Race-based issues are evolving and, unfortunately, the media’s coverage of them isn’t. Gone are the days where acts of discrimination are solely blatant and intentional. Today, they’re often packaged in a confusing, discrete, unintentional, and often misunderstood delivery called a microaggression — unintentional acts of prejudice or discrimination.
Microagressesions are accidental, rooted in societal perceptions from centuries ago. It’s one of many reasons why covering issues of racism is complex. Instead of stating that an act of racial prejudice happened, journalists now face the challenge of determining whether the act qualifies as discriminatory, to whom, and how. The trouble is, in an attempt to open up the discussion of issues like racism and social inequality, the media will report on these issues with the underlying notion that they must know all of the above beforehand, which isn’t always true. This approach to reporting on race relations leads to more frustration and miscommunication, hindering progress.
A prime example of this happened in 2013. A McGill University student sent an email that featured a link to an altered video of U.S. president Barack Obama leaving a news conference by kicking open a door. Soon after the student and university received a formal complaint of racial insensitivity, which cued his public apology to McGill students, and a pledge to pursue sensitivity training. He was accused of committing an act of microaggression by fuelling negative stereotypes of men of colour.
And during this time, publications were quick to choose a side. The National Post’s headline perfectly summarizes the efforts to address the complexity of the issue. “McGill student forced to apologize for racial ‘microaggression’ after emailing joke Obama clip,” their headline read. Yahoo! News chose a similar stance: “McGill student’s ‘microaggression’ apology over Obama image is the real offence.”
There is a shiny side to this coin, however: Media discourse is encouraging conversation. It’s mobilizing voices and sharing stories. It prompts the public to feel something, to question. Most importantly, it sparks discussion and analysis of social issues. But the problem with the approach is that when the conversation is biased, the verdict is inevitable. The audience doesn’t learn, rather, it picks a voice to believe and holds a battle of wits.
If there’s one tool that can effect change in our bustling digital society, it’s communication. When the media fails to communicate ethically and knowledgably, we’re left with an impact that often takes us backwards in progress.
The importance amidst all of this is that opinion shouldn’t taint the valuable stories that need to be shared, and journalists should provide facts for discussion, not arguments for defending.
Knowledge of history, an understanding of both sides, and a clear acknowledgement of the role of the news all need to be considered when covering subjects like racism.
The best step forward for journalists is to show that there are many different experiences amidst a storm, and emphasizing the importance of learning, questioning, and informing our audiences about them all.