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Media coverage of protests sure looks different when demonstrators are white

Ryan Bundy, a militia member, talks on the phone at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Ryan Bundy, a militia member, talks on the phone at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Associated Press

Over the holiday weekend, a group of predominantly white militiamen took up guns and began occupying the government's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Oregon, culminating in a tense standoff with law enforcement in the area.

It's a big story. This is an armed militia using the threat of violence to get the federal government to change the law — specifically, the gunmen want the feds to give up publicly managed land to local ranchers, loggers, and miners. And, yes, they are using the threat of violence: As Les Zaitz explained for the Oregonian, "In phone interviews from inside the occupied building Saturday night, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, said they are not looking to hurt anyone. But they would not rule out violence if police tried to remove them, they said."

Yet media outlets don't seem to consider this an alarming story, instead treating it by and large as a peaceful protest. Here, for instance, is an Associated Press tweet about the events:

For many on social media, the reaction seems very different from how the media would react if, say, black or Muslim protesters with guns took over a government building instead of a predominantly white group.

The media's reaction to a group of armed people taking over a government building was timid

One would think that an armed group taking over a government building would be a big deal. The public certainly seems to think so, with #OregonUnderAttack trending on Twitter and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge trending on Facebook.

But media outlets mostly seemed to shrug at the situation, at least at first. Here is the New York Times's front page as of Sunday afternoon, when the story was relegated to a sidebar:

New York Times

And here is Fox News's front page, where it's hard to even see the story right by one about a hoverboard robbery:

Fox News

The coverage also generally had little language about the threat of violence. The AP, for example, characterized the protests as peaceful, and Fox News called the group in Oregon "armed protesters."

Several people on social media complained that this story was getting much less — or at least a different kind of — attention than it would have gotten if these were mainly black or Muslim protesters. Here's a sampling of some tweets, which don't encompass the entire conversation but get to a lot of what people are upset about:

Generally, the sentiment is that if these were black or Muslim protesters, the media reports would be much more alarmed in nature. The media and public might not even call the militia members in Oregon "protesters," but instead refer to them as "thugs" or "terrorists." After all, that's exactly what happened with the Black Lives Matter protests over the past couple years.

The media reacted to black protesters over the past few years in a very different way

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Behind these complaints is the media's very different reaction over the past few years to Black Lives Matter demonstrators protesting racial disparities in the criminal justice system and, specifically, police use of force. Those protests led media outlets not just to cover the demonstrations as wholly violent, but to suggest that the protests led to a wave of crime and violence in 2015.

For one, there were several instances in which victims of police shootings and Black Lives Matter protesters — even largely peaceful ones — were called thugs or other racially charged language. This is a problem that CNN, the New York Times, and Fox News all ran into.

But it went further. After a police officer was shot and killed in Texas, investigators in the case specifically said they had no idea what the motive of the shooter was. But that didn't stop Fox News from repeatedly pinning the blame on Black Lives Matter protesters, whom pundits blamed for fostering distrust and even hatred toward police: Fox News's Elisabeth Hasselbeck wondered aloud on air why Black Lives Matter isn't considered a "hate group." Bill O'Reilly was more blunt, concluding the movement was indeed a "hate group." And Megyn Kelly characterized the movement as violent and anti-police in another segment.

This continued to be a popular talking point among some news outlets, with the New York Post and Fox News repeatedly referencing a "war on cops." But with 2015 over, the data shows that the year was one of the safest years to be a police officer, with on-duty deaths of cops near historic lows and falling compared with 2014.

News outlets suggested that Black Lives Matter led to not just more violence against police but more violence in general. The New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and NPR ran stories about a supposed increase in murders and crimes in 2015, usually suggesting that protests against police were one factor. In a reference to the original Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, this became known as the "Ferguson effect" — the idea that protests against police had demoralized police and emboldened criminals, leading to more crime.

While murder rates are significantly up in some US cities, crime is not. Throughout the year, criminologists also repeatedly cautioned that there's no evidence of a nationwide wave of violence; they've also said that there's no evidence that the Black Lives Matter protests have anything to do with a potential rise in violence. But that didn't stop the widespread media narratives of a "Ferguson effect."

Asked about the discrepancies, CNN law enforcement analyst Art Roderick suggested that the differences make sense because the Oregon protesters are in a largely empty rural area and "they're not destroying property, they're not looting anything."

But, while the Baltimore and Ferguson protests resulted in some rioting, the overwhelming majority of Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. And Black Lives Matter protesters never showed up to a rally with guns and vowed to take over a government building "for years" with the threat of deadly force, as those in Oregon have vowed.

As some people pointed out on social media, it's hard to imagine news outlets viewing an armed protest as peaceful if their racial, ethnic, or religious identity were different.

Similar media standards seem to apply to Muslim Americans. After a terrorist attack, pundits are quick to suggest that the entire Muslim community should apologize for the tragedy — as if every Muslim is in someway culpable for it. (In a particularly egregious example, CNN anchor Don Lemon asked Muslim-American human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar if he supports ISIS, drawing a clearly baffled Iftikhar to ask, as Lemon nodded, "Wait, did you just ask if I support ISIS?") But there are no comparable cries demanding that all white people apologize for the militiamen in Oregon.

To be clear, it's not that critics necessarily think the Oregon militiamen should be subjected to the same wild, unfounded accusations as black or Muslim people. The complaint, instead, is that the media seems to be quick to treat minority groups as violent, while giving a predominantly white group a pass even when it's heavily armed.

The public (and media) really do hold racial biases, even if they don't know it

Underlying the accusations of skewed reporting toward the media is what's known as "implicit bias," or subconscious prejudices that can change how we approach and treat people of a different race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. Researchers have shown that this phenomenon is real time and time again.

As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.

In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white counterparts.

"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."

Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work, as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with other white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

Subconscious racial biases are worrying because they may contribute to greater use of force by police. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

The fact these biases exist is at the very least something media outlets and pundits should be aware about in their reporting. Because the fact is such biases could be coloring how we approach these stories, even if we like to think that's not true.

Watch: Race isn't biologically real

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