In my Political Communication class, I worked with a group of peers on an Election Watch Project. I found news about Black Lives Matter and protests in America from The Guardian and Fox News. Despite having a fair amount of knowledge about this topic, I approached it as a voter with no knowledge on the topic who was trying to learn about it prior to voting in November. This did not go well at all. I learned that if I were actually an uninformed voter, I would learn little about the topic and would be screamed at from both sides of the political spectrum about why the other side is wrong. This is a major problem in today’s political communications: we are hyper-partisan, we are not using enough context and nuance, and we are learning less and less.
Two of the articles I read best explain the problem: one article is about Black Lives Matter being vilified by right wing media from The Guardian; and the other was about Attorney General William Barr’s criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement from Fox News.
The Guardian article by Nesrine Malik points out that right wing media outlets have painted an inaccurate picture of Black Lives Matter as a movement of censoring, reverse discriminating anarchists. This view of BLM and its associated protests has gone from being the scare-mongering of right wing media to being posed as a legitimate concern in mainstream media.
Malik says that, “this serves the interests of everyone in the media and politics who stands to lose if the scales of power are rebalanced. The purpose of this propaganda is clear: to diminish the moral power of demands for racial equity and social justice so that they are then easier to extinguish.”
The missing piece to this puzzle is the explanation of why BLM is necessary. An explanation of these power dynamics, she cites, are at the center of the tug-of-war between marginalized people and oppressors.
I know what she is talking about, but that is because I knew it going into the reading. Most average readers do not. They need more context to see this whole picture. Without it, they may not be persuaded by the point that Malik is making.
In the Fox News article, reporter Ronn Blitzer explains William Barr’s stance on the Black Lives Matter movement. When asked about the relationship between rule of law and prosperity, Barr made the argument that BLM doesn’t actually care about the lives of Black people and is just using Black deaths as a pawn in a larger political agenda. He believes that the real issue is combating crime and that prosperity can be achieved through rule of law.
He says, “The left likes to talk about dealing with the root causes, but all their solutions depend on peaceful streets at the end of the day.” He goes on to reject the idea that the criminal justice system is affected by systemic racism.
Barr, and by extension Blitzer, are using an emphasis frame to make the issue of Black Lives Matter and protests seem like an issue of law and order and crime rather than an issue of racial injustice. Blitzer basically just verbatim quotes Barr through the entire article, creating two problems.
One, our own Attorney General is mistaken about how many Black people are killed by police in America every year. He said, “A small number of Blacks were killed by police during conflict with police, usually less than a dozen a year.” In 2020 alone, at least 219 Black people have been killed by police. Despite Black people only making up 13-15% of the population, they make up 28-30% of the people killed by police in 2020, statistically proving that Black people are disproportionately impacted by police. Blitzer did not fact check him and let the quote go into the article without any corrections. Second, no context is given about Black Lives Matter. If Barr is criticizing this movement, Blitzer should at least explain what BLM is and what they stand for. Instead he just parrots the quotes of Barr.
Black Lives Matter is a movement that was founded specifically in response to disproportionately high rates of police brutality against Black people in America. Through its evolution, it has also worked on broader issues of civil rights, racism, and racial inequity and justice.
The protests that have been going on since May that news sources are reporting on have been in response to — along with the several Black people who have fallen victim to police brutality and fatal racism — the persistence of inaction and apathy towards the goals and concerns of Black Lives Matter. It is important to know what the disease is before attacking the symptoms. It is foolish, near-sighted, and nonsensical to attack protestors until you know what exactly it is that they are protesting.
Sadly, not many Americans know about the history of racism and police brutality in America, nor know that this is what Black Lives Matter and these protests are about. In a more progressive news space such as the Guardian, I find it unlikely to make a convincing case to the average citizen to support Black Lives Matter and these protests without vital context.
In fact, this lack of context might make the average reader feel as though they are being yelled at or preached to. Additionally, in a more conservative news space such as Fox News, I find it irresponsible to only provide criticism of Black Lives Matter and protests without necessary context. If you write an article where our attorney general claims that racism is not a problem in America, responsible journalism should provide counter arguments, such as the perspectives of the people he is criticizing. Providing viewpoints without context, rebuttals, and the whole picture is a sign of inadequate or biased media. I can speculate that these news sources do this because they have a partisan agenda. Ultimately, why they are doing it is not as important as the possible effects of their actions.
Media with a viewpoint is okay when done responsibly. These news sources have gone from having a viewpoint to having an agenda. The average media consumer, citizen, and voter does not receive adequate information or knowledge to make informed decisions. This leads to citizens voting along the lines of an agenda instead of along the lines of their informed personal beliefs.
Media is an inevitable and necessary part of our modern democracy. It is the best, most efficient way that citizens get information and the ultimate currency of democracy. But these news sources are providing a maze of bias that will continue to erode the American democratic process. It needs to stop.