Public Enemy No. 1: Mass Media

I am completely at a loss for words regarding the events that took place on Tuesday here in Chapel Hill. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting Deah, Yusor or Razan, the three bright and promising futures that have been so senselessly ripped away has had an unnerving and deeply upsetting effect on our whole community.

On Tuesday evening around 6:30, I was walking home after catching the bus and pulled out my phone to check some emails. Sitting in my inbox was a message from Alert Carolina informing the student body that a triple homicide had occurred at a given address in Chapel Hill at 5:11 PM. The email did not inform of anything else regarding the victims and did not suggest that students were in any danger. Although I was certain this had occurred from some dispute far from the reaches of UNC, I quickly typed in the address on my Maps app to see how close the incident occurred. The distance from campus relieved me and I went about my evening having comfort in the fact that I likely had no ties to the murders.

I woke up today and was completely shocked to see that the first new post on my Instagram feed was a graphic cartoon and attached was a very poignant argument about the media’s double standards in reporting with regard to yesterday’s triple homicide. I quickly realized this incident had many more implications than I had imagined.

I pulled up my emails to read the three new messages from Alert Carolina. I sat on the edge of my bed scrolling through the emails to find the names of the victims. I wondered if this had made national news, and sure enough, in bold, black letters the top of CNN.com read 3 Killed at UNC. Upon reading the stories and aspirations of Deah, Yusor and Razan, tears streamed down my face. They were just like me…like my friends.

By the time I had gotten to my first class, CNN had changed their headline to now read 3 Students Shot in the Head, the subtitle of which suggested that police were now looking into the possibility of the cause being a parking dispute. Though I knew few facts about the case, I was apprehensive of this proposition.

Today’s experiences have been emotionally draining and yet have managed to seamlessly incorporate the celebration of these three lost lives and the compassion and generosity with which they lived each day and the legacies they’ve left behind. Today has been filled with tears, laughter, anger and reflection, but what has been most disappointing (aside from the event itself) the coverage by mass media.

Not only are media outlets one of our primary sources of news and information, but they set the tone for the issues that come to light. Media outlets are given the immense duty of sharing stories with the public, and the way in which something is presented to an audience has huge implications on how they will perceive and internalize the information.

Alerting the public on was not a priority, Though UNC students received email updates every 5 hours or so, CNN did not publish an article until late this morning, about 17 hours after the shooting. This is an industry standard for when the victims are three Muslims. On the other hand, we have the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices that happened just one month ago in which three Muslims were the assailants. Granted, the scale was slightly larger and there was much more uncertainty with what was next to come in Paris, but when the roles were reversed and it’s the Muslims who are in control of the threatening, mass media had no problem labeling it as a terror attack shortly after it began. We are currently rolling into the 33rd hour since this atrocity took place and there has been no media mention of an “act of terror” on these three innocent people. We have been left knowing that police are still investigating the motive behind the murders, which the media are still calling “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” but haven’t yet dismissed the possibility of it being a hate crime.

My second disappointment lies in another double standard of the industry when it comes to the race or religion of a murderer. The Charlie Hebdo attack was framed by the media in such a way that it clearly was, and always had been, an Islamist terrorist attack on the very provocative publication created by innocent people. Even take into consideration the ISIS crisis in Syria and Iraq. What’s the motive behind their actions? Or at least, how was the media portrayed ISIS and their motives? Islamic extremism, of course. The media has trained us to automatically associate this religion with terror, and I argue, even terror with this religion.

Today while discussing this analogy with a classmate, she said to me, “Yeah, but it’s different. Those were terrorists. They came to France to do those things.” I couldn’t help but look at her in disbelief. She, like so many Americans, has fallen into this trap created by the media that just keeps on fueling these stereotypes about Muslims and Islam. Why? Because it sells. It sensationalizes a story to grab the attention of an audience that is largely non-Muslim. To set the record straight, the three assailants of the Paris attack were French-born citizens.

When killers have been white, no matter the race, age or religion of the victim(s), mental health is almost always brought up and assessed in the case. The most recent updates from the Chapel Hill shooting are that the accused murdered, Craig Hicks, 46, was a man who “believed everyone is equal,” according to his wife. This has sparked the mental health conversation. Hicks’ lawyer, Michelle English has now said that this sad incident “highlights the importance of access to mental health care services” and “obviously, it is not within the range of normal behavior for someone to shoot three people over parking issues.” You’re right, Ms. English. But where has this mental health discussion been for every other murderer who’s not white? We’ve been conditioned by the disparities between and double standards of media reporting of white crimes and non-white crimes. To think we somehow live in a world in which it’s normal behavior when a racial or religious minority kills another human being, but when it’s a white person, they must have some sort of mental instability.

This media framing and double standard in reporting has got to end soon. It is the single biggest factor contributing to the intensification of stereotypes that fuel so much hatred and intolerance and terror on innocent lives. Mainstream media needs to take responsibility in fulfilling their civil duties to society: to inform to keep citizens safe and in-the-know.

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