Narratives are for stories, not for news

Our first lesson in my Newswriting and Reporting class was “News Judgement.” The first notes I took were the definitions of two words: subjective and objective.

Next to subjective, I wrote “considers personal opinion,” next to objective “to be free of bias” and in small parentheses next to that I wrote “news is objective.”

This was the first thing I learned as a journalist and it’s the one thing that I know never to forget. News does not and should not have a narrative. When I write and edit stories, I keep this in mind. When I read stories, I expect this to be kept in mind by the journalists who wrote them. But sometimes, I find myself disappointed.

I find myself disappointed when ABC News and The Wall Street Journal call Dylan Roof, the man who killed nine in a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, a “loner.”

I find myself disappointed when CNN reports on “missed chances to help” Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter, Adam Lanza an “ isolated young man with deteriorating mental health.”

I find myself disappointed when The Washington Post describes Stephen Paddock, who committed the worst mass shooting in modern American history, as someone who “enjoyed gambling, country music, and lived a quiet life.”

I find myself disappointed that when it comes to minorities, the narrative changes.

When Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 in a mass shooting in San Bernardino headlines read “San Bernardino shooting suspects possibly linked to ISIS” from the Chicago Tribune.

When Omar Mateen killed 49 in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, headlines read “Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance” from CNN.

When Sayfullo Saipov drove down a bike path in Manhattan, killing eight, The New York Times headlines read “Trail of Terror” and “Manhattan terrorist attack.”

It’s not to say that these attacks weren’t terrorism or that Paddock didn’t enjoy gambling and country music, but the difference in coverage in these cases is obvious.

There were no stories about the music Farook and Malik enjoyed or what their personalities were like. Mateen didn’t have a headline chalking up his violent crimes to mental health or isolation. And nor should they. These people are murderers who committed devastating and despicable acts. But so were Adam Lanza, Dylan Roof and the abundance of other white, male perpetrators of mass murder. They should not have articles reminding us of their humanity and painting their crimes as unfortunate vices.

But it seems to be that the reason this difference of coverage occurs is because, depending on the situation, the coverage is serving a different narrative.

When the perpetrator is a white male, the narrative being served is “it’s bizarre that this average person that’s seemingly just like us would do something like this” but with minorities it’s “look at these crazy people at it again.”

But there shouldn’t be a narrative at all. The story should be covered as “here is this event that occurred and here are the facts surrounding it.”

In cases of white men committing heinous crimes, the benefit of the doubt is always given. However, minorities never seem to have that same luxury.

If news outlets really believe that personal details about the perpetrator warrant as facts of the case, then those personal details need to be shown of all perpetrators. One cannot be treated as a person who committed a crime and the other be treated as a criminal. One’s actions cannot be treated as the result of mental illness while the other’s actions are treated as the result of an inherent evil.

Not only do these narratives not follow journalistic integrity, but they leave a lasting impact on their audience. If minorities committing violent crime is shown as an expected behavior of that race or religion, and white males committing violent crime is shown as an isolated, unusual occurrence, that shapes people’s perspective.

When an Islamic extremist commits a violent crime, Muslims have to worry about the fact that people will see this as a reflection of the entire religion. It’s a horrible feeling to wake up to bad news of such an act committed, and spend the whole day hoping no one will confront you about it and ask “why do you people keep doing this?” It’s a horrible feeling to have to see talk of immigration bans or stricter immigration laws as if this one act is the fault of an entire 1.8 billion population.

When someone like Stephen Paddock or Adam Lanza commit these crimes, no one is talking about how white men are a threat, how they need to be controlled or have their behavior monitored because who knows what they might do next. I doubt people who fit that description worry thinking “maybe I should stay home today until things blow over a little bit.” This is because no one treats them like what happened is their fault. Based off of what is covered in the news, it’s clear to the public that incidents like these are outliers and have no reflection on people like this as a whole.

News outlets must understand this and must do what they can to keep news objective and free of any personal bias or narrative influence. If they’re having a hard time, then I suggest to find the nearest community college and enroll in a Newswriting and Reporting class. Maybe it can remind them of a thing or two.