The rise of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter; the death of the African-American teenager Trayvon Martin and acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmerman; the deaths of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and many others; and the protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri (and throughout much of U.S.) have brought national attention to the issue of police brutality and the systematic neglect of Brown and Black lives. Much of this attention must be attributed to social media, which allowed such events to be captured in real time and quickly dispersed to millions of people, forcing both mainstream media coverage and government recognition. People are reclaiming the telling of their own stories and their daily encounters with violence, in the process displaying the often underrepresented experiences of African Americans.
But while social media (e.g., Facebook Live, Instagram, Twitter) provide outlets for people to display the harsh realities of Brown and Black individuals living within the U.S., the traditional news media continue to avoid referring to such instances of police violence, crime, or the failure of public schools as systemic trends present within their cities. Instead, coverage tends to blame the individual or frame the situation as an anomaly, thereby downplaying the severity of various forms of structural oppression.
In the third installment of the Covering The Margins series, I again return to the media of Buffalo, New York, this time with the goal of examining the normalization of systemic racial inequality. Buffalo stands as the sixth most segregated metropolitan area in the nation. African Americans make up 36.5% of the city’s total population but account for 85% of the population located east of Main St. in the neighborhood known as the East Side. Of this population, 44% reside below the poverty line (as compared to 33% of Buffalo’s total population), with African Americans making up only 13% of the city’s workforce. It was the region hardest hit by the disinvestment and deindustrialization of the city in the second half of the twentieth century. It maintains the lowest real estate prices due to the mass of under-resourced and under-performing public schools, inaccessibility to public transportation (and therefore sufficient employment opportunities), and the large number of decaying and/or vacant houses.
However, this combined spatial and social immobility remains rarely covered by the region's local news sources. For both the The Buffalo News and WBFO (Buffalo’s NPR station), two of the media outlets used for my study, I found that terms such as “East Side,” “violence” and “public school” tended to appear in ways that reduced their potential meanings by tying them to themes of failure, criminality and under-resourced “minority” communities. Never once was it stated that the African American community has been bearing the brunt of these systemic and institutional failures. Indeed, the term “race” itself was virtually absent from the coverage, and the racial identities of specific individuals/populations were never named.
For instance, the article Three lives lost in one year from Burgard High School. Why? discusses the deaths of Shaunice Gamblin, Daniel Glover and Kristian Piazza, the youngest of Buffalo’s 44 homicide victims in 2016. While covering the issue is important, the racial identity of the teenagers, all under 18 and coming from low income families of color, isn’t mentioned. Photos of the victims are displayed, but without the recognition of the broader trends of murder that plague the low income black community within the region. Instead of discussing the location of the majority of the homicides - the East Side - the article blames the violence in and around Burgard High School, which all three individuals attended. Such a lens undercuts the severity of the issue by blaming “violence,” a broad term that allows publications to name an issue without naming the larger demographic of individuals most affected. It stages a problem but in a way that dissociates readers from those actually experiencing the issue, absolving society as a whole from the responsibility for finding a solution.
The WBFO articles, such as Buffalo is witnessing the deadliest start to a year since 2007 and Violence Escalates in Buffalo’s Lafayette High School, follow a similar trend of covering an issue through a framework that implicitly blames those most affected. Again “violence” becomes the reduced term, alluding to the racial segregation of the city, recognizing that issues arise most prominently on the East Side. Still, it fails to actually question how racial marginalization plays into this continuously neglected, and thus problematic, region of the city. In both articles, proposed solutions revolve around an increased need for security and/or funding, suggesting more of a criticism towards government or public schools than a need to address broader societal and cultural trends. It becomes an issue readers can be aware of, without committing themselves to the work of alleviating the problem.
Only The Challenger Community News, the city’s African-American newspaper, acknowledges the issue of racial inequality. The other two outlets mention broad issues such as poverty, high rates of unemployment, violence or under-resourced schools, but fail to name specifics of where the highest unemployment and poverty takes place, the demographics of the population within the area, or the systemic root of these issues. Alternatively, The Challenger focuses systematically on the issues affecting Buffalo’s African American community: “Who Polices the Police” by Daniela Porat discusses the 58 out of 62 murder cases of black individuals by the police in which the officer was exonerated or not charged at all; and “VOICE Kicks off campaign to lower local prison population” shows how mass incarceration targets African American individuals throughout the country, but more specifically how the trends play out in Erie County. Such journalism does take on a more opinionated tone, but it also gets to the root of the problem through a presentation of important facts. The more open discussion of systemic trends counters that of the Buffalo News and WBFO, but also reaches a very different audience of older African American readers, especially as The Challenger maintains a relatively small online presence.
What does this mean in terms of the overall media representation of Buffalo? It means that representation is selective: for the two most mainstream media outlets with predominantly white readership, The Buffalo News and WBFO, not a single article of the 30 I analyzed referenced any systematic trends of racial inequality or even the specific demographics of the populations most affected. This is because such trends of racial segregation and under-resourced, low income African American communities, are not new. A title that references some form of violence is eye catching, but the basis of content is recurrent. Certain areas of Buffalo are becoming more economically advantaged and are growing, mainly because of the increasing refugee population. But the invisibility of the most vulnerable communities in Buffalo, and thus the naturalization of racial inequality, remains unchanged. So how do you tackle race, or expect other people to tackle race, when race isn’t even mentioned? The Community Challenger News stands as the guide for what should be incorporated into the more mainstream outlets and also points us toward the realization that individuals themselves must question their news sources, their content, and the impact of these coverage patterns on their city.