Two days ago, a homemade explosive blew up outside the NAACP office in Colorado Springs. Fortunately, no one was reported injured and the building only suffered minor damage. Unfortunately, the story has received relatively little attention in traditional media outlets. Within a day, many online activists noticed the discrepancy between mainstream media coverage and their own Twitter feeds:
At a time when many activists rally around the slogan #BlackLivesMatter, it is easy to see the lack of mainstream media attention as another large, establishment institution that does not care about black lives or black institutions quite as much as other potential victims of violence and oppression. I would expect race to play a subtle role in how the bombing is portrayed in news coverage, since profound biases in the portrayal of minority criminal suspects may carry over. For example, The Daily Dot argued the following:
“The FBI’s primary suspect is a balding white male who looks about 40 years old. Curiously, major outlets like CNN neglect to mention the suspect’s race despite police providing that information.” (Editor’s note: CNN has subsequently undated their story and now provides more of a description than The Daily Dot.)
However, it is unlikely that race would lead to a decrease in news coverage of this event. Race and race relations are highly salient as national issues. Would you expect the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado to get more attention now, or in January 2014? I’d expect more attention now, after months of protesting around the country and the continued salience of #BlackLivesMatter. What are some other explanations for why this story would spread more quickly through activists’ networks on Twitter than mainstream media organizations?
1) No injuries, no deaths. There’s a long standing mantra for news organizations that “it bleeds, it leads.” Of course, this is an over-simplification. When I worked in local television news, the only story explicitly pushed to the beginning of the newscast for ratings potential was a major storm. The general principle still applies here. Injury and death is even more of a shock than a bombing with no injuries. Shock draws attention. For some people, the bombing of an NAACP office will be very shocking, even without injuries. Twitter may be a better place for people to share these emotions than traditional media organizations.
2) Official sources did not immediately or loudly declare the bombing an attempt to blow up the NAACP office. As far as I can tell, neither the NAACP chapter or the FBI held a press conference to get every national reporter who may want to cover the story on the same page. Newsweek reported that NAACP chapter president Henry Allen Jr. was initially “hesitant” to call the bombing a hate crime. Meanwhile, CNN published the quote that Allen Jr. gave to local CBS station CNDC:
“We don’t give up the struggle. Apparently, we’re doing something correct. Apparently, we have gotten someone’s attention that we are working toward civil rights for all. That is making some people uncomfortable.”
While he is still waiting for the FBI to confirm that his office was the intended target of the blast, the Denver office of the NAACP wasted no time in calling the attack a hate crime. They issued the following statement: “This is proof that racism is still alive and reared its ugly head in the form of this cowardly act. Regardless of the actions of others, we will continue to fight for the equality of all people.”
There are two separate issues here. First, notice how people at the scene were more restrained about saying what happened. They did not immediately declare the attack a hate crime. Second, every news organization has a slightly different account of what happened. If you want every news organization to start telling the same story, get everyone in a room or on a conference call. Tell every reporter the same story at the same time. Make it easy for national reporters to write about what happened, instead of having to rely on interviews with local TV stations.
3) Traditional news organizations may not have as much to say right away. If you wanted to describe the basic facts of what happened to someone who didn’t know what happened you could tweet, “Bombing outside NAACP office in Colorado” That is as long as a basic tweet of what happened should be. It’s only 42 characters. Even with Twitter’s constraint of 140 characters, anyone could add additional facts, feelings and reactions to their tweet. People would have even more space once basic awareness of the bombing and a hashtag #NAACPBombing emerges. Let’s look at what traditional news organizations could add in updates:
- Was the NAACP the intended target? Maybe. Probably. But if a traditional reporter publishes this as fact before the FBI confirms it, the reporter has broken professional ethics and could be in trouble.
- Motive of the bomber? Well, no one has identified the bomber. Even if the reporter is thinking “duh, this is a racist hate crime” he or she can’t put that in print without a specific statement or written manifesto to use as evidence.
- Victimization? Reporters can quote people in the NAACP chapter, but the chapter president was relatively restrained.
- Witnesses? Yes, if you can find them. This will be more challenging than it seems, since Colorado Springs is somewhat remote geographically.
- Outrage? Not for a “mainstream” news organization. Even if the reporter is personally outraged by the bombing, mainstream news organizations operate under a strong principle of distancing themselves from any opinion presented in their stories.
- Shock? Sympathy? Sadness? See what I just said about outrage.
There’s deceptively little for mainstream journalists to add to the story while working in the format of mainstream journalism. News organizations probably do not want to cover the story unless they could add something to the 42 characters I wrote earlier. With nothing new to add, it is better to rely on republishing the Associated Press wire than to show limited journalism.
4) The constraints on traditional reporters are not applicable to other Twitter users
As I just said, traditional reporters are penalized if they don’t have anything to add to the 42 characters explaining the bombing of the NAACP office. Twitter rewards users for repeating the same phrase, particularly when it gets shortened to a single hashtag #NAACPBombing. Now let’s look at the things Twitter users could add:
- Was the NAACP the intended target? Twitter users can more easily rely on common sense to conclude yes. The standard of proof is much lower, since Twitter users suffer few if any consequences if it turns out they were wrong. This makes it easier for people to tweet about #NAACPBombing, but it also enables much of the abusive behavior we see on Twitter.
- Motive of the bomber? Again, Twitter users can use common sense and their life experiences to draw inferences and publish them, without waiting on official sources.
- Victimization? Twitter users can directly sympathize with an attack against an office of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, in their own words.
- Witnesses? A few tweeted themselves.
- Outrage? YES! Hashtags are ideal for uniting people in solidarity and collective outrage.
- Shock? Sympathy? Sadness? See what I just said about outrage.
In situations like this, activists are quick to argue that the media has dropped the ball. To a certain degree this is true. At the same time, it is important for all of us as media consumers to think about what kinds of content we want to read and produce after events like the #NAACPBombing. How much do we want someone to provide us with the facts and only the facts? How much do we want additional emotions of shock, solidarity and shared outrage?
I imagine different people reading this post will want different things. Some people will want heavily fact-based reporting, so they can form their own reactions. Some people will want more of an emotional first-person narrative to help put their reactions in to words. One advantage of the massive increase in online publications is that audiences can increasingly pick and choose how much emotion they want in the description of current events. Some stories will spread more quickly through restrained professional journalists, while others are better suited to spread via the emotional valence that readers identify with.