Listen to the words that are used when a story is reported. Listen to the narratives that are told about a group of people.
Are you a “gang” member or are you a “motorcycle gang member”?
It’s time to reflect on two stories that have shocked our country: the riots in Baltimore, Maryland following the death of Freddie Gray and the Motorcycle gang shootout in Waco, Texas.
Both were tragically violent, involved gang members, and both captured the attention nation but received radically different news coverage. In Baltimore a young black man was arrested without just cause, suffered severe injuries while in police custody, and died because of those injuries. The city awoke to protest police brutality and institutional racism.
In large part the protests were peaceful.
In some instances protests turned into riots.
In the process scores of local businesses were looted and there was significant damage to personal property.
In Waco several rival motorcycle gangs got into a dispute outside a bar. The dispute turned into a gun battle between the gangs. This gun battle killed nine people and injured 18.
I am a professional program evaluator. I work with philanthropic foundations and non-profits to measure and assess the outcomes of their work.
The most common misconception about my field is that professional judgments are made in an objective matter. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most professional judgments are laced with the values and assumptions of the organization running, managing, or funding the program.
A critical part of my job is to help identify the values and assumptions that bias judgments. I help bring them to life so they become more explicit.
What is most interesting to me is that there is no better way to help identify the values and assumptions that these organizations hold than in the narrative they tell about the problems they want to solve. The way problems are framed and understood speak to the values that are held by an organization. These values play a significant role in how an organization makes judgments.
If you are interested in identifying the values and assumptions about how the dominant culture views a social problem you can also apply this strategy to Fox News.
In Baltimore rioting protesters were quickly described as “thugs” by Fox News.
What was striking about this incident was how the social problem of rioting was framed. In providing commentary for a picture of burning automobiles a reporter went so far to say, “I’d be interested in hearing from those police about their level of frustration as they have to stand here and watch those thugs go thugging.“
This was done without an attempt to understand and report the source of the rioters’ frustration, which is a long and documented history of police brutality and institutional racism in Baltimore.
Not only were rioters labeled thugs but Fox News also painted a caricature of the rioters as people that weren’t American, “this doesn’t look like the United States of America” or “this looks like some third world nation.”
The final straw was how Fox News repeatedly reported an unsubstantiated claim that the, “Crips, Bloods, and the Black Gorilla Family,” were forming an alliance to take out police officers. It turns out the alliance was designed to convince rioting citizens to protest in peace. In Baltimore, “thugs” were forming unlikely alliances to try and calm the overwhelming anger of Baltimore’s citizens.
In Waco, Fox News reported on the “biker gangs” and “motorcycle gangs” that were involved in the shoot out. After the shoot out police collected over one hundred weapons from the crime scene including guns, chains, knives, baseball bats, and brass knuckles.
They reported that police had known about a potentially violent confrontation between rival gangs. What’s worse they reported a substantiated claim that the gangs had issued threats towards police officers.
But what wasn’t apart of the coverage was the phrase “thugs go thugging” or “this doesn’t look like the United States of America.” Even though the actions of the gang members actually justified the use of these descriptions.
Not only was the word “thug” absent but the coverage continuously repeated “motorcycle” in front of “gang.”
It is important because words have meaning beyond the depth of webster.com.
The word motorcycle dampens the negative perceptions of the word gang. Calling rioting protesters thugs magnifies the negative perceptions of people who are rioting. Hidden in these choices of words that shape the narrative of problems are values and assumptions.
The assumptions and values I hear in this type of reporting are:
Black people are dangerous.
White people aren’t really dangerous even if they carry illegal weapons.
Angry black people are un-American.
Motorcycles make gangs American.
Black people must be lazy if they are poor and frustrated.
White men on motorcycles can be directionless and do stupid things. Oh well.
When assumptions like these live in a culture and an organization they lead to biased and unequal judgments.
To describe black rioting protesters as un-American thugs and not do the same for violent motorcycle gangs is hypocrisy at its worst.