Our opinion: This is why we didn't do the story on the 'racist' comments on Facebook
It was brought to our attention that Valley News Live did a story on a controversial facebook comment made by a part-time teacher in the Detroit Lakes School District, Jennifer Mitchell. The comment was directed at a Native American, and at first glance, it seemed pretty bad, as this was Mitchell's comment: "Stop acting like a bunch of savages. People like you label your people as lazy, drunken, welfare burdens".
Whoa, right? Red, racist flags do tend to go up, but the problem is, that comment was isolated without any context whatsoever. One might wonder, do you even need context? She said what she said. But yes, news organizations, if they care anything about being legitimate and fair, should provide all context possible if they're going to choose yet another topic that is divisive and potentially harmful to somebody.
Here's what we found out when we dug around a little: Number one, despite the fact that Valley News Live indicated that they had tried to contact her for comment, Mitchell says they did not; she says she found out about this story Monday morning when everyone else did. Number two, the comment was part of a thread where Mitchell was defending her friend, a Muslim woman from the reservation, who was being verbally attacked by a Native American person. For even more context, the Muslim woman is married to White Earth Secretary Treasurer Alan Roy, who has said publicly that his wife and family are often the victims of racial discrimination and threats from some Native Americans on the reservation...the very community they love and serve. Do two wrongs make a right? Of course not, but it sure does make the situation feel different, doesn't it? All of this doesn't mean Mitchell's comments were great, but is the story becoming a little less outrageous with context? It's why we didn't view it as a legitimate news story to begin with. Our job as journalists isn't to add fuel to smoke and hope for a fire.
This whole "react now, maybe learn more later" concept is seriously damaging the threads of our communities and country. This local incident comes right on the heels of the controversial story of the teenage boys in Washington D.C. who stood face to face with a Native American elder and Vietnam veteran playing a peace song on his drums at the Lincoln Memorial. The initial glimpse of the situation looked far worse than what it looked like once the longer video surfaced, giving Americans more context into what happened. Did it make that smirky teenage boy look like a saint? Not really, but it brought the temperature down significantly when we saw the situation in its entirety.
Folks, we've got to do this better ... and by "us" I mean all of us ... the media, everyday citizens and the country's leaders. No more baiting. Race baiting and baiting of any social injustice is a real thing, and when the media takes it, we all lose.
The reason this is so dangerous is because it not only divides and outrages people unnecessarily, but it also weakens the voices of those who have actually been the victims of racism or sexism, because yes, those things are very much still alive.
If media organizations take that bait and run irresponsibly with it, they severely damage not just their own reputation, but the reputation of journalism in general, because readers and viewers don't always know the difference in who is reporting what. And the next time there is a legitimate story of racism or any 'ism that needs to be brought to light and exposed, people might have already run out of their give-a-damns because they're assuming it's just the media telling another one-sided sob story.
Look, it doesn't escape us that by doing this editorial, we essentially did the story, but we also believe that the lesson here is too important to skip out on. We've got to all get better at deciding where we dedicate our rage to, because it cannot be sustained when we're throwing it everywhere and at everything without even knowing what's going on. We cannot win in a fight against racism or sexism or anything else that deserves our wrath if we are distracted and not aimed at the real beast. And this is something we're sure everyone can all agree on — the beasts really are out there. We've got to be much sharper than this if we think we've got a chance to beat them.