COLUMN: Journalism must not play into stereotypes

On Sunday morning, I woke up to the startling and tragic news of another mass shooting — this one having taken place at the popular Cameo Night Club in my hometown of Cincinnati. Though I have never been to this club, the news conjured up uncanny feelings of seeing my Ohio city dashed across national headlines, especially held in association with the sadly familiar and growing phenomenon of mass gun violence in America.

Later that morning, Cincinnati news station Local 12/WKRC-TV tweeted out an update on the shooting, in which one person was killed and 15 others injured. The tweet read: “27-year-old Obryan Spikes has been identified as the victim shot and killed at Cameo Night Club.” Attached was a photo of Spikes,  a black man, wearing a white T-shirt and staring directly into the camera. It was a mugshot of the murdered victim.

It is with this decision that Local 12, which would later assert that Spike’s mugshot was the only photograph of the victim they had access to at the time and was provided directly by police, descended into the realm of sloppy and careless journalism — so eager to blast out news that it forgot the humanity of the people about whom it was reporting. It is indubitable that Local 12’s initial decision to publish Spike’s mugshot in his death report falls into the shameful trend of criminalizing black men, even after their death. And the frightening implication crawling underneath this tweet, however innocuous it seems on the surface, is that Spike because he was once an inmate, will be forever be held culpable — even to his own murder.

One may even argue that the morning after a shooting is too soon to tweet out a picture of the deceased. Imagine if a mugshot was not provided to Local 12 by the police. Wouldn’t publishing a name suffice? Local 12 later tweeted out a photo collage of Spike posing with two children (presumably his own), but it was too little, too late. The damage was done. And yes, though it is shaky territory to tell a news station to withhold available information at the time it breaks, it is far more lethal to ignore the staggering effects of journalism on people’s perceptions of the world.

The same brand of journalism that thought it would be a good idea to publish a black murder victim’s mugshot is the same brand of journalism that refuses to designate white supremacists who enact racial violence as terrorists, that characterizes South Korean students trapped in a sinking ferry as conditioned by their Asian heritage to be submissive and stay put, that wrote the Washington Post headline: “Amber Rayne, porn star who accused James Deen of sexual assault, found dead.” Deen, notably, is a porn star in his own regard. It is a brand of journalism that regards individuals of marginalized identities with a bias that fundamentally skews the narrative of the story against them.

Though seemingly unrelated, what all these news fallacies have in common are their blatant and insensitive refusal to grant the victims of tragedy dignity even after death, and their insidious typecasting of the victims into stereotypes that permeate into the national conscience. These stereotypes and caricatures, it seems, do not end with a person’s life. Instead, these gross generalizations thrive off the minorities and marginalized who can no longer speak for themselves.

In all branches of the media, it seems that only white men can escape with the privilege of being seen as full people, with families and histories and past trauma, anecdotes that serve to evoke sympathy if not implicitly justify the hysteria and destruction for which the perpetrators are responsible. They get by with headlines like the Washington Post’s “‘Let’s party like it’s 1933’: Inside the alt-right world of Richard Spencer” and sprawling profiles on the histories of Adam Lanza and Dylann Roof.

It is time for journalists to recognize that they hold the immense responsibility of communicating to Americans but also the immense power of shaping them: how they think and what they notice and what they hold as important. The selective and sloppy piecing-together of information, pulled from preconceived judgments and furthering inherent bias, does not make for good journalism. In fact, it pushes people toward generalizations and quick conclusions and lazy thinking — qualities that journalists have both a moral and ethical imperative to avoid.

Of course, the press deserves respect, by the people and by the federal government and especially by the President of the United States. But in turn, the press must do its full duty and recognize the volume of its voice on every single level, from those who sit in the White House briefing room to those who operate in local offices churning out articles for city newspapers. The wording of headlines and inclusion of photographs may be — in the grand scheme of things — nitpicky, but not when published by a medium whose purpose is to inform and educate the world.

Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs every other Tuesday.