No doubt we are all familiar with Natalee Holloway. She’s the blond, blue-eyed graduating honors student from Mountain Brook High School in Birmingham, Ala., who was participating in a senior trip with classmates on the Caribbean Island of Aruba when she disappeared.
She has yet to be found. One cannot imagine the pain and suffering her family and love ones are presently experiencing. This is indeed a tragic story that has touched the nation.
But I wonder, how many of us have heard of Latoyia Figueroa, a brown woman who disappeared off the streets of Philadelphia around the same time? Both are young attractive women created in the image of God. Both have worth. Both deserve dignity.
But based on the relentless media attention given to Holloway’s disappearance, in comparison to the deafening media silence when black or Latinas disappear, one can only conclude that skin color determines who has greater worth and deserves more dignity in the eyes of the media.
Robert Niles, editor of the Annenberg Online Journalism Review probably said it best: “The obsession that the industry, especially cable channels, [has with] stories about missing, pretty, white girls has gotten a little ridiculous.”
The problem with the media is not that it is too liberal or too conservative, but that it is too white.
The media is usually the lens by which we view the world. At a profound level, what we consider to be reality is largely shaped by what appears in our newspapers, weekly news magazines, and the television news programs.
We take for granted that what is reported as objective news is actually subjective, for objectivity does not exist. The objectivity claimed and treasured by those in power is simply Euro-American subjectivity.
In fact, we are all subjective, writing from our social context, filtering the news based on personal experiences. Those reporting the news are no different, for they do not exist in a vacuum.
They, like the rest of us, are a product of their environment. What is reported as news is in reality a product of the reporter’s cultural ethos, reflecting her or his society’s views and mores.
Yet, whenever a person of color writes anything, it is automatically assumed that they are being too subjective.
When what is written strikes a nerve with the dominant culture, rather than debate the merits of the argument, the first accusation usually voiced is that the article lacked research or scholarship. This is an accusation most scholars and reporters of color are accustomed to hearing–an accusation seldom made about whites.
All reporters are influenced by their environment, therefore their writings reflect their biases and prejudices, regardless of their color or ethnicity.
Looking around the newsrooms of this nation’s papers, we see that the overwhelming majority of reporters are white and from the middle to upper economic brackets. We are left to ask, how liberal can the media actually be?
When “real people” articles are written, or photos essays dealing with “a day around town” are published, the reporter goes to the familiarity of his or her community.
Unfortunately, because we live in a segregated nation, the happenings occurring within the marginalized neighborhoods around town are simply ignored–not on purpose, but as a consequence of the established segregated structures of our society.
The omission of voices of color is considered normal, and their exclusion is seldom mentioned.
While the positive accomplishments from the dominant culture are routinely reported due to access, these same accomplishments, when they occur within non-white neighborhoods, seldom make it into the paper. Why? Because there is seldom anyone there to do the reporting.
The newspaper’s absence of the accomplishments of disenfranchised communities can lead to the faulty conclusion that such achievements must not exist, reinforcing the stereotype that nothing good can come from “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Journalism today is one of the nation’s most segregated professions. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, only 5 percent of reporters are black while 45 percent of this nation’s newsrooms have no person of color.
It becomes commonplace to view one’s own white, segregated neighborhoods as ideal locations, while disproportionately imposing the ills of societies on non-white neighborhoods.
For example, while the vast majority of drug users and pushers are white, a different reality is constructed for us when the papers focus on crack usage in the black and Latino/a neighborhoods instead of cocaine and heroin addiction in white, middle-class suburbia.
Men of color, the media tell us, are to be feared as possible rapists. The fear of black men as the sexual deviant, and the maintenance of the dominant cultural myth of the black rapist, was best illustrated on the cover of the June 27, 1994 issue of Time magazine, where the photo of O.J. Simpson, on trial for killing his white blond wife, was digitally darkened to make him look blacker.
Should we then wonder why people of color have become a symbol of crime in the U.S., a threat to society? Why else would you lock your doors when driving through “that” neighborhood?
Ms. Figueroa was recently found in an abandoned field not far from her home. Ms. Holloway has yet to be found. Both women are precious in God’s eyes. They should both be equally precious in our own eyes, and the media should also have that vision. If not, we only continue to perpetuate the prevailing structural racism, which exists in the reality constructed for us by the news media.
Miguel A. De La Torre is associate professor of social ethics at IliffSchool of Theology on the campus of the University of Denver.