Whose Fear? Which Newsfeed?

By Ryan Stewart 4-15-2015 | Series:
Protestors gather in Washington, DC, December 2014. Image via Rena Schild/shutte
Protestors gather in Washington, DC, December 2014. Image via Rena Schild/shutterstock.com

In “A Newsfeed of Fear” (Sojourners, May 2015), Gareth Higgins argues that our newsfeeds often scare us into believing the world is getting worse when the world is actually getting better. 

Although I resonate with a call for calm in an age of violent clickbait, we cannot discuss “A Newsfeed of Fear” without talking about race in post-Ferguson America. When we say our newsfeeds are filled with fear, we need to think more about which newsfeeds are making us afraid and whose fear we’re discussing.

For example, when Higgins bemoans “horrifying, brutal videos, edited for maximum sinister impact,” perhaps a reference to the all-too-familiar videos of ISIS hostages, I actually envision Walter Scott and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and all the others.  While the videos produced by ISIS are fearmongering propaganda intended to provoke, we wouldn’t want to call newsfeeds unmasking the reality of police brutality a corrupting influence on our society, right?

And in this context Higgins’ claim that the world is actually getting better is especially dangerous. Advising police brutality whistle blowers to keep their violent videos to themselves because they paint “too cynical a portrait of the improved race-relations in our society” would border on the insane.

The problem with media is not so much that it makes us fearful, but that it makes certain people fear certainthings and certain other kinds of people.  It makes my mom fear that her granddaughters will get kidnapped in a very safe neighborhood. It makes me, a white guy, fear walking past black men in hoodies at night, and not white guys in polos. What you fear depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.

From where Higgins is standing, “our culture has been hoodwinked by the idea that we’re living in the center of crisis, when actually we’re in the midst of the evolution of hope.” In his eyes, our culture cultivates a false sense of constant terror.

But we need to ask: whose culture? When I read #BlackLivesMatter activists, they seem to say: “no, most people have been hoodwinked by the idea that ‘our’ (meaning American) culture is living in the midst of the evolution of hope, when actually ‘a certain (black) culture’ is indeed in the center of crisis.” So who’s right about the value of violent, fearful newsfeeds?

It depends on where you’re standing and what you’re watching.

Sometimes newsfeeds can and do demonize marginalized ethnic groups in the United States by means of “fear.” Consider the coverage of Ferguson protests. We saw burning buildings and lootings while talking heads like Bill O’Reilly ranted about disgraceful Ferguson rioters. (Read: black people are scary).

Or look at the experience of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent in the wake of the United States’ “war on terror” and the consequent Islamophobia.  Newsfeeds full of jihad and terrorism continue to motivate discrimination and hate crimes. These newsfeeds unfairly sensationalize.

But with the proliferation of police brutality videos we see a newsfeed working at its best. These violent videos are bringing black suffering into the largely white mainstream discourse and thereby raising a new standard of public accountability for police departments. A violence once hidden to certain (predominantly white) communities is now being revealed for all to see. Even though we still lack real systemic change, this particular newsfeed, which bears a resemblance to the sensational violence Higgins criticizes, has actually been instrumental in changing the national conversation on race in the United States.

But the point is not simply “some violent newsfeeds are justified” or “sometimes the world is actually getting worse.” It’s not just that some claims to crisis are rooted in reality (like police brutality), while other claims are not (like terrorism).  The important point is that reality, whether violent or not, looks vastly different depending on where we’re standing.  One person’s world can literally be in crisis, while another plods along in ignorant bliss.

And this fact is the beginning of good journalism.  When we talk about a newsfeed of fear, it’s important that we attune ourselves to questions of racial identity. Whose fear are we talking about? Which newsfeed are we looking at? Whose “world” is getting better or worse? And who is the “we” that is doing the talking and looking?

On the one hand, Higgins is right: There will always be violence on our newsfeeds, and we shouldn’t let ourselves be duped into living in fear, especially fear of the marginalized, by an onslaught of ever profitable Breaking News. But there are other newsfeeds some of us, depending on our identity, need to watch very closely, especially when they contain violent, upsetting, and shocking headlines.

Ryan Stewart is Online Assistant for Sojourners.

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