Facing the Truth
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, October 1999|
Facing the Truth
By Dori Maynard
Dori Maynard is director of communications of the Robert C.
IN THE LAST two years more than 150 people have been killed or injured in a series of highly publicized shootings, a recent Newsweek tally showed. The bloodshed in the Buckhead section of Atlanta was among the latest. All of these acts were committed by young to middle-aged white men and took place in predominantly white communities. And still the media continue to characterize these events as anomalies.
"Yet the incident is also part of a larger and dismally familiar story of shootings that seem increasingly to pop out of nowhere and in the most unlikely places--in orderly small towns, in offices, in suburban schools, in genteel neighborhoods and, in this case, in the commercial district of the well-to-do Buckhead section of Atlanta," the New York Times wrote in an editorial about the July 29 shooting in which a day trader killed 12 before killing himself. The Times echoed the sentiment of many media outlets in the wake of each of these shootings.
It is hard to fathom how something can be both "dismally familiar" and yet also "seem to pop out of nowhere." Exactly how many times do shootings need to happen in "the most unlikely places" before such areas are reclassified as all too likely? We don't have to make this leap of logic when youths of color commit violence in our cities. Rarely are those deaths deemed newsworthy enough to merit editorials bemoaning this "dismally familiar story" popping out of nowhere.
This discrepancy would not even be worth noting if it were not for the important role the media play in our lives. We look to the media to shed light on the problems that we must face unflinchingly. Instead, what we read about middle-class rural and suburban violence more accurately reflects the way we wish things were, not the way they are.
It did not benefit our nation or the black community when we tried to ignore the pressing social problems facing African American families in general and young black men in particular. We do no one any favors if we pretend that there is not a very real and deadly crisis in some of our suburban communities. At a time when newspapers are struggling with issues of credibility, it is just this kind of wistful vision that leaves readers questioning our ability to accurately impart information. And it is perhaps one of the most compelling reasons we need to ensure that our newsrooms are diverse.
My late father, Robert C. Maynard, once the owner and publisher of the Oakland Tribune, believed that our nation is split along the five fault lines of race, class, gender, geography and generation. This no-fault fault-line theory urges us to understand that those differences are as real as the geologic fault lines just beneath the earth's surface.
Now, rather than pretend they do not exist, each of us must begin to admit that those fault lines help shape how we view the world and how the world views us. Most important for the news media, one of the main tenets of the fault-line theory is that we as journalists bring much of who we are to what we do. Sometimes our work misses the mark, not because we've intentionally left something out, but because our fault lines often combine to create blind spots.
Such blind spots most likely account for the news media's continued confusion about acts of violence in communities that feel like home to many journalists. However, just as it would strike someone as grossly inaccurate and would render my word suspect if I were to profess shock at each act of violence in my hometown of Oakland, California, so does it destroy the credibility of the news media when we continue to characterize the violence committed by white, middle-class boys and men as anomalies. One can only hope that if we are faced with another round of violence in our middle-class schools or our mostly white suburbs, the media will not shroud the event in surprise. Then, perhaps, we as a society can take a hard look at what is happening in these communities and take the steps to ensure that the shootings stop.###