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It's racist.

What's wrong with local television news? It polarizes whites and blacks by racializing issues such as welfare, affirmative action and crime. After reviewing local news programming, one almost has the feeling that the media consider the black community to be an enemy nation. But instead of attacking it with missiles, the media zap it with videotape.

When reporting news about African Americans, reporters for local stations tend to wing it with their prejudices rather than go by the facts. And even when these reporters accurately present the facts, their stories are usually undermined by the accompanying visuals. The media constantly portray blacks as the victims of social problems that are more evident among whites. For example, only 39 percent of welfare recipients are black. Further, the typical beneficiary of affirmative action programs for professional jobs is a white woman. Yet when reporting about such issues, local television news will usually air tape of blacks.

In January, after California Gov. Pete Wilson's "State of the State" speech in which he announced plans to reform the welfare system, local television stations rushed out to videotape black people. The ABC affiliate in San Francisco, KGO, interviewed a black mother of four children--an atypical welfare case.

Local media--and the national media as well--treat crime in much the same way. According to Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, chair of a Senate committee on juvenile justice, gunshot wounds are the leading cause of death for both black and white youths. Yet we don't hear about white-on-white violence as much as stories about blacks killing blacks, or the rare and usually sensationalized cases of blacks committing violence against whites. It almost seems that the media, controlled by whites, are in the business of protecting whites as a group from any antisocial stigma.

The media's portrayal of drug abuse is another example. Although 85 percent of illicit drug users are white, local television news will usually show blacks or footage of police raiding homes in the black community.

I once appeared on a televised panel on drug abuse on KQED, a San Francisco PBS affiliate. After the predictable taped introduction to the program, in which police were shown raiding black homes in search of crack--some of these "raids" are staged, incidentally--the host, Spencer Michels, guided the police and members of the city's black community through the usual entertaining back and forth about the problem of crack in the black community.

I asked Michels why he didn't do a more original drug program during which he could interview bankers who were engaged in money laundering, since money laundering, not petty street sales, is what drives the drug market. I also said that television ought to do more to cover the white middle class' role in the drug epidemic instead of relying on the cliched police versus the black community show. (This exchange was cut from the program.)

Michels told me, sarcastically, that if I could find a money launderer he'd be glad to have him on. All he had to do was visit California's Lompoc federal prison. There are a handful of money launderers there.

Sometimes one gets the impression that white reporters suffer from a cognitive dysfunction when it comes to reporting about issues pertaining to blacks. I'm not saying that whites can't understand these issues, but since the media seem unmotivated to create newsrooms that "look like America," it behooves some fair-minded journalists and editors to do their homework, instead of relying on stereotypes when covering the black community.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Reed, Ishmael
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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