In Black History Month, We Need To Acknowledge Disparities In Reporting Crimes
When it comes to reporting events, good or bad, the media should be fair and unbiased in their coverage.
However, sadly this is not always the case. This is particularly evident in the disparity in reporting between Black and white people. This piece investigates this, providing examples of inequality in news coverage between Black and white people.
To begin, I’ll start with an early example of a tragedy that happened in the early 1980s. On January 18, 1981, a house party took place at 439 New Cross Road, London, to celebrate the 16th birthday of a young Black girl by the name of Yvonne Ruddock. Sadly, this night intended for celebration ended up in disaster as a fire broke out in the house and 13 young people lost their lives. The majority of attendees of this party were young Black people.
Director Steve McQueen released a three-part docuseries on BBC iPlayer entitled Uprising that investigated this event further. It interviews witnesses of the fire and police involved in the case at the time. Witnesses of this event and the aftermath noted that the media coverage of the tragic event was treated as if it was ‘news for a day’. The Black community continued to grieve during this progress, but it seemed like the media had quickly moved on.
Episode two of the Uprising series is titled ‘Blame’. This is in reference to how both the police and media placed blame on the victims of the fire, based on conspiracies, rather than showing sympathy to them and their families. Reporting of the event used language that placed blame, with little sympathy. Enlarged quotes like ‘the music [at the party] was terribly loud’ were printed in newspaper articles.
The Black community were convinced the cause of the fire was racially-motivated, especially as racist attacks happened often at that time. Although there were several theories behind the fire, the closest confirmation of what caused it was an arm chair in the house of where the fire occurred. There has been no definite confirmation of whether this was deliberate or a mistake.
Just four weeks after the New Cross fire, unfortunately a similar event took place – this time in Ireland. This also involved predominantly young people, and 48 young people died. Known as the Stardust fire, the Queen sent condolences to the families of those affected by the tragedy, yet said nothing to the parents of the 13 Black children who died in the London fire. This again suggests the lack of value for Black lives.
Sadly, we see this theme of lack of empathy regarding Black people continued years later with Joy Morgan.
On February 7, 2019, Black female student Joy Morgan was reported missing; she was last seen on December 26, 2018. The media coverage of Joy’s disappearance was minimal compared to another, equally worrying case of white female student Libby Squire, who was reported missing just six days before Joy.
On The Times‘ website, for example, at the time of writing, there is just one-story covering Joy Morgan, and that is concerning her murderer’s verdict. There are no seen reports around the time that she was missing. However, at the time of writing this, on The Times website there are at least 10 seen reports of Squire’s case.
In another missing persons case, journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff shared in an article for gal-dem magazine that when she was on work experience at The Times in 2014, a news editor proclaimed, ‘This girl is young, white, pretty, middle class and creative. Our readers will love her,’ in response to hearing the news about missing 14-year-old Alice Gross.
It’s not just The Times that limited coverage of Joy’s case. I would not have found out about Morgan’s case if not for social media, which seemed to report more about it than national news.
In 2021, we still see examples of the same theme occurring. On March 3, 2021, Sarah Everard was reported missing after walking home through Clapham Common towards her home in Brixton. It was later sadly revealed that she had been murdered by Wayne Couzens, a now ex-police officer. Everard’s death led to mass media attention and even sparked the Reclaim These Streets movement – a campaign to make streets safer for women – something unfortunately very much needed.
When comparing Sarah Everard’s case to Black female 21-year-old Blessing Olusegun, from Southeast London, who went missing while on a one-week care work placement in Bexhill six months before, the disparity in national media coverage is clear.
Olusegun was last seen on CCTV at 1.00am walking towards the beach on September 18, 2020. A few hours later, her body was found dead on this same beach. Sussex Police has deemed Blessing’s death as ‘unexplained’ and a post-mortem examination determined she died by drowning. Surrounding the time of Blessing’s death there was little to no coverage of it on mainstream media outlets. It wasn’t until Sarah’s death the following year that more coverage picked up surrounding it, putting more pressure on the police to investigate further. However, this comes six months after Blessing’s death, and it is still clear that the frequency in media coverage of Sarah and Blessing’s deaths greatly differs.
This also speaks to the issue of how the police treat cases of Black people compared to white people. For decades there has been a mistrust between the police and the Black community in the UK. And it’s no wonder why, with police brutality and with Black people being more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people.
However, the press is supposed to be an independent body that steps in and highlights the inequalities in society, as a way to put pressure on those in authority to make things right. This is what good journalism is.
However, sadly, not all media outlets seek to uphold good journalism values. The issue of disparity in media coverage between white and Black people stems from white supremacy. It’s the belief that white is more important than any other race. Therefore, white people are represented at the forefront and anything else is seen as less than and subordinate.
The inequality of media coverage is not limited to when tragedy happens. We also see it in the reverse. When there is an event that stigmatises Black people in a negative light, for example, knife crime in London, it seems to be plastered all over the news. This seems to be the time when you see Black people on the news the most. Yet, it is rare to see positive news spotlighting Black people when they are doing something good unrelated to this topic.
In February 2019, I recall watching an episode of the now-cancelled BBC news programme The Victoria Derbyshire Show, which featured the campaign ’56 Black Men’. Founded by Cephas Williams, this campaign is designed to spotlight Black men in a positive light as it profiles 56 Black men doing amazing things in their careers. The journalist host of the programme, Victoria, brought the majority of men from the campaign on the show and interviewed them as a group, asking individual questions for 30 minutes.
I remember watching it and thinking how rare it was to see so many Black men in one place being spotlighted in a mainstream news programme, in a good way. It was refreshing. However, the fact that I was surprised to see this, indicates how large the issue of media disparity is.
The issue of this also arises from the lack of diversity in newsrooms. This in turn leads to reporting that fore fronts a particular face of society – white faces.
To help solve this, there needs to be more hiring of talent from diverse backgrounds. Through this, ethnic minorities will have more opportunity to voice their opinions in these spaces, which should then translate visibly to more diverse news coverage, helping to close the gap in the disparity of media coverage that currently exists.
Words by Maxine Harrison
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk
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