demonstration tea party march in washington DC 2009

5 Ways The Media Manufactures Racial Tension

News channels are so good at marketing that most people still believe that “news” is synonymous with “information” – but if you’ve ever been involved in any kind of big news story, you know first hand that they lie.

The fact is this:

News is just another form of entertainment.

Politics and Prose 027They’ve done such a good job at selling the lie that people who watch the news are “informed” that most Americans actually take offense to that statement, but it’s true. The stories you see on CNN, NBC, and FOX aren’t there to inform you of anything. They’re designed to get you to tune in, zone out, and keep watching, because the various news channels are all competing for your viewership, just like every other show on television.

Unfortunately, that widely held belief that the news media is somehow vitally important information that you need to live you life makes it downright dangerous. At least when you watch a movie, you know what you’re seeing isn’t real, even if it starts out with that infamous based on a true story line. Most people won’t question what they see read in the paper or see on CNN, though, which means that most people are acting on half-truths.

One example of this impact is the widely held belief that racism is a major, pressing issue in our lives. Millions of people live in constant fear that a hate crime could occur against them at any minute, and that fear is only fueled by the media coverage of events.

But how much of that racial tension is actually caused by the media coverage?

Look, we’re not going to go into a thousand word analysis of the relationship between mainstream media and society. There are plenty of studies and opinion and blog posts about that already, and you’ve probably already formed your own ideas on the subject.

Instead, we’re going to give you something useful.

We believe that all it takes to battle ignorance is a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of thought. You’ve got to do the thinking yourself, but maybe we can help with the knowledge.

SONY DSCSince the news media is actually in the entertainment industry, there are certain tactics they use to grab and keep your attention. First and foremost, the emotional appeal is everything – it’s never about the facts, but about the reaction.

How do they grab onto your emotions to get that reaction from you?

We’re glad you asked.

Here are five ways that the media uses racial tension as a marketing tool to get you to tune in and get angry:

1: Story selection.
Okay, so it’s not exactly surprising that you don’t get round-the-clock coverage of everything that’s happening in every city around the country every day. Not only would that be impossible; it would also be terribly boring. You don’t actually want to know what’s going on everywhere all the time, do you? So, sure, news outlets only report on stories that they think you’ll want to hear.

The thing is, they also specifically select stories that lend themselves well to a particular emotional appeal or framework. A violent crime alone doesn’t make for good news – there’s got to be a story behind it.

A drug dealer shoots an addict who tried to hit on his girlfriend? Not enough excitement. There’s nothing here to get you emotionally invested, nothing that makes you feel like you relate or have some reason you should know about it.

But, what if the drug dealer is white and the addict is black? Then, you can make the case that race was a deciding factor, and because there’s now some reason to choose sides, some reason for you to get emotionally invested, the story has promise.

The side effect of this kind of story selection is that you get a skewed perception of the world. Race is one of those subjects that everyone has an opinion about, so there’s an artificially high level of “reporting” on the subject because that’s what makes people tune in. And because the news media is your source for “information,” you think you know what’s going on in the world…and what seems to be going on is racism and hate.

2: Coming up with buzzwords.
If a man murders a woman, it’s a crime. If an old person murders a young person, it’s a crime. If a poor person murders a rich person, it’s a crime. If a white person murders a minority, it’s a hate crime.

laptopWe’ve all seen the phenomenon where a crime is committed and the media latches on to the story so vehemently that the outcome of the trial seems decided before the DA has even decided to press charges. We saw it with the Zimmerman case, which was such a profound example of trial-by-media that there was a public outrage when he was found innocent.

Constant coverage of disaster and violence eventually loses its edge because viewers become desensitized, so calling a crime a hate crime sharpens that impact and gets that emotional response. Besides being a made up term, a hate crime can only technically exist when the illegal act is specifically motivated by discrimination…which is impossible to prove.

Calling something a ‘hate crime,’ or talking about ‘racial tensions,’ is almost like a Pavlovian trigger for people. As soon as they hear the phrase, there’s an immediate emotional response, and it doesn’t matter what other circumstances come to light. We’ve been trained to feel a certain way towards certain phrases, and as soon as we hear them, we’ve got all the information we need to react.

3: The rumor effect.
Think back to the last time you heard a rumor. Odds are, it wasn’t very nice, and it was packed full of juicy details, wasn’t it?

When a rumor spreads, it’s just like one of those based on a true story horror movies. There’s probably a grain of truth in there somewhere, but the story barely resembles the “true story” from whence it started.

A really contagious rumor follows a pretty basic formula:

First, the story is leveled to make it digestible. It has to be simple enough to be told in a couple of sentences. This means that a lot of the details have to be dropped, since they’re either too boring or too complicated.

Second, the interesting details are sharpened. These are the juicy tidbits, the stuff that gives you that strong emotional reaction.

Last, the story takes on its final form when it’s shared. People fill in the blanks to make the new story make sense, so you end up with a bunch of “facts” that are either expressed or assumed, but they came out of somebody’s imagination.

Here’s a famous example, taken from a book called The Tipping Point:

A Chinese man on vacation stops in a Midwestern town to take pictures of the picturesque scene at the top of a hill. He climbs the hill, takes a few photos of the town, and then gets back in his car to drive on.

Some of the locals see the man and tell their friends that they’ve seen a Japanese spy taking reconnaissance photos with specialized equipment. By the time the tourist gets to the center of town and stops for coffee, the whole place is in a panic because they’re sure war is about to start.

The news media works kind of like that.

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to the original story, so we have to recognize when this methodology is being applied without the benefit of objective knowledge.

In this news story about a woman recently assaulting someone in a restaurant, the reporter specifically points out the assailant’s criminal past, refers to the victim as ‘ethnic,’ and then quickly moves on to a lengthy discussion of hate crime laws in Minnesota. While the article appears to be about the incident itself, this article devotes 89 words to discussion of the actual incident, and 684 talking about the attacker’s criminal record, hate crime laws, and the appalled reactions of racial interest groups.

Can you see how this story might have been leveled, sharpened, and embellished? Watch out for that in the “reporting” you hear.

4: Photo manipulation.
There are two main ways that news outlets manipulate pictures to wrench your emotions and give you a specific impression without actually saying anything.

man-person-school-headOne is by selecting specific pictures to subtly impose a bias – like using a mugshot photo to represent the “bad guy” in the story while displaying a yearbook photo for “good guys” or victims. In this example, there’s a clear manipulation in favor of the young white men who committed a crime, but this kind of trickery isn’t exclusively used to make black people out to be criminals. It goes both ways.

Especially in those aforementioned “hate crime” cases, you often see the victim being portrayed as a nice, upstanding member of society who was innocently in the wrong place at the wrong time…accompanied by a smiling image in clean, neat clothes…while the suspect’s photo and story seem to portray an angry, evil predator.

On top of that, the second way that the media uses pictures to sell their message is by actually altering the images. These are some famous examples of news outlets altering images, but when it comes to race, there’s even more to it.

Major news providers have been caught lightening photos to make people look whiter in order to sell that racial bias. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in the hands of the media, remember that a picture is only a tiny part of the story, and it might have even been fabricated.

5: If there’s not a story, make one.
Have you ever seen a headline or tuned into a news program only to realize after 10 or 15 minutes that the anchors have been talking about nothing that whole time?

When there aren’t any good stories out there, journalists will manufacture one by putting together an opinion poll, asking experts for opinions about old news, or trying to find some new angle to exploit on currently hot stories.

Just take a look at the ‘racism’ section on US News (and the fact that they HAVE a racism section should tell you something about the way news works) and you see topics like “Twitter Users Discuss Institutional Racism” and “From Atticus Finch to the Confederate Flag, The South Grapples With Race,” which references a 55 year old book to make current news.

In fact, most of the stories under the ‘racism’ heading are manufactured and irrelevant. They’re only there to keep you tuning in and coming back, eager to put in your own two cents in the ‘debate’ that only exists because people love to argue about it.

The next time you’re tempted to jump into some national outrage over racial tensions, stop for a second and see if any of these media marketing tricks are actually to blame for the public outcry.

Yes, racism is actually an issue. Yes, of course we should talk about it and take action if it will actually help. The thing is, solving the problem isn’t something that the media wants to do, because being able to stir up a frenzy of arguing and anger is great for their ratings.

What would happen if you stopped watching the news completely? Now, that’s an interesting question…


What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: