Several weeks ago, a massive shootout between rival gangs erupted in a restaurant in Waco, Texas, which left nine people dead and several dozen more injured. Following the shootout, nearly 200 people from rival gangs were arrested. The way that the media covered the Waco shootout is remarkably more sympathetic to the perpetrators of the shootout than to the victims of gang violence in Chicago, reflecting a clear racial bias in the way media reports gang violence.
The stories covering the Waco shooting use “nicer” sounding language to describe biker gangs that have a long history of racism, violent territorial disputes and drug trafficking. Coverage of the Waco, Texas shootout shows just how much more sympathetic and permissive the mainstream media is of white criminals.
The Washington Post’s article on the shootout, titled “Richie died, then Diesel, then Dog: An eyewitness to the Waco biker brawl,” highlights this example. If the title itself does not raise doubts about how seriously the media took this event, then further quotes will show just how whimsical and lighthearted The Washington Post’s approach to the shootout was.
In the article, the author writes, “To the bikers themselves, their world makes perfect sense. It has a code of honor. It has hierarchy, discipline, thrills and camaraderie—much like the military, whose veterans birthed the biker movement after World War II and swelled its ranks after Vietnam. Now, a new generation of veterans, home from Iraq and Afghanistan, is feeding the movement.” Here, the author makes out the biker gangs as a high-minded, fraternal order of men willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the morals of—
Of what? We do not really know, because while the article touches on the crimes of the gangs, it rests on the assumption that the members of the three gangs involved in the shootout are still somehow fighting the good fight. That these are not aggressive, overly-macho and often racist criminals.
The average reader is left with a sense of intrigue and sympathy. The Washington Post’s interviews with the gang members involved in the Waco shootout bring a human element to the story. While the insight that the perpetrators of crimes can bring is sometimes valuable, it is unfair when only white criminals get to lend their voices to coverage of the event.
Meanwhile, crimes committed in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods in cities like Chicago are covered in a remarkably less personable manner. For example, an article written this weekend in the Chicago Tribune reflects just how unsympathetic the media is to the narratives behind gang violence in poor black neighborhoods.
In an article titled “3 dead, 7 wounded in Chicago shootings,” the author takes a very impersonal approach when discussing the victims of the crime. Of the three dead aforementioned, only two are actually discussed, and a name is given to just one of these victims.
The article then spends three paragraphs reporting on the tedium of the removal of the bodies and how traffic in the city delayed this process. Furthermore, the article describes the grieving families as disruptive to the process of clearing the crime scene and making the jobs of the police officers handling the incident more difficult. For those interested in the exact language used in this article, they can find it with a quick Google search.
Granted, these are just two out of hundreds of articles on the topic of gang violence published each year in major newspapers. Sometimes, media outlets do discuss gang violence in poor black neighborhoods in a more personal manner. However, the disparities in the way the media covers high-profile gang shootouts like the Waco, Texas incident and the gang violence in Chicago over Memorial Day weekend reflect a clear racial bias in the media’s coverage.
This is being discussed on a broader level by academics, politicians and independent media sources. Coverage of recent events in Baltimore, New York City and Ferguson, Miss. have made racial bias perfectly clear to media consumers with a critical eye for context and bias.
How the media chooses to report on gang violence is their choice. It would be fascinating if news outlets began taking the personal narratives behind gang violence in historically black and Chicago neighborhoods more seriously. Bringing out a more personal side to these stories may generate greater support for programs that help mitigate gang activity in these neighborhoods, and would make for better news. Either way, racial bias in the media favoring white gang violence only perpetuates stereotypes about gang activity that work against racial progress in the United States.