‘Reprint reporting’ and race

It's not a winning combination

There are racists living in America. This is not news. And yet, when Nina Davuluri, an Indian American, was crowned Miss America on September 15, it sparked a flurry of angry tweets by unhappy racists, causing several reputable news outlets to take note.

Online publications from BuzzFeed to Jezebel.com—among many others—reprinted some of the most vitriolic and offensive tweets verbatim and often with little context, mainly the ones that indicated that these angry people also erroneously believed Davuluri was an Arab, a Muslim, and quite possibly a terrorist. What we can glean from this unedited commentary is that the people writing these tweets were also ignorant. Again, this is not news. Racism and inanity often go hand in hand.

So, why all the ink for what seems to be a bunch of stupid tweets by a bunch of stupid people? And an even more troubling question: Why are these comments, culled from social media, being presented with minimal commentary?

The answer to the first question seems pretty obvious. Twenty years ago, the word we would be using would be sensationalism. The decision to reprint racist tweets is an easy way to draw readers to a news outlet. BuzzFeed’s Miss America ‘listicle’ of racist tweets generated over 5 million views and 15,000 retweets. But still, that doesn’t mean any actual news was shared. In fact, an opportunity to examine bias and discrimination was lost as most news outlets simply characterized the Miss America story as an example of good, old-fashioned American racism, when in fact it highlighted a growing trend of native born vs. immigrant conflict outpacing Black vs. White racism in this country.

Basically, because we in the United States of America still don’t know how to have an intelligent conversation about race, writing about it proves to be even harder. Couple that universal discomfort with homogenous newsrooms and the likelihood of covering diversity issues with sophistication and finesse shrinks even further.

On the other hand, it’s so easy for journalists to reprint racist Twitter rants and pat ourselves on the back for covering race. Too easy. With the growing popularity of curating software and the expectation that news sites will gather all the information from around the Web that audiences want to read, it seems inevitable that reprint reporting will be the default pattern for journalists who are unwilling or unable to write and report on race and ethnicity. Yes, there are ways to curate content that are useful and enlightening, but this last round of Miss America-gate wasn’t it.

Instead, as a result of all of the reprint reporting surrounding Miss America, Divuluri’s crowning moment has been forever eclipsed by negativity, and she has to spend her 15 minutes of fame talking about the morons who think she’s an Arab instead of the issues that are important to her, like STEM education and eating disorders in young women. And because reputable news outlets including The Daily Beast, USA Today, and The Washington Post ran stories based on a group of statistically insignificant, unsubstantiated, racist tweets, anyone searching in the future for how Americans reacted to Divuluri’s win would surmise that America wasn’t ready for an Indian American Miss America in 2013. This is just plain embarrassing, and it paints all Americans with broad brush strokes as intolerant racists.

A similar incident happened during the summer 2012 Olympics. Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old African American gymnastics phenom, won the all-around individual title in her sport. Google Douglas today and invariably half of the articles that will appear on the record-breaker will be about her hair. That’s because on the night of Douglas’ historic win, some people on social media criticized her hair, suggesting she should have taken more time to make it look nice before appearing on the international stage. How many people tweeted that thought? Nobody ever bothered to check. But the most offensive ones were reprinted relentlessly until most of the major news outlets picked up the story, forever cementing Douglas into the history books, not as the first African American to make gymnastics history, but as the young gymnast who shamed her people with her bad hair.

Had anyone taken the time to poll Black Twitter to see if these sentiments were felt by a strong majority, one would have discovered that most Black Americans were both outraged and embarrassed that the tweets of a few had become the voice of many. And now, thanks to all the mainstream coverage that circulated around the globe about the issue, it would seem that Black America is responsible for ruining Douglas’s moment of glory by focusing on her hair.

One might suggest that it’s the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle that’s forcing news outlets to curate the news instead of reporting it. But if we’re going to admit defeat like that, we might as well stop calling ourselves journalists and embrace the title of copy machines instead. And if we continue to be afraid or unwilling to investigate the thorny issues of race and diversity, then the easiest way to get a journalist’s attention will be to take to Twitter with a racist rant.

Remember the ‘controversial’ Cheerios commercial that aired online this summer? The one with an interracial family and a box of Cheerios? The racist comments that appeared on the ad caused General Mills to shut down the comments section on their YouTube channel, but not before the most insulting comments were circulated through social and traditional media outlets. The result? Did the racists throw down their swords and repent? No. (See Miss America controversy.) Did people of color learn something new about racists in America? No. (We’ve always known they were there.) Did General Mills get more than 4 million views on the commercial and a whole lot of publicity? Yes!

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Lori Tharps is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University. She blogs regularly at MyAmericanMeltingpot.com Tags: , , ,