They say all lives matter. But the memorialization of the two murdered Virginia journalists underscores the role race plays in the way victims—and shooters—are treated by the media.
In America, all White lives matter, whether they are the victims or the killers. Regardless of the circumstances, guilt or innocence, or the criminal justice outcomes, in the court of public opinion, White lives always matter more than the lives of people of color.
We have witnessed evidence of this through the mainstream media’s efforts to understand, humanize, and tell the life stories of White murderers like Dylann Roof, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, and the Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz, all while portraying Black victims like Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and countless others as criminals.
Look, too, at the way the mainstream media breathlessly memorializes White murder victims as beautiful, vulnerable, loving, valued and innocent while denying Black victims the kind of emotional ties and sanctuary in death now being given to Virginia reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward. Tragically, the two were shot dead last Wednesday in an on-air attack by Vester Flanagan, a.k.a. Bryce Williams, a Black disgruntled former colleague who reportedly said that his personal experiences with racial discrimination and the shooting deaths of nine Black people in a Charleston church last June motivated him to kill.
Much of the 24-7 news coverage has celebrated Parker’s and Ward’s lives. This horrific tragedy has brought the co-workers into our homes and the media has sought every angle to spotlight their inherent humanity. It is no wonder that the nation has been moved by their deaths. News anchors at different stations held a moment of silence for the slain reporters. Thousands of baseball fans attending the Salem Red Sox minor league game and the Washington Nationals game against the San Diego Padres paid tribute to Parker and Ward.
#WeStandWithWDBJ was trending on Twitter.
Je suis Allison. Je suis Adam.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of anyone’s death. But the media feeds us dying-while-White stories that transfix audiences and keep us grieving vicariously as we are fed details about their shattered dreams and how their deaths have shifted their family’s and community’s emotional axes. Meanwhile, Black victims are depicted as if they’ve emerged from what a friend of mine calls a terra incognita “where dragons be,” and the only thing that happens there, as far as many White people imagine, is that savage Black people are inevitably murdered.
Consider the heartbreaking interview that Alison Parker’s boyfriend Chris Hurst gave to the Daily Mail last Thursday about their final moments together.
“This morning she had to get up a little extra early to go to Smith Mountain Lake. I made her breakfast, I made her lunch—I sent her on her way,” Hurst told reporters. He said that since he worked nights and she worked mornings, he always wanted her to text him when she got to work safely. The last thing she texted him was “Good night, sweet boy.”
“The whole country wants to know about Allison and how beautiful she was,” Hurst said in an interview on Morning Joe.
A co-worker described the couple as being like “Barbie and Ken.” The nine months they spent together “burned white hot, full of love,” Hurst told ABC News. He took pleasure in simple things like cutting up strawberries for her and packing her lunch. This kind of remembrance spotlights the value of Parker’s humanity and the significance of her life, and appropriately frames her murder as a national tragedy.
Photographer Adam Ward was engaged to be married. He’s been described as “vivacious and funny, the sort of person you never saw without a smile,” according to CNN.
How could one not be moved by how Hurst spoke lovingly about Parker in his back-to-back media interviews? How could one not be touched by report after report that fleshed out Ward’s persona? Tears are understandable and so is the anger and sadness for these lost lives.
But I can’t help thinking about how Black shooting victims are never portrayed as lovingly by the media. Instead, we see the brutal killings of Black people on a constant television loop, further traumatizing families and communities that are feeling under siege.
Black corpses are left out in the open, with photos circulating on newscasts and social media, as we saw with Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Martin was depicted as a thug, pothead, and drug dealer, while Brown was described as an unstoppable Negro beast character plucked right out of a Jim Crow–era lynching playbook.
Trayvon Martin was described as a delinquent who had been suspended from school. When friends, family members, and teachers tried to counter those narratives with photographs that rightfully attempted to restore his image as a child, with a 3.7 GPA, and a church boy with over 600 volunteer hours, right-wing media outlets went on the offensive. He was referred to as a “man” and fixated on his size, just like they would do a couple years later with Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was described by police as a 20-year-old man.
The humanity and value and emotional ties to these young people’s lives were never considered. None of these boys were regarded as America’s children. They were simply Black bodies whose age and presumption of innocence instantly became illegible and intuitively needed to be destroyed. But the deaths of Allison and Adam were a national loss.
The media decided against airing footage of Virginia shootings, both on TV and online (e.g., Facebook would not allow links to the video to be posted or shared). But note the double standard: We all saw footage of the shootings of Walter Scott and Sam Dubose, and the choking of Eric Garner, which was available on all manner of media, especially our social media newsfeeds.
Black funerals are often aired on live TV with open caskets, grieving families and communities publicly displayed for collective scrutiny, as a kind of injustice porn. Victims’ life stories are often manipulated in a way that puts them on public trial for the crimes that took their lives. Victims’ families are vilified by the press. Arrest records are dug up; menacing photographs circulate on social media; reports surface of marijuana in the blood; photos of their dead bodies and the morbid details of autopsy reports objectify the victims. We even saw a White artist restage the death of Mike Brown in a gallery exhibition while referring to herself as an ally trying to help undo White supremacy.
Forgiveness is demanded from Black families, as if they aren’t entitled to the seven stages of grief following the loss of a loved one. Can you imagine Morning Joe or Don Lemon asking Allison’s father and boyfriend or Adam’s fiancée if they forgive the gay Black man who shot them? Will President Obama, forgiver-in-chief, be asked to sing “Amazing Grace” at their funerals this week?
Rarely does the media try to humanize Black victims of violence. Just last week, Idrissa Camara, the 53-year-old African immigrant security guard and father of three, was murdered by White gunman Kevin Downing in a federal building in New York City. What little coverage was given has focused much more on Downing, who was said to have had personal troubles.
Downing lost his home to foreclosure. His fiancée died. He’d been a whistleblower who was given “a raw deal” by the agency that fired him. Representative Bill Pascrell said several members of his staff worked with Downing, and that he had never shown violent tendencies, presenting a murderer as a fleshed-out, complex human being even though he’s clearly the villain. In a world where the snarky counter retort of #AllLivesMatter, hashtags should be trending for Camara; there should be moments of silence and collective tears for his death, life, and shattered immigrant hopes of achieving the American Dream. There would be an effort to understand his life, to hear from his loved ones, to collectively grieve with this family.
With Parker and Ward, and countless other White victims, we learn about their dreams, and pray that somehow they will be realized. We wrestle with the senseless killing and how Bryce Williams not only took two lives lost but shattered families. We bow our head knowing that Parker’s boyfriend will never be able to make her a smoothie again or his girlfriend will never get to wear the wedding dress. This is the kind of White privilege on fleek that is not afforded to so many Black victims.
Let’s imagine the possibility of Black murders being publicly remembered like Parker and Ward, and Black killers considered like Downing. If all lives really matter in America, then regardless of race, tragic deaths deserve the same response: national grief, tears, listening to the victims’ loved ones share their memories, and allowing the right to vent their anger and rage.
Let’s imagine the possibility that the senseless killing of a Black, Latino, Arab, Asian, or Native American person compels national attention; that in their lost lives, the nation grieves, sheds tears, and demands accountability whether through gun control, investment in mental health, or police reform.
The fact is that all lives do matter and are a kaleidoscopic reflection of our humanity. Our mainstream media continues to play an effective role in shaping the public’s perception that White lives, even the most evil, are always a tragic loss and worthy of the nation’s understanding and our tears. But when White people repeatedly slaughter Black folks, our stories begin with our death and far too often end with the killer’s justification for why we deserved to die.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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