Right now, the usual trolls are doing their best to lie about Skepticon: they’ve seized on that one incident in which Mark Schierbecker was unfortunately given a slot to speak as an excuse to rant about how Skepticon hates autistic people (nope), how Skepticon called him a racist (nope again — that was what his own publicist said), that they were abusing an “autistic kid” (no way — he came to Skepticon fresh off interviews on Breitbart and Fox News), and how evil SJWs are. I saw people calling in biased outsiders like Milo Yiannopoulos, Thunderf00t, and Sargon of Akkad to contribute to the propaganda, and I’m sure we’ll see more noise from them soon; it was also somehow magically tied to #gamergate and the standard anti-feminists.
I thought about writing a rebuttal, but decided the best thing to do was just present the views of a few black people who have a genuine interest in this matter.
In many communities that historically have been marginalized and unfairly portrayed by the media, there’s good reason people do not trust journalists: They often criminalize black people’s pain and resistance to racial oppression. We saw it in coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore, when news stations seemed more concerned with the property damage than with the emotional damage that prompted it. Though peaceful protests in Ferguson had been going on for days, reporters didn’t descend on the town in large numbers until there were clashes with police. Suddenly, coverage spiked, but most of it was about “cars vandalized” and “buildings burned.” On Fox News, the channel most watched for Ferguson coverage at the height of the unrest, protesters were called “thugs.” Reporting from the protests, CNN’s Don Lemon noted, “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air.” We heard comparatively little about the residents’ long-held grievances about police harassment and brutality.
The unfair portrayal of black people in the news media is well documented. One study analyzing news coverage by 26 local television stations, black people were rarely portrayed unless they had committed a crime. A 2015 University of Houston study found that this imbalanced coverage may lead viewers to develop racial bias against black people because it often over-represents them in crime rates. Recognizing this kind of bias in news media, black Twitter users started the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag to call out news images of Mike Brown that many felt criminalized him in his death.
That black students would be skeptical of media is understandable. We’ve already seen the kind of headlines they undoubtedly feared. In an Atlantic piece headlined “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space’,” Conor Friedersdorf calls the protesters a mob and insists they are “twisting the concept of ‘safe space.’” Again, a journalist criminalizes black people for expressing their pain. It was another piece centering the reporter’s privilege over the students’ trauma. Friederdorf’s piece completely ignores the intolerable racial climate that forced the students to establish a safe space in the first place.
There were other ways to cover these students’ protest without breaching their safe space and without criminalizing them.The human chain students formed provided ample b-roll and still photos. Students could have been interviewed outside of that space. I would have pitched a story to my editors with the headline, “Why Black Students Were Forced To Secure A Safe Space On A Public Campus.” But to do that requires self-reflection and not a condescending, self-absorbed soliloquy about the First Amendment.
For journalists, the Missouri protests are a big news story. For the black students we’re covering, however, it’s a fight for their humanity and liberation. Tai is correct: he was doing his job. But in that stressful moment he may have failed to realize that the space he wanted to enter was a healing one that black people had worked to secure.
Black pain is not an easy subject to cover, but the lesson we can take from this encounter at Missouri is that our presence as journalists, with the long legacy of criminalizing blackness that comes with it, may trigger the same harmful emotions that led to the students’ protests in the first place.
Somehow, once again, the deep structural racism in this country is being asked to take a back seat to the tragic story of a white man who was made to cry because black people asked him to put someone other than himself at the center of the story.