Hey, Young Men! Does the Media Think You’re an Ordinary Looking Guy?

 Two Young Men: Ordinary looking guys, white men.

Cooking dinner tonight, I was listening to NPR after months of being fed up with them (more on that later).  As I was cutting up vegetables, I heard Robert Siegel talking with Tom Gjelten  on All Things Considered about two new suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings.  I turned it up.  Next I heard :

“The FBI announced that it is looking for two men…”  They went on to say that the FBI has photos and they are asking the public to help find the suspects. Next, FBI special agent Richard Deslauriers says, “Somebody out there knows these individuals as friends, neighbors, co-workers or family members of the suspect.”

I was first struck by how this approach toward the suspects does not have the usual anti-terrorist feel in its approach toward what was immediately deemed a terrorist act by public media and by the personal opinion of many individuals.  This approach humanizes these suspects and assumes that they are connected to normal social and family networks, though they have potentially committed a horrific and violent crime.  They are presumed not to be reclusive extremists, but rather, to be normal-sounding sociable people.

Next, Siegel prompted Gjelten to describe the photos that the FBI is publicizing:

Tom Gjelten: “If people go on the FBI website, what they are going to see are pictures of two individuals. Ah, they actually look like two fairly ordinary guys in their 20s, white men.  One is wearing a black baseball hat, the other is wearing a white baseball hat turned backwards, both of them are carrying backpacks…They are calling them suspect 1 and suspect 2”

Two fairly ordinary looking guys?  White men?  Have you ever, ever heard a brown person who is a suspect described as a “fairly ordinary looking guy”?  What does a fairly ordinary guy look like?  A white guy…?  And, you know,  I can’t tell for sure in the photos, but I think that they might be wearing hoodies, not that that matters…

During the rest of the bit, Siegel and Gjelten proceed to talk about tangible details that might link these two men as actual suspects in the bombing, such as similar backpack material found at the bombing sites, cell phone records, potential facial matches in the database.  They do not, however, speculate on terrorist or ethnic motivations that might have been the impetus for two ordinary looking guys to commit an atrocious hate crime.

The online headline for this NPR news bit is: “Two Young Men Suspected In Boston Bombing Attack”.  “Two young men”?  A teenager or young adult might bring a “young man” home to meet the parents.   My 11yo son is called a nice, “young man” when he opens doors for people and says “please” and “thank you”.   Since when do we refer to bombing suspects as “Young Men”?   (Perhaps when the mainstream media laments the future of  young men who had promising football careers that might now be compromised by the gang rape they committed?)

Other headlines benignly call the men a “pair”, such as the at the New York Times:  F.B.I. Posts Images of Pair Suspected in Boston Attack 

Or the Times simply call him or them the “Boston Marathon Suspect”  And most other media sites are objectively referring to the two men simply as “suspects”.  They are not terrorists, or extremists, or identified by race, culture or ethicity.  They are two young men.

Now, the Saudi National Man. 

Now. In contrast, let’s look at how another young man was quickly dubbed the “Saudi national” or the “Saudi man” or  “The Saudi Marathon Man (though this is a compassionate blog post) and how he was treated by the media on the day of the Boston bombings:

From the NYDaily News: Report: Saudi man questioned in Boston Marathon bombing is a witness not a suspect 

From the right-wingers at World Net Daily: U.S. Deporting Saudi Person of Interest

From CBS News:  Authorities question Saudi national in Boston attack  

From NPR coverage: DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: “Well, part of the process of finding suspects is ruling people out. And officials familiar with the investigation say state police, for example, last night, searched residents in Revere, Massachusetts. It was a consensual search of a home of a Saudi student (italics mine), and this is someone who some media outlets have singled out yesterday as a suspect.”

From the New York Post: Authorities ID person of interest as Saudi national in marathon bombings, under guard at Boston hospital

This 20-year-old young man, this young student, was injured during the explosions, and then, according to CBS news, was chased down and tackled by a civilian who thought he looked suspicious.  Then, he was detained by authorities, questioned, put “under guard”, had his apartment searched while he was in the hospital,  and was identified by the media solely by his ethnicity and nationality.  Headlines did not call him a young man, or a young student.  Nor, in turn, have today’s headlines called the two suspects “White Males” or “Americans” or used much, if any, aggressive, anti-terrorist language regarding the search for them and their detainment.

Most disturbing of all, is that, in general, media consumers will accept the story fed to them, and the disceprancy in journalistic ethics will for the most part remain undetected.  Because this is the media landscape that surrounds us, this is the story that blares at us day after day.  But it’s time for a new story, and it’s time for new tellers.  It is time to deconstruct the noise and rebuild the story, everyone(!), one headline at a time.

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3 Responses to Hey, Young Men! Does the Media Think You’re an Ordinary Looking Guy?

  1. igor says:

    good post. i think, however, phrases like, “from the right-wingers at world net daily” does the same thing youre talking about, though politically rather than racially.

    • awood33 says:

      First, thanks for reading. Second, WND is pretty openly right-wing/conservative (have you seen their publications?) and for readers who don’t know that, providing that context informs the headline I referenced. I am openly left-wing, and proudly so–that’s a stance, not a profiling.

  2. igor says:

    er, no, i havent read wnd. its not that i dont believe you about its being a right-wing publication. its that by pointing it out, you make the other news sources seem “ordinary.” this may not be a problem to you. but i find that many liberals do not notice liberal bias in mainstream media. it seems similar to whites not noticing skin color when its their own.

    is the context about wnd helpful? sure. just like “ordinary” can be helpful when it signals white-skinned. i take the point of this blog entry to be that “ordinary” does more than provide context. it serves to make non-white-skinned people outsiders. just like singling out “right-wing” makes conservatives outsiders.

    maybe “average” would have been a less problematic label for the suspects (if there had to be a label), since “ordinary” has connotations of normal vs abnormal. likewise, i find “conservative/liberal” to be a bit more neutral than “right-wing/left-wing” since the latter seems frequently used in a pejorative manner (“right-wing nut!”) by opponents rather than as self-description (even though you did use it to describe yourself).

    of course, there is a difference, as you point out, between political stances and racial characteristics. and perhaps that justifies making some people feel like outsiders in the one case and not the other. i dont know. but i would imagine that such a strategy would exclude the very people youd probably most want to get your point, since conservatives are typically white and are seen as more racially insensitive than liberals.

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