This post appeared as an op-ed in the Albany Times-Union.
Most Americans get their news from local TV news programs. While TV news does a fine job with “Local Boy and Lost Dog Reunited” stories, where they often fall short is on stories that require more than a cursory rundown of the day’s events. So, what most Americans saw when they tuned in to the local newscasts this week was a story about wild and irrational rioters in Baltimore looting and destroying their city.
Of course, today, the news ecosystem is a lot bigger than just TV and, in some ways, the Internet offered promising alternative coverage. Those following hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter were reminded that these riots spring forth from a context of persistent police violence against black residents, including Freddie Gray who died after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody. On web-based news startup sites, including Vox.com, we were reminded that half of the residents of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood don’t have jobs. On his blog, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out that calls for nonviolence and “calm” among protesters are not matched with similar condemnations of violence by police in daily encounters with black residents.
On my own Facebook feed, several friends shared research findings that note rates of incarceration of black men by orders of magnitude higher than any country in the world, failing schools in poor neighborhoods, and inadequate access to healthy food and even clean water in urban black communities. One friend shared a classic academic article called “The Diffusion of Collective Violence” by Daniel Meyers that explains how urban riots grow.
All of these web-based media provide precisely what’s missing from local TV news: the sort of sociological and economic context necessary to understand the events in Baltimore. But then again, many of my Facebook friends are college professors who do things like share data on social media. Elsewhere on the web, it was easy to find openly racist commentary on the Baltimore protesters, but also decent, open-minded, white people who don’t understand why recent issues with police amount to more than a few bad apples.
The Internet is a democratizing force that gives many more people the opportunity to express themselves – and that’s a double-edged sword.
Media scholars have long observed the danger of the Internet to act as an echo chamber where the likeminded speak to the likeminded. As a consequence, Internet news may provide desperately needed context, but it’s unlikely to reach those who need to hear it in order to stand for real justice.
The protests turned violent in Baltimore are borne of years of economic and social deprivation, institutional racism, and police brutality towards people of color. In the mainstream news media, it’s all too easy to miss that context. In the public sphere offered by the Internet, we risk preaching to the choir. If we are to achieve any measure of social change and reconciliation, we must deliberately engage with ideas and evidence that could lead us to change our minds.
It’s a truism that the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in the 1960s because TV cameras captured the violence against nonviolent protesters. The current movement against police brutality has gained steam, in part, because of smartphone videos uploaded to the web. As much as media has brought public attention to issues of racial injustice, neither the mainstream news model nor the web-based model are fully equipped to promote understanding and social change. As news consumers, we need to demand insight, not mere updates from traditional news outlets. As neighbors and citizens, we need to push ourselves to learn more, have hard conversations with those we disagree with, and develop greater empathy for each other.