Gates Case: “Teachable Moment” For Media?


President Obama called the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates in his own home a “teachable moment,” but what does it teach us about news media coverage? For one thing, it was the media that uncovered the story and gave it wide play. The Harvard Crimson, the university's student newspaper, provided the first report on the case four days after it occurred, and it was Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet who asked Obama about it at the end of a prime-time news conference. Obama’s response that the Cambridge police department had acted “stupidly” kept the story going for days.

One poster on this Web site complained that the media were too quick to accept the police report as the definitive word on the case. That often is the case in initial media reports of any crime, when the police report is all that is available. The Crimson tried to talk to Gates, but he was unavailable. The Crimson quoted colleague Charles Ogletree in his defense.

In any case, there seems little dispute about the essential facts of the dispute. There was some misreporting about some of the details. For example, because the police report noted that Gates and his driver were black, some reporters and commentators jumped to the wrong conclusion that the person who had reported the possible break-in had identified the men breaking in the door as black. Only on July 27, a week after the original media report, was it clear that she did not use racial identifiers.

Given the initial inaccessibility to the media of the key players in the case, Gates and arresting officer James Crowley, media reports seem have been largely accurate to date about what happened in Cambridge.

Coverage of broader issues of police and race is another matter. Some of the major media, including the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times, as well as national tv networks, have explored in some detail the fear and misunderstandings involving race that come up daily in police interaction with citizens.

The coverage has all pointed out in one way or another that the type of encounter that involved Gates and Crowley–a homeowner suspected of burglary–occurs frequently, with different results depending on the facts, personalities of those involved, and local customs.

So far, however, most of the media have not chosen to use the case as a “teachable moment” when it comes to racial profiling in general.

Some jurisdictions whose police have been under fire for biased policing, such as New Jersey and North Carolina, have taken strong steps against the practice. The national picture is murky, partly because of a lack of definitive research, as was noted in an article in the journal Criminology & Public Policy quoted on this site on July 24.

It may turn out that the Gates-Crowley affair had little or nothing to do with racial profiling, although that was Gates’ initial charge. Still, now that heavy media coverage has led to scheduling of a White House session with Gates and Crowley, it would be appropriate for more journalists to take a close look at racial issues involving the police in their areas. This should not be just a one-day feature story quoting a few anecdotes, but a search also for any statistical material that would illuminate whether law enforcement, and the justice system as a whole, treat minorities fairly.

The debate will go on indefinitely over who overreacted more in Cambridge, Gates or Crowley. Both men apparently were traumatized by the incident itself and the intense media coverage. More significant are the unknown number of other racial episodes that occur around the nation. Journalists can perform a civic function by telling the public about how their law enforcement officers are trained and how they actually peform in situations when race is an issue or is perceived to be one.

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