Baltimore Unrest: Will the Media Keep Its Word on Having a ‘Conversation’ About Race?

“It’s not sexy to talk about how people are being abused — it’s sexy to show buildings being burned,” National Association of Black Journalists president Bob Butler tells TheWrap

As media coverage of the unrest in Baltimore over Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody raged for the last week, it was “Déjà vu all over again as anchors, pundits and columnists spoke about the need for a “conversation” on racial and income divisions in America.

It was a refrain in Ferguson, Missouri in the case of Michael Brown; Staten Island, New York in the case of Eric Garner; Sanford, Florida in the case of Trayvon Martin and hundreds of other overlooked communities across the country.

“Whenever we go through these things, it’s like Groundhog Day,” Hub Brown, Syracuse University Broadcast and Digital Journalism Professor, told TheWrap. “The issue comes down to money, or whether or not there are jobs for people in Baltimore — where there are simply not … but similarly in the media, it’s about money; the lack of commitment monetarily to actually delve deeper and cover stories that have a little bit more depth.”

Some organizations do that, like occasional pieces on NPR or in newspapers, but cable news is trafficking in “repetition,” Brown said. “They’re not investing money to try and get to some of these issues. The cheapest television is to have these talkfests with a bunch of people with titles sitting around a table analyzing so-called issues, and then repeat that … it’s lather, rinse, repeat.”

The conversation around the race and income issue on cable news is typically heightened when there’s video of buildings burning and protestors inching toward police lines. Tense, compelling footage compared with day-to-day policy issues is a big part of the coverage equation.

“Law enforcement crackdowns, riots, buildings on fire … that’s going to be exciting video. But this rolling disaster that has been going on for decades, that doesn’t make good video,” Brown concluded.

National Association of Black Journalists president Bob Butler thinks African Americans have been “abused by the system for years.”

“The media wants to get people to watch. It’s not sexy to talk about how people are being abused — it’s sexy to show buildings being burned and shake your head saying, ‘Boy isn’t this terrible. What’s wrong with those people?’” he said. “What’s wrong with those people is they’ve been abused,” he said, noting that he doesn’t condone riots, but there’s a reason why people are reacting in extremes.

The media should have been doing its collective due diligence a long time ago to look at what’s causing these issues in Baltimore and Ferguson, he said, before cases like Freddie Gray’s occur. There’s also the matter of a disconnect between those making editorial decisions and the stories they’re covering.

“If you have people sitting around the editorial table who have no idea what’s going on in the community, then to them the big story is the burning buildings. They’re not thinking of systemic problems that made people do these things.” columnist LZ Granderson, who was on air frequently during the worst of the rioting in Baltimore, cast aspersions as much on politicians issuing empty slogans as on news producers.

He also pointed to the changing news model, which is increasingly dictated by what people are clicking online and watching on TV, rather than by editorial room brainstorms.

“Now, perhaps more than ever, the public dictates, based upon what it’s tweeting about and things like that, what we stick with more than the conversations we have in news meetings. We might not be talking about what are the next angles if nobody is clicking on the links anyway.”

Granderson pointed to the big dilemma for media companies — creating must-see urgency from issues that have become all too common.

“How do you talk about war in the Middle East when there just seems to always be war in the Middle East; what makes the killings of tomorrow any different than the killings of today?”