"Blood sells." I was appalled during a visit to New Orleans last week to hear that journalists there use that excuse for obsessive coverage of young, black people who commit crimes. They use that blunt excuse, Kim Byas-Dilosa says, when she demands to know why local reporters won't report the positive stories about people of color in New Orleans, and why the negative stories get incessant, front-page, top-of-the-broadcast coverage, but she can barely interest them in the positive stories. She wants to know why media won't do their part in reporting fairly on young people rather than fixating on the ones who do the worst things.
I may not have heard the heart-chilling phrase "blood sells," but we all know the old standby, "If it bleeds, it leads." It's as if struggling media outlets want a quick fix of attention from trotting out young faces accused of bad things more often than they feature kids doing amazing things.
Of course, the impression that this kind of "body bag journalism," as youth experts call it, gives is that young people of color are more violent than most other people. We hear a lot of hand-wringing over black-on-black crime, even as most whites are killed by other whites, just as all ethnicities tend to commit violent crime within their own groups. We hear about movie theaters that won't show "Straight Outta Compton" for fear of violence, even as it's white men who are shooting up movie theaters, and churches for that matter, in today's America.
And during a time of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, we see lots of images of people of color looting, such as when several stole a bathtub in New Orleans 10 years. But they don't always show us the images of the young people using that tub to rescue children in the floodwaters. (True story.)
Because of these kinds of disparately negative media images of young people of color, joined with our long history of racism, America collectively fears young people of color more. It's not hard to see that this is why police officers are quicker to shoot unarmed black and brown people; they've been taught by our culture to fear them more.
People in the media don't want to acknowledge our role in this false narrative, the one that gets people of color killed faster, even for minor crimes or none at all. Folks in my industry tend to be a defensive bunch, oddly for a segment of society that by necessity goes around poking our heads into other people's business, and often accusing them of things (hopefully with evidence).
But we are bound together in journalism by the need to be fair—some call it "objective," which isn't possible, even as fairness is the right goal—and too many stand by each other, as cops do, even when our brethren are performing bad journalism.
Putting young people of color on parade, often with their mugshots or pics where they're supposedly flashing gang signs, and making them look more dangerous than vulnerable or successful is not fair or balanced or anywhere near "objective."
This demonization of young people of color is irresponsible journalism, and science shows the real harm it can cause. "Negative media stereotypes (thugs, criminals, fools, and the disadvantaged) are demoralizing and reduce self-esteem and expectations. Dealing with negative expectations may also create stress and drain cognitive resources in some contexts—leading to the lowered performance associated with 'stereotype threat,'" The Opportunity Agenda warns. (The full report is also at jfp.ms/media_vs_youth.)
But this kind of journalism dies hard in a country long used to treating people of color differently, and it has its roots in a systemic racism that festers in our media system. It gives the powerful cover to do what they want, whether excuse violent police officers or decide to defund public schools due to the "troubled" young people inside its doors.
The funny part is that it's not hard to find the positive stories to lead with, especially in cities with the demographics of Jackson or New Orleans. I could go on Facebook right now and post, "Who can suggest young people doing great things?" (as we do every year for our Amazing Teens issue), and the majority of the responses would be about remarkable young people of color. I've always said that you live in a place that is majority non-white and you produce a publication with whites over-represented in positive ways and people of color in negative ways, then you're doing it on purpose.
Earlier this month, for instance, I saw the annual "Students Who Will Change the World" cover of a local glossy magazine that pretends to represent Jackson (while mailing free copies to suburban white enclaves). We've given this magazine hell in the past for barely including any Jackson Public Schools kids in its roundup, and they always blame the school districts for not helping pick the kids they think should be honored (something we know better than to ask for). This cover full of teens had one black teen featured. It is sitting now on newsstands in north Jackson with black families walking past it with one black face among a large group.
What message does that send?
Often, white people want to roll their eyes when I and others call out this prejudice against teens of color. Of course, many of those same people will go on NextDoor and post an urgent alert if they see a black person in their neighborhoods. So I don't care that they roll their eyes. This stuff is important—if for no other reason than you'd like to see fewer young people resort to a life of crime.
The way to stop it is by bringing hope to young people before they make the wrong choice. One major way is for media to lose the "blood sells" excuse for sensationalizing black crime. I own a media outlet, and I don't want blood money that comes from selling out lives of our young people to get a temporary jump in salacious readership.
I'll put it simply: I care more about the lives of all of our young people than to sell them out like that. I applaud my new friend (and fellow W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellow) Kim Byas-Dilosa in New Orleans for being so determined to call out media who are hurting young people there.
She has organized "Future Icons of Nola," a group of impressive young people of color who don't get much media attention. This Saturday, Aug. 29, the young people are forming a human exhibit wearing signs saying "The media ignores us" at the Crescent City Boxing Club (3101 Erato St., New Orleans) starting at 8:30 a.m.
"We have to shock them," Kim says. "The media won't tell you these kids live in this city." We must flip this narrative and make it cool for blood not to sell.
It's tragic that this kind of exhibit is what it takes to try to change such a harmful media narrative about young people of color. But cheers to her and her team for doing whatever it takes to stop blood from selling.
See Future Icons of Nola on Facebook and follow @futureiconsofno on Twitter and Instagram for updates and pictures.