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Panelists at Emerson event cite selective journalism in coverage of gun violence in black communities

Posted by Your Town  September 21, 2013 02:41 PM

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The black community continues to be harshly impacted by selective bias in news media coverage of gun violence, panelists at an Emerson College forum said last week.

“There are still problems, and there is still the racial bias in our society today,” said panelist Betty Shoels, the aunt of Columbine High School victim Isaiah Shoels. “We need to step up and tell the truth when the truth is there to be seen.”

Media outlets, Shoels said, did not cover the story of Isaiah, the only black victim of the 1999 Columbine high school shooting.

“The story of Isaiah is just now getting out,” Shoels told the crowd.

Her concerns about selective coverage and framing of stories was echoed by Michael Patrick MacDonald, a Southie native who is the author of "All Souls: A Family Story from Southie." He said he saw that distortion of coverage growing up in a poor, largely white community. Where communities like his were often ignored, he said, violence in black communities often centers on African-American perpetrators of crimes rather than the crime’s victims.

“In Southie we wouldn’t hear about any of the victims of stuff that was happening,” McDonald said. “You really didn’t hear about any of that stuff. What angered me a lot was that the media was more than willing to talk about the black super predator, some 15-year-old kid was what they were normally referring to, but we had Whitey Bulger, and no one was talking about that super predator.”

Also on the panel, titled “The Violence Divide: Race and Class Disparities in the Media’s Response to Gun Violence,” were Courtney Grey, director of trauma services for the Boston Public Health Commission and Taisha Akins, a Boston activist whose son was killed by gun violence.

A fifth panelist, Phillip Martin, a senior reporter for Boston’s WGBH, ttempted to participate in the forum from Washington D.C. via skype, but the connection failed.

The event was held in Emerson’s Cutler-Majestic Theatre and co-hosted by the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research and by ArtsEmerson, a stage production organization, to address the ways in which shootings in the nation and the city have been reported. It was lightly attended.

Grey urged students present, particularly those in arts institutions, to pressure the news media to show less bias in coverage.

“Some of us that try to protect and serve people who are affected by negative things, we’ve been waiting for the arts institutions and other institutions,” Grey said. “There’s a culture of journalists that want to change the paradigm of people who report on trauma, report on violence, report on sudden death. It’s lead by journalists."

The forum began with an introduction by Emerson College President Lee Pelton, who emphasized the importance of media coverage of gun violence especially in the Boston area.

“Gun violence is the second leading cause of death among young people up to the age of 19,” Pelton said. “This is a public health crisis of enormous dimensions and one that plays out every day.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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