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Avoiding Unbalanced Stereotypes from News Hot Spots

Waco, Texas, made national news again due to violence.

This central Texas town of around 125,000 people is, unfortunately, more widely known due to violent incidents that have happened.

Anyone unfamiliar with Texas or Baylor University likely knew little about Waco other than the 1993 Branch Davidian standoff.

Case in point: When I requested information in 2008 about an apartment in a small, rural South Georgia town, I provided the apartment manager my mailing address, which was in Waco at the time.

Her response? “Waco … y’all have some crazy people over there!”

Waco again appeared in featured stories due to a violent confrontation between rival biker gangs.

A friend from Baylor commented following this incident that Waco is not what many might perceive it to be based on the latest news.

I would affirm his assertion, having lived in Waco for seven years during my undergraduate and graduate studies.

Waco’s day-to-day life is fairly slow-paced and largely uneventful. It’s not perfect – there is a great deal of poverty and homelessness, and it has its share of criminal activity – but, contrary to what perception might be based on national news, it is a safe place to raise a family.

This raised two questions: What might people without my personal experience of Waco conclude about the city based on news headlines? How often are erroneous opinions formed about cities, regions or nations based on national or international headlines that most often feature tragic or violent narratives?

The first time I heard of Ferguson, Missouri, for example, was during the 2014 protest and riots following Michael Brown’s death.

In the same way, I have never been to the Middle East. What I know is secondhand and my perception, due to how news coverage works, is influenced by stories that often focus on conflict and violence (ISIS and the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most recently).

The same holds true for other regions in the news recently: Burundi (failed coup and rioting), Central African Republic (militia-based conflict), Central America (unaccompanied minors fleeing violence), Liberia (Ebola), Malaysia and Thailand (turning away migrant refugees), Myanmar (religious conflict), Nigeria (Boko Haram), South Africa (xenophobia), Ukraine (Russian-backed separatists), and the list could go on.

Coverage of these events is important and the 24/7 media cycle makes it easier than ever to stay current on global news.

We should not shelter ourselves from the realities of our world. Yet, we must avoid adapting the question asked about Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” based on news headlines of events in cities, regions or nations.

It would be erroneous to conclude, for instance, that it is always unsafe to travel to or live in the Middle East, parts of Africa or elsewhere based on news about conflict, unrest, disease or a combination of these things.

Consider how U.S. citizens would respond to a non-U.S. citizen expressing concerns about visiting or living in the U.S. based on news reports about riots in Ferguson or Baltimore, or the biker violence in Waco.

No location is always peaceful and settled, but neither is it perpetually unsettled or dangerous.

We must remember that the brief glimpses of unfamiliar locations that we received via news reports never tell the whole story.

Generalizations or stereotypes are formed, perhaps unconsciously, based on news stories focused on tragic events that don’t adequately portray daily life in a particular location.

In fact, studies suggest that we are drawn to negative superlatives in headlines and that we love bad news more than good.

Recognizing this, it is essential to seek balanced perspectives through global relationships.

We should also seek out positive stories that can provide more accurate understanding of places and people whose homes are featured in the news.

Social media allows us to connect with people around the world like never before, aiding our understanding of one another and, if used effectively, enabling us to form more accurate perspectives about cities, regions, nations and people groups.

EthicsDaily.com Skype interviews with people from Africa, Guatemala, Lebanon, Liberia, Nigeria and elsewhere are another way to obtain firsthand insight into situations and circumstances in locations from which headline news stories might skew our views.

Having friends and colleagues who attend international gatherings and share pictures and reflections on their experiences, such as the 2014 Baptist World Alliance meeting in Izmir, Turkey, is another way to avoid unbalanced perspectives.

Global friendships, firsthand accounts and international gatherings create more balanced, accurate perspectives.

The recent biker gang violence isn’t representative of all bikers or of Waco; neither is the ISIS-driven conflict in the Middle East an accurate lens through which to understand the region or the Islamic faith tradition.

Ferguson shouldn’t be defined by Michael Brown’s death or the subsequent riots, nor should Nigeria be characterized by the violent actions of Boko Haram.

The pejorative question, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” is to be answered affirmatively by the gospel audience since Jesus is from Nazareth.

In the same way, connecting with goodwill people and learning about positive events from locations in which negative headlines dominate the news allow us to answer affirmatively similar questions that might be asked about various locations around the world.

Inaccurate generalities and skewed perspectives too easily form based on the national and international news otherwise.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.