I’ve accepted that some of the people who respond most passionately to my columns may not be the strongest readers.
But last week was the first time I started to worry that maybe they don’t see so good, either.
You might have caught last week’s column about a Northeast Philly teen who was jumped by a bunch of other teens at 16th and Oxford in May after he and a cousin who goes to Temple dropped off another female cousin around 3:30 a.m.
Police arrested a teenager from Bensalem. Both teens are white.
I didn’t spell that out because the version I posted online included a disturbing picture of the white victim, Dan Lynch, who suffered serious head injuries, and the mug shot of William Riddle, the suspect. Also, to be completely honest, part of me wanted to challenge the assumptions I knew some people would jump to when they read that one of the attackers yelled out: “You’re on the wrong f—ing block,” only to realize that the perpetrator was also white and not from the gentrifying neighborhood.
That was my first mistake. My second was a technical goof that meant the photo of the white teen arrested by police only appeared online, not in the newspapers.
On the morning the column appeared in both papers, the prejudice poured in — by the hundreds.
“White hater,” one guy screamed into my phone. “Why not say what we all know, that the scumbags who did this to the white kid are black?”
“It’s obvious that the kid went into a black neighborhood and almost got himself killed.”
“You don’t mention what color William Riddle is. … Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me, I already know. … Fake News.”
Somebody get these people some eyeglasses, I thought, recalling the very white-looking mug shot and, just a day earlier, the cover of the Daily News featuring two black teenage girls accused of pulling several gunpoint robberies under the headline “Child’s Prey.”
We could be accused of lots of things here but “protecting” black suspects isn’t one of them.
Then things got weird, and I started getting messages from people accusing me of protecting a white teenager in a way we never do black teens.
The good news is that print is not dead. Clearly, plenty of readers still get their news from the newspaper.
The bad news is that my goof highlighted the increasingly divisive assumptions people make about each other, a world that’s far from post-racial — and the media’s role in this damaging narrative.
Malcolm X summed up what he called an irresponsible press:
“It will make the criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
If you doubt that, consider the criminalization of people of color in the media, how differently white suspects and victims are treated from black suspects and victims. Consider how in 2015 an Iowa paper published mug shots for black suspects of a crime and, on the same day, ran yearbook pictures for white suspects of the same type of crime.
Consider the role the media plays in how people form their views of one another.
In a 2015 report titled “Not to Be Trusted: Dangerous Levels of Inaccuracy in TV Crime Reporting in NYC,” ColorofChange detailed how news coverage distorts the picture of criminal justice and documented the negative impact this imagery has on black communities.
One of the findings was particularly relevant: “Bias is so strong that people will assume a suspect is black even when they aren’t.”
“In absence of a clear white suspect, a black or brown suspect is assumed,” said Brandi Collins of ColorofChange.
I have to admit I felt a little silly when telling her my mistake was honest. With stats like the ones her organization uncovered in New York, where stations consistently overreported black crime and underreported crime by whites, why would anyone believe that? Instead, I told her I hope they do the same study in Philadelphia. I’d guess the results won’t be that different.
Mistakes happen, but when we aren’t addressing the bigger issues of media bias, we bear responsibility for the perceptions out there.
Even after I set readers straight, they were unwilling to let go of their assumptions.
“Yeah, well … what about black on black crime?” came the response from a reader who was clearly disappointed that his guess was wrong.
“So, you didn’t do this on purpose … this time,” responded another reader who wasn’t about to let the media get off easy.
We clearly have work to do, and making sure the right photos make it onto all of our platforms is just the beginning.