BBC Coverage of London Riots
August 23, 2011
News coverage of black men and boys often paints them in a negative light no matter where they are in the world.
The latest example was coverage of London, which experienced four nights of rioting, looting and arson after a black man was shot to death by police.
BBC television news reports and other global news channels showed crowds rioting and looting. While people of all races and ages engaged in criminal behavior, young black men were singled out as being primarily responsible.
The venerable “World Have Your Say” radio show asked, “Is there a problem with young black men?” The presenter (anchor) of the powerful newscast “Newsnight” allowed British historian David Starkey to go unchallenged when he said, “The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion.”
Numerous Londoners have left comments on blogs and websites condemning Starkey’s words as racist. Others have written that he was only pointing out that most of the rioters were young black men and that white people who joined the activity had “become black,” a reference to a view by numerous Web commenters that “black” equated to violence or criminal activity.
“I personally did not see the looters and murders as being representative of young black males,” says Pam Fraser Solomon, who spent 15 years as a drama and features producer at the BBC and is a a freelance producer and lecturer. “However, the media clearly did.”
“While the white people and the women who were involved in the disturbances were not portrayed as being representative of their respective groups, even ‘World Have Your Say’ might have balked at phone-ins entitled ‘Is there a problem with women/white people?’ ”
Fraser believes that the British media could have done a better job of putting the rioting in context. Instead, she says the coverage made the situation worse.
“I don’t expect the media to be fair, but I do expect journalists to recognize the consequences of titillation,” she says. “When a journalist produces a piece of work that is used as racist propaganda, that journalist and that media institution cannot turn around and plead ignorance of inciting racial tension.”
The National Association of Black Journalists blasted the BBC coverage in an open letter from its new president, Gregory H. Lee Jr.
“Is this just a case of shocking incompetence or racism — as others have said?” Lee wrote.
“Why have black people in Britain not been afforded the same respect given to others? Why is the assumption that if something is negative pertaining to black people it is deemed acceptable by the BBC? What happened to the BBC’s duty to provide accurate and balanced reporting? This raises the question of whether the BBC’s senior editorial ranks need better racial and philosophical diversity to avoid being blind to such insensitive incidents.”
The BBC was not alone in being called out for the way it covered the rioting.
Nadine Drummond, an associate producer for CNN International, works in Atlanta but was raised in Lewisham, a mixed-income neighborhood hit by unrest in south London. She says many middle-class whites have no idea, and don’t care to know, what living in sections of their communities is like. She believes that they easily accept race as the only reason for the rioting.
That’s why she thinks coverage on BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera appeared to blame young black men, at least in the beginning. After that, she said, CNN’s coverage presented a more balanced view of what was happening and why.
“We (CNN) have few people on staff in London who are black and British who could provide an alternative voice,” she says.
Because she grew up in Lewisham, Drummond injects a different voice in the debate that convinced her colleagues that race and class contributed to the problems.
“When you don’t have people with the same cultural experience, you’re going to go back to your default settings,” she says. “Unless you have somebody like that in your newsrooms, your coverage is going to be what it was on the BBC.”
It is a lesson for all newsrooms. Have someone on staff who can provide perspective on a story happening in a different community. If you don’t have that person, reach out to someone in the community who can provide that perspective.
That makes coverage more balanced and more accurate.
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