Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Political cartoon in the Columbia Daily Tribune is an example of lazy journalism
I wasn’t surprised when the Columbia Daily Tribune, my hometown newspaper, printed a political cartoon that many deem cruel and racist. It simply reflects the news culture in Columbia, Missouri, a town only 117 miles from Ferguson, Missouri.
The cartoon portrays protestors in Ferguson holding signs that read “Burn Ferguson”, “No 60” Plasma TV, No Peace”, and “Steal to Honor Michael Brown.” The cartoon appeared during the peak of tension between protestors and law enforcement. During those stressful days in Ferguson, some looted, and officials reported witnessing protestors throw Molotov cocktails.
The news cycle was replete with tails of violence among protestors, and numerous news sources focused on this aspect of the story. Many wondered why reporters failed to dig deeper into the root causes of rage among protestors, and inquired into why law enforcement employed military tactics to control peaceful protest.
The Columbia Daily Tribunes decision to stress the looting and burning angle represents the type of lazy journalism that has obstructed the reporting of this story. The cartoon communicates what is felt by many readers – that the protests in Ferguson made looting the primary agenda. This slant is imbedded in the perception of readers already guided by stereotyping that makes it difficult to concede the concerns of those protesting in Ferguson.
This story is, at the core, a reminder of how race and perceptions related to racism can significantly impact judgment. The editors at the Tribune failed their readers by poking fun at a minor slice within an extraordinarily complex story. The reporting on Ferguson, as with all stories, should be placed within both a historical and contemporary context. Newspapers are responsible in getting the story right when those witnessing from the outside become engrossed by their assumptions.
I call this form of reporting lazy due to its readiness in declaring the message of the status quo. Lazy journalism follows the line of what others report. The national news media was quick to endorse the stance of law enforcement in reporting related to looting and the launching of Molotov cocktails. Many among the protestors have reported a different story – that water bottles were thrown, that many of the attacks were initiated by law enforcement, and that looters were outsiders who came under attack by peaceful protestors.
Credible journalism struggles with assumptions, and seeks to get at the why behind the what. The Columbia Tribune missed the mark by failing to report on the ground. The paper’s error isn’t as much about printing the cartoon – something papers in other states may have done – but relates more to failing to take the story seriously by having their own reporters present.
As a paper located in Missouri, The Columbia Tribune owns responsibility in reporting on the Ferguson story. The paper owes the community reporting that places the story within a communal context. The lazy approach is to pull news from the wire service, seek a few local angles, and feed readers a localized version of what is being reported by national news outlets.
I expect more from my hometown paper. Sadly, the Columbia Tribune isn’t positioned to engage in a high level of reporting related to questions involving race. Pondering the implications of race and racism are low on the Columbia Tribune’s agenda, which reflects Missouri’s culture of running and hiding from stories about race.
Jim Robertson, managing editor, and the staff at the Columbia Tribune, had no intention in communicating a racist agenda. Their lack of sensitivity is not a variable of a mean intended attack on black people. It does speak to how assumptions of privilege show up when race fails to become a priority in how we report the news. You can’t blame Robertson for not knowing the cartoon would be read as offensive. You can blame Robertson, and the Columbia Daily Tribune, for failing to employ people with keen insight into that culture.
This is what happens when black people are absent. It’s what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Sadly, it’s happening in Columbia, Missouri. We fail to see it due to the way matters related to race is addressed in Missouri.
You don’t talk about it until it’s too late.
And, that’s just being lazy.