Sunday, September 16, 2007

Keep your stereotypes to yourself

Here's a quick glance at how not to embrace diversity in your news coverage, and it's also by way of suggesting why coverage of terrorism in American newspapers so often tends to actively subtract from the sum of human knowledge. (The originating paper is the Post-Dispatch, but the article was also picked up in Charlotte, which conveniently managed to cut the why-we're-running-this clause.)

The point for editors at (ahem!) both papers is not just that stereotyping is offensive and stupid. It's that when you challenge a stereotype on grounds that it's offensive and stupid, you might also knock out some stuff that makes readers clueless in other ways as well -- primarily, in this case, how they understand the nature and uses of substate political violence. And you don't have to have much of an imagination to see how Citizen Reader's understanding of political violence is intimately bound up with how we in the media carry out our function as political communicators. There is, as you might have noticed, sort of an election (latest in a series! collect them all!) approaching.

Enough sermon? Let's have some text:

WASHINGTON --On June 10, 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft broke away from meetings in Moscow to make a stunning announcement: U.S. authorities had foiled a terrorist plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States.

Jose Padilla had been arrested in Illinois a month earlier as the central figure in the case. He did not fit the stereotype of a dangerous terrorist. He was an American-born Hispanic who had grown up Catholic.

Leaving aside the question of "whose stereotype of a dangerous terrorist?" for a moment, let's look at why the writer thinks you should think Padilla doesn't fit it:
1) He's American-born. Like, say, Timmy McVeigh.
2) He's Hispanic. Well, bit of a range of causes and personae to choose from here, but let's just pick Luis Posada C.
3) He grew up Catholic. Hmm. Anyone in this roster (I was searching for the attack on the Tory conference in Brighton, but a much more comprehensive list was the first thing to hand) fit such a description?

The point, of course, is not that substate political violence -- let's go ahead and call it "terrorism" for short -- is an exclusive property of Americans, Hispanics or Catholics. Or that we could go on for another dozen grafs listing various nationalities, ethnicities and religions to pad out the writer's rather exclusive list. It is that terrorism is not a function of the nationality, ethnicity or religion of the people who do it. It's something people do because it seems to offer an effective way of reaching their goals. (If you're having trouble filling in your bingo card, by the way, here's a rather eloquent look at the role of violence in politics: Nelson Mandela's "statement from the dock" at the Rivonia trial. If you don't know why that's interesting, just go read the sports or the comics or something for a while.)

Only a limited number of genuine bottom-feeders believe that the purpose of understanding political violence is coddling terrorists. It isn't. The point is that knowing how stuff starts is often a prerequisite for knowing how to make it stop. People who -- as appears to be the case with our writer -- think that terrorism was invented by Muslims sometime in the late afternoon of Sept. 10, 2001, are no help in that effort. To put it mildly.

Lesson for editors? Same as it was in J4400. Call in the bomb squad on any paragraph suggesting that the story subject doesn't fit a stereotype or is Not Your Typical (single mom, college undergraduate, international terrorist, whatever). At the least, it makes the writer look narrow-minded -- uninterested in, or unable to recognize, the multitude of differences in the single-mom, undergraduate and terrorist populations. In cases like the one at hand, it also boots a critical chance to help people understand the stuff that, as voters, they're empowered and expected to pass judgment on. Let's try not to leave the good citizens dumber than they were when they put their quarter in the slot and bought the product, shall we?


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Excellent stuff.

12:45 PM, September 17, 2007  

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