Exploring media’s role in the aftermath of violence and race-based trauma

In the aftermath of race-related violence and the surge of debates, media practitioners have the opportunity to show different ways to approach stories of racial trauma. For many, the protocol of focusing on violence persists, yet other media groups have stepped back to see the forest from the trees by taking more nuanced approaches to addressing what has become a prevalent American issue.

By moving beyond headlines of bloodshed and into discussions of how media reports on race, media practitioners are able to offer more room for dialogue, unity and healing.

Associate editor at YES! Magazine Zenobia Jeffries recently wrote about the negative and positive impacts of how media reports on structural racism. Jeffries cited President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Report, which addressed civil violence, race riots and uprisings that took place in 1967. “A fundamental criticism in the report was that news media had failed to analyze and report adequately on the many incidents of racial injustice in the United States,” Jeffries writes. “They noted that the social ills, challenges, and grievances African Americans face were ‘seldom conveyed.’”

The report, which was written with the goal of preventing these types of acts from occurring again, concluded that: “By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.”

Drawing parallels between how media responded to the recent shootings, Jeffries points out that not much has changed. “Following the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of White police officers and the subsequent killings of Dallas police officers, a New York Post headline led the way: ‘CIVIL WAR: Four cops killed at anti-police protest.’ This sort of polarizing coverage limits the narrative to only two sides, pitting those who support the Black Lives Matter movement against law enforcement.”

Jeffries asked Wayne State University Law School professor Peter Hammer how media can better contribute to public discussions:

“It is not enough to just cover the often hidden racial dimensions of their stories. Members of the media need better training on how to do it. Understanding issues of racial equity, structural racism, and how to better talk about race are skills that can be taught and must be learned,” said Hammer, who is Director of the Law School’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The media can also do more of what it does well: telling stories. More individual, personal stories need to be told about members from all of our diverse communities in a frame that furthers notions of community and belonging. This needs to happen on a routine basis and not just in response to the latest tragedy.”

Articles like Colorlines’ “4 Self-Care Resources for Days When the World is Terrible” offer support for people who are worn down by the constant flow of tragic news and the heavy burden of racial trauma. But, in a time in which many Black Americans experience what psychologists call “race-based trauma,” how can media help voice the concerns and raise awareness for those who need therapeutic help?

In “After the Violence and Videos, Therapists Learn to Treat Racial Trauma,” Yes! Magazine’s Jaime Alfaro outlines how media and mental health practitioners can help de-stigmatize the narratives of individuals who’ve experienced racial trauma.

“Race-based trauma describes the physical and psychological symptoms people of color often experience after being exposed—directly or indirectly—to stressful experiences resulting from racism” Alfaro writes. “According to a report by Boston College’s Institution for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture, frequent exposure to racism intensifies symptoms of trauma.”

Although recent headlines about the killings of unarmed Black men have brought more attention to America’s race problem, there are not sufficient mental health services available to help Black communities. Further, as Monnica Williams, an African-American clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities said, “most clinicians are White.” Racial disparities are not experienced or shared by many mental health professionals.

“Underlying the steady stream of sensational, violent images are more everyday abuses—the discrimination, exclusion, and economic hardships that also compound trauma,” Alfaro writes. With insights from Williams, Alfaro offers thoughts for working with racial trauma in a clinical setting and suggestions for how media and individuals can help de-stigmatize race-based trauma.

Both Jeffries and Alfaro share the belief that stories of racial trauma in America need to move beyond violent headlines that perpetuate stigma and racism. Media practitioners are at the helm and can choose to steer the conversation in more meaningful and restorative ways.

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