Why and How to Critically “Read” What’s Happening in Baltimore

Photo credits: @bkcolin @vbagate mic.com Remixed image: Emily Bailin (2015)

Photo credits: @vbagate mic.com Remixed image: Emily Bailin (2015)

Since late last week, my Facebook newsfeed has been riddled with opposing opinions, quotations, and links about Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.

As in the aftermath of the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, I’ve struggled not only to find the words, but often questioned whether I’m justified in saying anything at all. As someone who identifies as White, and benefits from a multitude of other normative privileges (class, sexual orientation, cisgender, ability), I’m constantly working to negotiate, challenge, and respect the lines that I straddle. I have to acknowledge the power and privilege I have to choose if and when to think about these issues and engage in these conversations. At the end of the day, these occurrences are largely outside of my reality; if I don’t want them to affect my every day, they don’t have to. That is an incredibly powerful idea. The fact of the matter is that I can confidently say that given my intersectional identity, I will never suffer from racial battle fatigue; I will never be in a position that pushes me to protest, riot, or physically react to perceived [and very real] injustices in my community or my country. As a result, I have been an active listener for many months, working to fulfill my unwavering commitment as an ally by simply listening, recognizing that a huge part of being a white ally is knowing when to talk and knowing when to listen; knowing when it’s not your fight, but steadfastly believing in and supporting the larger causes in other ways.

But today, I found a place in which to enter and hopefully make a small contribution to the conversation, speaking to an audience that may be straddling some of the same lines as me. The point of this piece is not to push us even further down the sociopolitically divisive rabbit hole. Too often, we as a society talk and operate within the constraints of binaries–liberal/conservative, White/Black, right/wrong–and leave no room for contexts, for hybrids, for messiness, for things that “don’t make sense” in relation to what we respectively understand as ‘normal”. My hope, rather, is that despite the ways in which you personally approach thinking and talking about what’s happening in Baltimore, you consider the following:

Diversify your news sources. 

Yes, follow what’s unfolding in Baltimore. Yes, feel angry, and helpless, and frustrated. Yes, read and watch the news, but do so with intention, with criticality. It’s imperative to listen to the voices of those often unheard, or completely silenced and ignored. Take a few extra moments to seek out reports and photographs and videos and interviews from multiple sources–from sources outside your newsfeed or the major network and cable channels. I’ve started a reading list (below) that I’ll continue adding to. It contains my recommendations for alternative news sources to know about and some pieces meant to supplement and deepen our perspectives on what is happening in Baltimore.

Expanding your selection of news outlets does not mean you need to agree with everything (or anything for that matter). The point is to strengthen and maintain your position as a critical consumer of the media and your simultaneous role of a critical transmitter and producer of knowledge. If you tend to read The Huffington Post, Jezebel, and watch CNN, flip over to Fox Newslisten to the conversation. And the same goes the other way. If you’re down with The Drudge Report, Fox, The Wall Street Journal, bookmark one of the sites listed above. Tune into the Melissa Harris-Perry show on Saturday mornings at 10:30. Get heated, tweet at them, join in the conversation, be present, and acknowledge that is always more to know, to experience, to wonder about.

Reading List 

Ask questions of your texts.

This, to me, is probably the most important strategy and life skill that anyone can have: knowing how and why to ask questions about the bits and pieces (or huge onslaughts) of media that we interact with, and are oftentimes inundated with, on a daily basis. These are the fundamentals of media literacy education, but are far from limited to school-aged children. Everybody benefits from taking a critical stance not only when reading, watching, and listening to the media, but when we’re creating our own texts for ourselves or to share with the world. Therefore, when you are engaging with any news coverage on Baltimore, I invite [encourage, urge, stress for] you to ask these questions:

Who is the author and what is the purpose? What techniques are used to grab your attention? What lifestyles, behaviors, and aspects of society and culture are represented? Do these representations challenge or reinforce stereotypes? And most importantly, what’s missing? What’s been left out? Who’s been silenced?

In an article from earlier this week, crime reporter, Justin Peters (slate.com) provides one example of why it is so critical to ask these questions:

…CNN, like all televised media, specializes in nearsighted news, favoring big, easily apprehensible images and storylines. The limitations of the format often demand one central visual narrative, to which the reporting and commentary act in service. Burning cars and looted buildings are big, striking images that play well on television, but they too often end up reducing complicated issues to stories about property damage.

…There was violence in Baltimore on Monday, plenty of it. Baltimore is a big city, and much of it was untouched by the riots and looting, but it would be disingenuous to claim that the actual damage was meaningless. Some local leaders expressed frustration that the media coverage was wholly focused on isolated pockets of lawlessness while ignoring the many peaceful protests happening at the same time. While I understand their frustration, I can’t fault the media for emphasizing the riots. Like it or not, “if it bleeds, it leads” is how journalism works, and that’s not necessarily a flaw. If it bleeds, it’s generally important, too.But good journalism also tries to understand why a city is bleeding instead of just frowning at the wound…

And Jon Stewart provides us with another strong, funny, compelling example of media literacy at work–about double standards in storytelling that we rarely think to challenge. Here’s a clip of Stewart interrogating the mainstream media’s coverage of Baltimore (you can access the official post on The Daily Show’s website here):

Push past single stories. 

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie​ says in her TED Talk about the danger of single stories, “…to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

We as citizens, as social forces, as humans should be committed to and working towards justice and equality for all. But assuming [knowing] that is not physically, emotionally, or temporally possible for every individual at this moment in time, start here. Begin by asking more questions, by pushing your assumptions and preconceived notions. There is much to be done. Let’s get to work.