Media Analysis

A tale of two stories: Charlie Hebdo and the NAACP bombing

Media fails to connect attack on black civil rights organization to larger national narrative of race
Photo: Dominik Fusina

The day before attacks on Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo, an NAACP office in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was bombed. Despite each being of major importance, these two atrocious acts were given largely different treatment in mainstream U.S. media outlets.

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Although the Paris attacks of Jan. 7 were deadly and the NAACP bombing resulted in no fatalities, the latter is quite relevant given racial tensions surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The Paris attacks were instantly labelled as a terrorist attack by U.S. news organizations, but the NAACP bombing was not. CNN and other cable outlets spent much air time speculating about terrorists abroad while refusing to label or discuss hate crimes here in the U.S. that should also be considered terrorism.

U.S. media organizations have faced criticism this week for the disparate treatment given to the two stories, and for the most part rightly so. Most news organizations didn’t report anything about the Colorado NAACP bombing until a day after it happened.

Social media users have stepped into this vacuum, questioning U.S. media coverage, or the lack thereof, under the hashtag #NAACPBombing. Even a few media insiders were calling out the lopsided coverage. Patrick Howell O’Neal wrote about the social media outrage over sparse media coverage of the NAACP bombing for The Daily Dot, while critical comments from Dave Zirin, sports editor at the Nation, were retweeted more than 1,000 times.

Islam will be blamed for attack in Paris and #NAACPBombing will be blamed on... wait, no one is talking about it off twitter... so nothing. — Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) January 7, 2015

The NAACP bombing happened on Tuesday, the day before the shooting in France, so there was plenty of time for U.S. outlets to report. Many simply didn’t.

When it comes to reporting on these two incidents, it shouldn’t be an either-or call for U.S. news organizations. Journalists should have covered, and should now cover, both stories with the same level of care and import. This isn’t happening for several reasons: the way journalism traditionally works is one, media bias is another.

A larger narrative of a country bleeding

Although U.S. media organizations reported on the NAACP bombing — even the much-maligned FoxNews.com had at least three reports on the incident within 24 hours of its occurrence — the problem is the amount of coverage that violence thousands of miles overseas is receiving, versus the amount of coverage consumers are getting of an attack right here at home that many U.S. citizens view as homegrown terrorism.

Why the U.S. media didn't report on the NAACP bombing
A summary. (Click to expand.)

There are several factors at play here. The attacks in Paris fit nicely into the simplified post-9/11 media narrative of Islamic terrorism; the victims include journalists, which provides an additional layer of interest to news outlets; there were 12 fatalities; and there is audio and video footage. These factors, and a series of continuously developing storylines, ensure that this “made for cable news” story will occupy almost all available airspace.

Meanwhile, the story in Colorado consists of everything most news organizations, especially cable TV news outlets, struggle to cover effectively: nuance. The NAACP bombing resulted in no deaths, no video footage of burning buildings, no letter explaining the motive; it ties into the current complicated state of racial affairs that many journalists have difficulty understanding and discussing; the suspects are likely not Muslim; and due to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s ongoing review, details about the bombing are hard to come by.

Still, there are legitimate questions surfacing about the news media’s approach to the reporting of both stories.

Based on a cursory Google search, the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Post, ThinkProgress and a handful of other outlets reported on the NAACP blast on Tuesday right after it happened; many or most other news outlets were late out of the gate, and reported the story a day later and only after outcry on social media, a full day after the blast took place.

Staff at Reported.ly, an innovative social-media-based journalism venture launched last month by First Look Media, saw early tweets about the bombing, but opted to focus on other news developments such as protests against U.S. policy in Mexico and reports of an active shooting in El Paso, Texas. Kim Bui, one of fewer than a handful of U.S.-based staffers for Reported.ly, said she clicked on a tweet from the Denver Post about the NAACP bombing, and hesitated before deciding to follow other news stories instead.

“I clicked on the story, saw no one was hurt and had to make a decision,” Bui said via email. “I could only cover one thing. I chose the thing where people’s lives were at risk. In retrospect, I should have at least RTed (retweeted) the story from Denver. I’m not sure why I hesitated.”

According to Bui, later that night she mentioned the bombing as “something that happened.” The racial component “crossed her mind,” she said, but she’s not sure she mentioned that to any of her colleagues. Then the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office happened. It was “all hands on deck for France, especially since most of our team is based in Europe,” said Andy Carvin, Bui’s boss and founder of Reported.ly.

In reporting the bombing story, many journalists failed to immediately make the connection to the larger narrative on race.

In the U.S., “if it bleeds, it leads” is a premise that news organizations have almost always operated under, and still do to a large extent. Deaths, especially multiple deaths, almost always trump events that are injury-free. The only kinds of national stories that come close to ranking with mass shootings are perhaps those involving race.

In reporting the bombing story, many journalists failed to immediately make the connection to the larger narrative on race that is currently taking place in this country, a narrative that also involves the bloodshed of a string of unarmed black men and boys — including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and Trayvon Martin — at the hands of police and other authorities, who remain unaccountable.

A history of terrorism against African descendants

Even when news organizations did report on the bombing, they used different language to characterize each news event, something social media users also picked up on.

This graphic was shared widely on Twitter following the attacks.

Social media reacts
A difference in headlines. (Click to expand.)
An even bigger reason why U.S. journalists aren’t calling the bombing an act of terrorism has to do with mainstream media’s long history of not regarding acts of violence against black citizens as terror.

U.S. news media are reluctant to characterize the NAACP bombing as terrorism because law enforcement or political operatives in Colorado haven’t labelled it as such, even though the FBI has been called in, raising a flag that the bombing is most likely a hate crime. An even bigger reason why U.S. journalists aren’t calling the bombing an act of terrorism has to do with mainstream media’s long history of not regarding acts of violence against black citizens as terror.

“It’s important to be conservative in how we understand the NAACP bombing,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, which encourages reporting on global violence and conflict.

“Is it politically or racially motivated? Probably,” Shapiro added. “But we don’t want to get ahead of the facts.”

At the same time, this reluctance illuminates a historical lapse when it comes to the home-grown terrorism long waged against African descendants in the U.S. and elsewhere, said Pamela Newkirk, professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.

“The word terrorism is typically applied to attacks against people of European descent, and is primarily used to describe attacks by non-whites,” Newkirk said. “There are a few instances when whites have been called terrorists, as was the case with the Oklahoma bombing years ago, but rarely or ever have the systemic attacks on innocent blacks by the KKK and other white supremacist organizations been defined as terrorism. Of course we know that African Americans have long been the targets of terrorism through legal and extralegal means. The decades-long practice of lynching blacks and bombing their churches and other establishments was nothing short of terrorism.”

“So given that historical backdrop and orientation, it is not difficult to understand why mainstream journalists have been slow to identify acts of terrorism against black subjects,” Newkirk continued. “This is just one of the reasons that the slogan #BlackLivesMatter has such resonance. It applies to the police killings of innocent black males, as well as the habitual devaluing of black lives by the mainstream media and white public in general.”

Proponents of #BlackLivesMatter aren’t saying the newspaper attack in Paris isn’t important; they’re saying the NAACP bombing in Colorado is just as important.

Proponents of #BlackLivesMatter aren’t saying the newspaper attack in Paris isn’t important; they’re saying the NAACP bombing in Colorado is just as important.

Shapiro, of the DART Center, agrees. The attack against Charlie Hebdo wasn’t just an attack against cartoonists, he says, but on the whole of free speech and civil society.

“It’s a very deeply emotional event that goes to the very heart of our social contract,” he added. “We don’t want to blame the media because it really is an important story that goes to the heart of Western democratic values. What we do want to do is also focus on Ferguson, Eric Garner and the issues they raise. These are political events of equal stature. They too go to the heart of our social contract.”

This week’s judgments about coverage also reveal something else journalists would be wise to consider. People are paying more attention to news and information, beyond what the traditional gatekeepers present.

Stories journalists choose to cover, and the language they use in reporting them, reflect choices that journalists makes unconsciously. “This is something we should pay attention to,” Shapiro concluded.

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