In the interest of journalistic objectivity, reporters often attempt to give legitimacy to both sides of any given argument, no matter how disproportionate in size those arguments actually are. They do this by highlighting those individuals or groups who say something contrary to what their demographic is “supposed” to believe: Jews who are pro-Palestine, black people who oppose Black Lives Matter, women who are anti-feminist, and so on.
In light of recent debates over gun control, some conservative media organizations have given the spotlight to fringe victims of gun violence who still oppose gun reform, while more liberal media are calling on gun owners who support calls for improving gun control laws. The issue with this attempt at unbiased reporting becomes the tokenization and sensationalization of very limited and problematic viewpoints.
In the case of the Parkland students who organized the March for Our Lives, there is a small group of students who do not support their fellow classmates in their campaign for gun control.
The Daily Wire, a conservative news website, interviewed pro-gun Parkland student Brandon Minoff, an outlier in a sea of fellow students who have demanded tighter gun control in recent weeks. Minoff has accused the media of “politicizing” the massacre to talk about gun control, echoing similar cries of conservative media pundits who often tell leftists to allow loved ones sufficient time to grieve before launching their anti-gun campaign.
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) February 15, 2018
Conversely, the HuffPost has launched a slew of articles about U.S. Army veterans who support gun control. Several others have taken to either destroying their their semi-automatic rifles, or turning theirs into the police. This tactic directly appeals to those Americans who conflate gun ownership with patriotism.
This strategy is not limited to this singular debate, and has a longer history that exposes partisanship and an unwillingness to work with the opposition that predates even today’s polarized political climate.
In the interest of delegitimizing calls for police reform in recent years, conservative media networks regularly include black critics of Black Lives Matter in their discussions. One of Fox News’ most regular and fiery pundits has been former American law enforcement official and Sheriff of Milwaukee County, David Clarke. Often referring to the movement as a “Black Lies Matter,” Clarke has regarded the organization as a hate group, one of many similar claims that has aligned him closely with President Trump.
The Fox News favorite has repeatedly denied the willingness of white police officers to shoot black suspects over white suspects and has blamed “liberal policies” for subsequent rioting. The cable news network feigns including people of color in the discussion of race-based police violence, only to advance its own denial of the gravity of the issue.
The issue when the media reports on these more anomalous opinions is its tendency to sensationalize views that are perhaps not only untrue, but harmful to the communities about which they are reporting.
During the nationwide March for Our Lives, NRATV, the news outlet for the National Rifle Association, aired a pre-recorded interview hosted by Colion Noir with Atlanta rapper Killer Mike about gun control. Killer Mike made some astute remarks about the flimsiness of white allyship when many pro-gun groups challenge the legitimacy of black gun ownership, but later put forth a slew of controversial remarks about student calls for gun control broadly.
Killer Mike is apologizing after the backlash over his NRA TV interview pic.twitter.com/cvQtzYtNE7
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) March 27, 2018
He explained: “I told my kids on the school walkout: ‘I love you, but if you walk out that school, walk out my house.’”
The following day after the March, Killer Mike issued an apology on his Instagram account about the widespread misconceptions resulting from his appearance on NRATV. Mike clarified that he is a “longtime believer” in youth activism and that actually he did support the March for Our Lives.
The voices of black people suffering under police states, of children being shot at in their own classrooms are loud and clear. These voices are demanding reform, and should ideally be appealing to very human nature of empathy for the suffering of others.
Despite all this, right-wing pundits repeatedly weed out the few pro-gun survivors of mass shootings or black individuals in positions of power that disparage pro-black movements who will corroborate the conservative viewpoint.
In clinging to even the most singular and distant shreds of hope that will buoy their claims, right wing media exposes its own deep seated denial of state-sanctioned violence against some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Of course, there is value in acknowledging a prevailing disposition that has natural counterpoint.
This strategy aligns with conventional methods for creating a sound argument. Especially in such a polarized political climate, nuance in reporting and headline-making can help to create a more accurate depiction of the actual discourse at play in the country, and create more honest discussion.
However, this does not seem to be the end goal of various media outlets who would rather sensationalize voices of dissent, however miniscule. This kind of tokenism ultimately serves as a symbolic effort to be inclusive of minority groups within a certain political discourse without the authentic intent of establishing a productive conversation. Thus, this strategy inadvertently blocks true reconciliation between polarized camps.
If journalism were to prioritize more nuanced reporting, it could help remind readers that political camps are not as monolithic as certain media networks present them to be, that communities are made up of individual people and not simply ideologies.
Moving forward journalists must learn to better engage the counter argument not in the interest of disparagement or of sensationalism, but in the pursuit of complex solutions to complex issues.