Southern New England Association of Black Journalists holds forum to explore media coverage of race.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery arrived in Ferguson, Mo., two days after white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man. Lowery thought the story would probably blow over after a day or two. He changed his mind when the police, fearful of the city’s protesters, shot tear gas canisters into a black subdivision. It seemed like a community at war, Lowery told a gathering of more than 50 people Saturday at a forum at Brown University on race and the media.
“This wasn’t about Michael Brown,” he said. “This was about something much bigger,” a country deeply divided by race.
Lowery, a former Boston Globe reporter, was among a half-dozen journalists and leaders who discussed the topic, “Does Race Matter to the Media?” at Brown’s George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space. The forum was organized by the Southern New England Association of Black Journalists. Lowery gave the keynote address.
Former ABC News anchor Carole Simpson also spoke and moderated a panel that included local NBC affiliate Channel 10 (WJAR) anchor and reporter Barbara Morse Silva; Providence NAACP president Jim Vincent; ESPN Radio host Freddie Coleman; and reporter and anchor Audrey Washington, of the NBC affiliate WVIT-TV, in West Hartford, Conn.
Race permeates every aspect of American life
Race should matter to the media because it permeates every aspect of American life, including our nation’s history, Lowery said. “It pervades our lives” but we are often uncomfortable discussing it, he said. “It’s through media coverage that we tell these stories” and discuss the issues that divide us. That’s why it’s important that newspapers, TV and radio stations hire minorities and do a better job covering black and other non-white communities, the panelists said.
Silva said she once worked for a news station that wanted to air a teaser featuring a kid wearing a hoodie. The teaser promised viewers they would see “what a cop killer” looks like if they tuned in to a later broadcast, said Silva, who complained that the image reinforced black stereotypes.
Recent police shootings have sparked protests in Ferguson and elsewhere, including Providence, Boston and New Haven, Conn. More protests erupted last week after a grand jury in New York City decided not to indict a white officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man. The grand jury cleared Daniel Pantaleo in Garner’s death. Pantaleo was caught on video applying what appeared to be an illegal chokehold on Garner. Mayor Bill de Blasio said the case underscored the police department’s need to improve relations with minorities.
Frustration with the American justice system
The panelists, who answered questions from the audience, at times expressed frustration with the American justice system. In Ferguson, the police force employs only a few blacks, Lowery said. And only one city councilman is black, he said. “The black people of Ferguson truly believe they are not being represented by their government.” That’s why some are throwing bricks, he said. The recent failure of grand juries to find white policemen responsible for the deaths of black suspects reveals a broken justice system, Vincent added.
“People are fed up. When does it end? It’s been building up and building and some people — and some communities — have had it.” Silva said she was especially upset with the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Pantaleo after he was filmed placing Garner in what appeared to be a chokehold during an arrest.
Garner told police officers he could not breathe.
White people sometimes resist arrest. “Do they die? No.
“How much evidence do you need to get an indictment?” she asked. White people sometimes resist arrest. “Do they die? No.”
Washington said she worries the nation has become desensitized to media images of violence against blacks. “Look at our history,” she said. When blacks were being lynched, others stood by and watched, she said.
Washington, who grew up on New York’s, Long Island, said her father was a police officer in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, when the city was a tough place. A crack addict broke her father’s jaw, she said. “He never discharged his gun in 20 years.”