Who determines what is neutral?
To assume that a media outlet is providing an unbiased report is naïve. Every journalist, writer, producer, editor, and content creator has their own life experience, and approaches stories and research through their own specific lens. Education, training, and ethical and professional standards inform these perspectives, often working to homogenize reporting as “objective,” or “neutral.” The checks and balances theoretically exist in the established standards; writers work with editors and fact checkers. There are news teams and editorial boards. Where the theory falls apart is in the application. Individuals are required to apply those checks and balances. Systems of discrimination further limit the opportunities of non-white, non-male voices in the work force, doubling down on creating spaces that are homogenous. If the news team is composed of individuals who all have similar life experiences (white, middle class, educated at the same handful of institutions), there is little opportunity to share black and brown stories, and when they are told, they are often told by white people, through their white lenses.
While there are many practical, ethical, and stylistic standards that inform and govern all modes of media (Federal Communications Commission, Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists, general tenets of being a decent human being), it’s important to note that just about all of these national standards and best practices were developed by and for white people. These are inherently unjust standards and procedures and guides because they were made to secure white supremacy. White people with power and influence have determined what is “neutral.”
This is how ideologies of white nationalism and misogyny are upheld. This is how news and media outlets become weapons of oligarchs and plutocrats, on local, state, and national levels.
In C-U, all media outlets — including Smile Politely — are complicit in upholding those systems. C-U’s media platforms vary from the traditional (The News-Gazette, WCIA, WILL), to the atypical (Smile Politely, Public i), and the niche (Chambanamoms.com). It’s easy for smaller outlets to avoid difficult topics because they don’t seem to fit within the scope of the platform, or the nature of its contributors, or audience, but they need to assess the ways in which they can engage with these topics.
At Smile Politely, we’ve been forward about our own lack of diversity and our shortcomings in coverage. There are a lot of places where we have failed. We know we need to do better, to back up our words and promises with actions.
As content creators, we must hold ourselves to higher standards. What we cover — and what we don’t — speaks volumes. It matters how we speak about others, and how we frame stories told about people who don’t look or sound like us. Do not misinterpret what we are saying as some sort of leftwing political correctness campaign. It is not about policing language. It is about performing radical empathy, about considering how content may go on to function in the world, how someone else may interpret that content. And sure, it may seem exhausting to mull over words, to parse out meaning and potential implications, but it is necessary labor that does a lot of work to begin to break down some of the scaffolding supporting white supremacy and misogyny.
The most conspicuous local example of the media wielding the pen of bigotry is The News-Gazette. As the only printed news source serving our area, it is an essential resource for area residents to learn about the things happening locally, regionally, and statewide. The newspaper, now owned by Community Media Group, a privately held company that owns more than 40 small papers across the Midwest and Western New York, has long been an agent of white supremacy, racial intolerance, and misogyny. The newspaper regularly publishes hateful, inaccurate, or intentionally obfuscated reports and opinions, and editorials are almost never made in good faith. It is a publication that does not publicly acknowledge any employees of color.
The newspaper’s commitment to benefiting financially from clicks on mug shots is something we’ve talked about at length, but to summarize: The N-G publishes the mug shots of people who have been arrested, but not tried or convicted of any crimes. These mug shots are accompanied by their home addresses, making them targets of hate.
We know that black communities are policed at higher rates, which means black people are arrested at higher rates, which means it’s mostly black people whose faces and home addresses are published in the newspaper under the guise of criminality. When individuals are released or exonerated or, in many cases, never charged, The N-G does not issue corrections or apologies.
Last week, N-G reporter Mary Schenk published an article that named 26 individuals who were arrested during the protests and rebellions on North Prospect and Neil on Sunday, May 31st. In addition to publishing their names, Schenk also included their home addresses, employment history, criminal records, and health and family details, information that is never included when reporting on the arrests and bond amounts for white people. She defended herself on Twitter by saying:
At the time of publishing, no changes have been made to the original article, and no apologies have been issued.
A change.org petition calling for Schenk to resign is circulating on social media. She will not resign and the newspaper will never fire her; frankly, her work is too valuable to its bottom line. By regularly publishing — and assigning — Schenk’s reporting, the newspaper affirms its commitment to white supremacy, and continues to build up the infrastructure to generate more clicks on those mugshots, generating more revenue to the financially strapped paper. There is no indication that The N-G has any incentive to break with this tradition. All evidence points to the exact opposite.
What The N-G does is dangerous. It regularly traffics in racist language: what were once dog whistles are now tornado sirens. We know this because we see the comments on The N-G’s social media pages from readers and followers, affirming and saying plainly — and loudly — what the newspaper has said between the lines, so to speak. It not only reinforces racist stereotypes, it encourages its readers to harass and harm black people.
It’s easy to focus on The N-G as a bad actor. It is. But we must continue to ask: What stories are being told by other local media outlets? Who is reporting on these stories? Who owns and edits these media outlets? Whose interests and bottom lines are being prioritized? As we’ve said before, in a related context, representation matters. It matters whether or not you and your children are able to see people who look like you on the television screen, to hear your voices on the radio, to read your names on the bylines. It matters who tells the stories, because words matter, and stories matter.
It’s imperative that we use our platform to call out the racism and misogyny and toxic behaviors of our elected officials, other media outlets, and in some cases, our readers. We must use our words to pressure our elected leaders, and encourage you, readers, to pressure them to enact change, too.
We, the media, have to tell all types of black stories, not just the ones that reinforce stereotypes. We have to give space for black people to tell black stories, not just ask them to explain systemic racism, or perform their trauma for us. We have to do better when it comes to the language we use and the stories we tell. Our silence is complacency.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.