rich should not be able to write about poor or white about black. That way madness lies. We should never underestimate our capacity to empathise, analyse and engage beyond ones own immediate experience. It simply recognises the distance between subject and object – the distance a journalist or organisation will need to travel to remain both relevant, competent and respected.
What I am saying is that in the absence of diverse newsrooms these problems become more acute. That the point of having a critical mass of a range of different classes, ethnicities, religions, regions and a gender balance in your news room is not to make you feel good. It is not so that you can look different and yet act the same. That might provide photo opportunities but not equal opportunities. That, in the words of Angela Davis, is the model of diversity as the “difference that brings no difference and the change that brings no change.”
The point is that it enables us, as news organisations, to do our jobs better. That if Dallas news organisations had a journalist who lived in Pleasant Grove, or a place like it, they might have been motivated to find Samuel’s family and discover a little bit more about his story. Even though I was living in Chicago I found his family fairly easily. There was no great mystery. While in Texas giving a talk I drove to Dallas and left a note at the church where is memorial service was held and another at the funeral parlour that buried him. His aunt called and put me in touch with his mum.
Through her I found out how they came to live in Pleasant Grove. That she was working for a firm that provided home help when her boss was indicted for Medicaid fraud. The lawyer told her she should leave the job or she could find herself caught in the legal web. She took that opportunity to heed a doctor’s advice and get an operation which take a long time to heal. While she was healing she was rear ended on the freeway which left her with a deranged knee. She couldn’t walk for several weeks. If she couldn’t walk she couldn’t work. Her unemployment benefits ran out. Within two months she found herself evicted from her apartment. She moved in with her sister. Two adults and four kids in a two bedroom house. That couldn’t last long. And so she moved to Pleasant Grove. The one place that would take her with shot credit. The place where black kids being shot isn’t news.
There was a story here – for anyone who wanted it – about the precariousness of middle class living in America, where one in three either live in poverty or struggle in the category the census terms the ‘near poor’. According to one study 80% of American adults have in the course of their lives, endured a year or more of periodic joblessness, near-poverty or relied on welfare. One accident away from the poor house; the descent from comfort to penury precipitous and round every corner. It was a story hidden in plain sight. It just needed someone to unshackle themselves from their assumptions to pursue it and take off the blinkers to see it.
Seven years earlier a far more egregious example of this selective understanding of what constitutes a story came to my attention in Detroit. I was actually pursuing the same theme for a Weekend magazine piece – it’s where the idea for the book came from – of all the kids who were shot dead in one day.
Detroit’s two main newspapers never even saw fit to mention the name of Brandon Martell Moore when they described how a 16-year-old had been shot dead outside National Wholesale Liquidators after a tussle with a security guard. They barely rewrote the police press release. It was a news in brief. Brandon, it turned out, was in the store with his cousins and his uncle. The store had a policy that children should not be unaccompanied. But when the uncle went to pay the kids stayed to look at some video games. A security guard told them to get out. They told him they were with his uncle. The guard got physical. Brandon’s older brother fought back. When they saw the guard’s gun fly out of his pocket they all started to run. The guard got down on one knee, put one arm on top of the other, started trying to take them out. He shot Brandon in the back and killed him.
That in itself is worth more than a paragraph. But then came what should have made banner headlines. The guard, it turned out, was an off duty cop. In 1971, he was sacked from the force after he was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while under the influence of alcohol. He was reinstated in 1974 on appeal. Five years later, he shot dead an armed and drunk 31-year-old man while in a neighbourhood dispute. Five years after that, he shot his wife in the side during a domestic dispute in which he claimed she lunged at him with a pair of scissors.
This was the man who killed Brandon. This was the story not worth telling.
This is less the product of malign neglect than the unconscious omissions born from the dead weight of power and privilege that makes the poor and dark in America invisible. In short there are places in almost every American city, where children and teens are expected to get shot; areas where the deaths of young people by gun fire does not contradict a city’s general understanding of how the world should work but confirms it. To raise children there, whether they are involved in criminal activity or not, is to incorporate those odds into your daily life.
Herein lies one of the most tragic elements I learned while writing Another Day in the Death of America. That every parent of a teenage child had factored in the possibility that this might happen to their kid. Indeed most of them had channelled most of their parenting skills into just trying to stop that from happening. So when you ask them if they imagined that their sons’ lives could be so abruptly ended in this way they give a knowing shrug. “You wouldn’t really be doing your job as a parent here if you didn’t think it could happen,” one father in Newark, whose son died a few hours after Samuel did.
This is why some people walk their dogs of an evening rather than listening, watching or reading whatever we have to say.
After the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, went up in flames two years ago, to almost universal condemnation in the media, the Department of Justice conducted a report into how the city was being run that, I believe, any enterprising journalist could have produced themselves if they had not become inured to this kind of systemic discrimination. Among other things the DOJ found that between 2007 to 2014, one woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail and paid $550 as a result of one instance of illegal parking for which she was originally charged $151. She tried to pay in smaller instalments – $25 or $50 a time – but the court refused to accept anything less than the full payment which she could not afford. Seven years after the original infraction she still owed $541 – this was how the town raised its revenue. It was not a glitch in the system – it was the system.
Then there was the 14 year old boy found in an abandoned building who was chased down by a dog which bit his ankle and his left arm as he protected his face. The boy says officers kicked him in the head and then laughed about it afterward. Officers say they thought he was armed – he wasn’t. DOJ investigators found that every time a police dog bit someone the victim was black.
It turns out that sometimes dog bites man really is the story. And we keep missing it.