Letter I sent to NY Times Public Editor today

To the Public Editor,

As soon as I saw the news of a mass shooting in New Orleans on the city’s nola.com news site, I had a sense of how the New York Times would cover it. Sure enough, it currently merits a small mention far down the website’s front page under “More News.” I’m writing because I think you should really comparatively examine how the newspaper covers tragedies that affect poor minority populations in distant parts of America.

The New Orleans shooting is as much a horror as any other American act of mass violence, but it was inevitable from the moment it happened that it wouldn’t receive a fraction of the attention that the Boston bombing has (or the shootings in Aurora or Tucson). Actually, the BBC gave it top billing on its U.S. News site (screenshot below), but British journalists have not yet learned the subtle hierarchies that govern American mainstream coverage of horrible events.

That hierarchy of victims is obvious to every reader. In fact, I’d say that given a particular set of factors, one can predict almost precisely how the New York Times will cover a story like this. The journalistic law that applies here is as follows: the New Orleans shooting will receive coverage precisely to the extent that it resembles a “Mass Shooting” as a discrete type of stock media event. Because there are lots of victims, there’s a parade, “indiscriminate” firing, upstanding (white) citizen attendees, it fits many of the parameters. But it’s also in a poor neighborhood in Louisiana, there were no deaths, and the violence is not the product of a college-educated psychopath or angry young Muslim, but the everyday street variety that has become an accepted part of New Orleans life.

I am trying to be fair here, by recognizing the subtleties of the formula. I’m not saying the New York Times doesn’t cover tragedies that affect minorities. I’m saying that coverage levels seem to emerge from factors, as if on a checklist, that determine how a story will be covered. Some of those make decent sense (such as extent of harm), but some of them are prejudiced and give certain people more humanity than others. Now, I’m sure also that those factors are unconsciously applied. But I don’t see how anyone could fail to recognize them, or how they are defensible. How are the bombs in Boston more frightening than the shootings in New Orleans? How are the lives of the 200 (mostly poor, black) people who are murdered every year in New Orleans not as much value to our national security as the lives of marathon attendees?

I’m sure reporters have a standard line of defense against this charge. I don’t know many reporters, so I don’t know what it is. Perhaps they say the paper only reflects the public’s prevailing fancies; we give them what they ask for and don’t ask questions. But even if we set aside any idea of the media’s shaping public opinion, this defense would carry the implicit concession that if the public’s interests reflect racial bias, it’s okay for the paper to reflect racial bias.

If I could make one point that would stick with you, it would be this: I think any critical examination of the way newspapers determine the relative importance of events reveals profoundly ugly truths, and that whatever neutral defenses are made are thin rationalizations. I think you as the Public Editor truly need to take this question seriously. I also think you should be very careful to check that you do not fall into these same rationalizations when you try honestly to answer the question  “What acceptable reason is there that the New Orleans shooting is not in large print on the front page?”

I’ll confess a bias here, which is that I love New Orleans and every act of violence in it pains me. Much of this violence is not drug or gang related, and affects everyone from children at birthday parties to college students to parents and community members. But most of these people are black, and there just doesn’t seem any way to convince newspapers that their lives matter as much as anyone else’s. I hope you’ll help on this, it seems precisely where the role of the Public Editor is most needed.

Thank you,

Nathan J. Robinson

EXHIBITS

A. Times Coverage

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B. BBC Coverage

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UPDATE: As of 11:30 p.m. on the night of the shooting, the story has been dropped from the front page of the Times website entirely.

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