Gary Younge Guardian/UK 23 February 2016
‘After Ferguson went up in flames – to almost universal condemnation in the US media – the DofJ conducted a report into how the city was being run that any enterprising journalists could have produced if they had not become inured to this kind of systemic discrimination.’
‘When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” But over the past few years I have wondered if there might not be an addendum to that adage. Because there are things that happen with such regularity and predictability that journalists have simply ceased to recognise their news value – not least if those things are least likely to happen to the people most likely to be journalists.
Because much of what we have come to accept as commonplace has dulled our curiosity as to why so much of what is commonplace is unacceptable. Because given the prevailing and escalating inequalities and inequities we simply do not occupy the same worlds we pretend to cover – even when those worlds are right on our doorstep. Because there is value in asking “Why do dogs keep biting people?”; “Who owns these dogs?”; and “Why do the same people keep getting bitten?”
The growing political and economic inequalities, both within nations and between them, is not only replicated in journalism but is increasingly being amplified by it. The upshot is an elite consensus, episodically shattered by the intrusion of more democratic forms of new technology but never ultimately displaced.
I’m going to make the case for why this matters, primarily with reference to the United States, since that is where I have been reporting for the past 12 years. But I am confident that the over-arching points work as well in the United Kingdom or almost anywhere else in the western world.
In the US we know how many police officers are killed in the line of duty in any given year, but there is no national tally for how many people are killed by police officers. It is revealing that, as far as anyone can make out, there has not been an increase in the number of black people killed by the US police since the #BlackLivesMatter campaign came to the fore. What there has been is a growing political awareness that has forced a reckoning with a reality that has existed for several years.
These shootings are not news in the conventional sense. They are neither rare nor, to the communities involved, surprising. They are news simply because those who make the news can no longer ignore them. They are news because – as was the case with Trayvon Martin – social media smelled a rat before mainstream journalism could. The world hasn’t changed; what’s changed is our ability to pass off the grotesque as unremarkable.
Every day, for instance, seven children are shot dead in America. In 2007 I picked a day at random and reported on the cases. One involved Brandon Martell Moore, a 16-year-old African American shot by a security guard outside a Detroit store. The city’s two main newspapers never even saw fit to mention his name. I found a similar nonchalance among journalists when it came to the shooting deaths of young black men in poor areas. “People are desensitised to it,” said one. “They reason that’s just where bad things happen.”
“Unfortunately homicides are not uncommon in that area,” said one. In short there are places in almost every US city where children and teens are expected to get shot; To raise children there, whether they are involved in criminal activity or not, is to incorporate those odds into your daily life. The trouble is, if you’re expecting black kids in low-income areas to get shot then the stories never get told.
After the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, went up in flames two years ago – to almost universal condemnation in the US – the Department of Justice conducted a report into how the city was being run that any enterprising journalists could have produced if they had not become inured to this kind of systemic discrimination. Among other things, the DoJ reported the case of a 14-year-old boy who was chased down by a dog which bit his left arm as he protected his face. The boy says officers kicked him in the head and then laughed about it. Officers say they thought he was armed – he wasn’t. DoJ investigators found that every time a police dog bit someone, the victim was black. Sometimes dog bites man really is the story. And we keep missing it. [Abridged]