TIME Magazine Is Not Good Journalism

I’ve read TIME as much as any other average American in the country, but I don’t like it. And, to shock you further, I don’t think it’s good journalism.

In journalism, there is a very fine line (and when I say fine I mean FINE) between telling the people what they need to know, and sensationalism. I cannot tell you how many times one of my staffers volunteered to write a piece on something or other, vowing to expose the lies to the people, and then ended up doing nothing in said piece except writing teenagery emotional giraffe poop about how something was “so unfair.”

I do not deny that there are stories which need to be told and which people need to recognize the existence and/or effects thereof. But one of the oldest principles of journalism is LACK. OF. BIAS. No emotional input (aside from editorials, but even then use sparingly, because how you feel about something is often unique to you and isn’t going to convince everyone that facts and logic will). As a journalist, you are a machine, spitting out the facts of events.

If you want to be funny and make obscure Doctor Who references, you might point out that Cybermen would make excellent journalists, except they probably wouldn’t because they are not as devoid of emotion as we think. They are devoid of a lot, but the thing about Cybermen (and Daleks, too) is that they are both highly nationalistic. “Everyone will become like us” and “If you are not us you either must become like us or cease to exist” and blah blah blah. And I have to wonder if perhaps as humans we are inable to invent characters which cannot feel. The writers of Doctor Who are human, to my knowledge, and they have tried to write characters which do not feel, and they’ve sort of succeeded, but sort of not. Though nationalism itself is not a feeling, it cannot come from nowhere. Insecurity, pride, the need to feel like you belong are feelings, and it is these that can often spark nationalism. So it is established that Cybermen and Daleks do in fact feel, a little bit, and that humans cannot truly grasp the concept of not feeling anything at all. (Perhaps that is why it terrifies us in most of science fiction.)

Going back to why this has anything to do with journalism and TIME magazine (I promise we will get there), humans cannot possibly conceive of not feeling anything at all. So what does that mean for journalism? It means, I suppose, that we will always be a little subjective. The problem lies in that TIME is subjective and thinks they aren’t. They think that because they aren’t biased in favor of themselves that they are being objective, which is not true. It is a noble thing to consider the viewpoint of someone who is not yourself, even nobler when it has no influence on what happens to you, but that isn’t objectivity. Objectivity is considering absolutely everything.

For instance, my speech teacher recently handed out a packet of some copied pages from the September 2013 issue of TIME. The cover story (and the point of his selection of pages from the issue) was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Most of the material I have no problem with. Martin Luther King is not underappreciated. His motives in his fight for civil rights were slightly selfish, but that is understandable (also, he was not a journalist).

But then, on page 94 we reach a set of graphics titled “Measuring the Dream.” Its subtitle reads, “In the past 50 years, African Americans have seen profound improvements in educational and economic opportunities. But a clear race gap remains.”

I could get onto my Morgan Freeman soapbox and say that as soon as you stop calling it a race gap it won’t be one anymore, but that argument isn’t really intrinsic to this piece.

Here are some of the statistics, and some of them may have what I have to say about them afterwards.

-Blacks are 14% of the population compared to 11% in 1960, but no longer the largest minority in the US

I’m finding it hard to comprehend what “race gap” means in this context. Are blacks at a disadvantage because some of them don’t live in America, or because they’re not reproducing? This makes no sense.

-29% of blacks and 15% of whites were high school dropouts in 1967; in 2011 those numbers were 7 and 5 percent, respectively

The number of blacks dropped by 22 percent, whereas the number of whites by only 10; if you insist on dividing people into categories like this then the blacks are doing a pretty good job.

-4 percent of blacks and 8 of whites held a bachelor’s degree in 1960; in 2012 those numbers were 21 and 35 percent, respectively

I’m surprised that only 35 percent of whites hold a bachelor’s degree, but that’s actually irrelevant to the piece.

-Blacks make up 37 percent of people in prison, 42 percent of death-row inmates, 32 percent of juvenile arrests, and 45 percent of imprisoned drug offenders

This reminds me of my emotional staffers. It proves nothing. It’s not unfair if they’re in prison. What’s unfair is if they’re in prison for a crime they did not commit or for an action which should not be viewed as a crime. But the statistics say nothing about this.

-33 percent of black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, while 8 percent of the black population has lost their right to vote

This is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard. I had a friend who went to school in Parkersburg, West Virginia for two years. On her first day of school, at some assembly or other, they told every third kid to stand up, and then said, the number of people who are standing up is the number who will not graduate, thereby impressing on these kids ALREADY the presumption that they will not graduate. Don’t tell anyone they can expect to drop out of school or go to prison. That is no way to encourage the opposite trend. Regarding the second statistic, see above.

-Approximately 25 percent of black families live below the poverty line, compared to 41 percent in the mid-1960s. (This statistic is accompanied by a map of the US, and the darker the state the higher the percentage of blacks in poverty.)

Now I have to ask why this contributes to the race gap. What’s the deciding factor in blacks in poverty? No jobs? Is that because of discrimination in hiring? Disabled parents unable to care for their children? Is that because they are being denied access to governmental programs because they are black? Until you explain why, you cannot claim that this is because of racial discrimination. Just because a person is poor does not automatically mean that someone stiffed them on account of their skin. (To assume this is to assume your fellow humans are racist, which goes back to don’t encourage negative trends by assuming them to be true.)

-Additional statistics on the map: Maine has the highest black unemployment and poverty rates (21 percent and 46 percent, respectively); New York has the highest number of black business owners at over 200,000, and Mississippi has the highest percentage of black homeowners at 57 percent.

I don’t understand what this means to the concept of the “race gap” either. So the  government of Maine hates black people? I doubt it, although it’s possible. But again, this isn’t the whole picture. There are obviously plenty of unemployed and/or poor blacks in Maine. But this cannot be taken to indicate a race gap until we know how many unemployed and/or poor members of other races there are in Maine, and if there is a gaping difference, why it has occurred. New York having a plethora of black business owners – how is that relevant to a race gap until you tell us how many business owners of other colors there are? And same with Mississippi – first of all this is just an unclear statistic! 57 percent of WHAT? 57 percent of homeowners are black, or 57 percent of blacks are homeowners? And again, how does this indicate a race gap?

-Life expectancy as of 2010: White female: 81 years; Black female: 78 years; White male: 77 years; Black male: 72 years. Sidebar says “Blacks are less likely than whites to have health insurance.”

Finally, some definition! All right, so we’ve determined that whites live longer than blacks and are more likely to have health insurance. That does help to demonstrate why a race gap might apply in the context, but still fails to explain its relevance. WHY do blacks not have health insurance as often? Are they turned down when they ask for it? Do they not have the money? What causes either of those situations? They may not have health insurance because they just haven’t bothered to go get it. (The either-or fallacy is rampant here.) Regarding life expectancy, this is ridiculous. This is biology, not politics. If you think someone is being unfair (emotional wimpiness again) because they live longer than you do, you’re childish. You have as much control over how long you live as the other person does.

-Death rates (age-adjusted): Heart disease: Blacks 233K, white 182K; Diabetes: blacks 40K, whites 19K; breast cancer: blacks 18K, whites 12K; homicide: blacks 18K, whites 4K; suicide: blacks 5K, whites 13K.

First of all, I have no idea what age-adjusted means; I’m assuming it has something to do with taking into account the likeliness that a certain age group will die of a certain thing (for instance, I doubt that a majority of 24-35 year olds die of heart disease. Some, probably, but a majority, no). Secondly, are these statistics annual? Per decade? Ever? That clarification would be nice. Thirdly, even though we understand from these statistics the discrepancy between races’ causes of death, we still don’t understand WHY it’s a discrepancy that indicates a “race gap.” Why is the fact that 51,000 more blacks die of heart disease than whites, for example, a case of discrimination? Is it because these blacks are denied care? Because they are denied proper education on how to avoid heart disease, or to understand it when it’s happening? We have to know these things in order to believe that it is discrimination. And frankly, I don’t believe they’re possible. Blacks might have been denied entrance to a doctor’s office in the 1960s, but not now. Such pronounced acts of discrimination are a thing of the past.

-In 1963 there were 5 black representatives, 0 senators and 0 presidents. In 2013 there were 43 black representatives, 1 black senator and 1 black president.

Great. So? Unless you show that black people are actively being prevented from running for office or are victims of voter fraud if they do, this doesn’t matter. The thing that a lot of people don’t understand about these kinds of statistics is that the barrier sometimes exists inside the individual’s mind, and that it isn’t an outsider’s job to knock it down. Obviously there are 45 black people in Washington as I type who were not afraid to run for office, and there have been more before them. Right now there is no government law saying they can’t, no social norm that says it just isn’t done. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a minority to opportunity, but you can’t make them all take it. Nor should you. Let people lead their own lives, for crying out loud.

-Unemployment in 2013: white: 7 percent; black men: 15 percent; black women: 13 percent; blacks age 20-24: 23 percent; blacks age 60-64: 9 percent.

Literally, these are the exact demographics used in this particular section. Now. Why is this racist and unfair? Because it divides up the black population into parts and then compares it to the white population as a whole. Either compare each race as a whole to the other, or break them both down into demographics. This is just unsound logic, to begin with. Secondly, once again, the unemployment rates are only a demonstration of a race gap if it is shown why they are unemployed. Does it have to do with discrimination in hiring? Do more blacks get fired, faster, for more trivial reasons, than whites? Until you bring those statistics in it doesn’t prove a thing. Also, these may be the results of other sorts of bias: black women may have an unemployment rate of 13 percent because they are women, or because they are black, or because they are black women. Age discrimination may play a role in the final two statistics. These are incomplete.

-7 percent of businesses were owned by blacks in 2007 (triple the amount in 1967); 45 percent of blacks now own their own homes, compared with 70 percent of whites.

So what if only 7 percent of businesses were owned by blacks? There is no legal barrier preventing them from starting businesses. And not all blacks are going to want to own businesses. Not to imply that blacks are never right for the job, but owners of businesses should be concerned first and foremost with whether they’re doing a good job, not whether they’re adding to or overpowering the demographic of black people who own businesses in this country. Also, 45 percent of blacks own their own homes? Great. Are the other 55 percent being actively prevented from buying a house? Until you prove that the job to get the money to buy the house is literally being withheld from them, this means nothing in terms of a race gap.

-Median income in 2011: white – 27,000, black, 21,000. The median income for black men is 67% of white men, for black women, 92 percent of white women.

Well, this employs sexism as well as racism, but no matter, moving on. Again, this is not relevant information until you explain WHY. Do blacks make less because they are intentionally hired to do jobs that pay less? That’d be discrimination if I ever saw it, but these statistics make no mention of that. And unless there is an actual legal barrier preventing black people from being qualified and applying for higher-paying jobs, there is no reason that they can’t. At that point, it’s because some of them just don’t. Once again, you can’t make someone take an opportunity just because it’s there for them to take.

The last part made me the maddest – the bottom bar full of poll questions put to both blacks and whites. The section is titled “American Attitudes on Race Relations.” (cue me grumbling “how about human relations instead?!”)

66 percent of blacks and 72 percent of whites believe that relations between whites and blacks are “very or somewhat good”

53 percent of blacks and 17 percent of whites believe that new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against blacks

81 percent of blacks and 61 percent of whites favor programs that make special efforts to help blacks and other minorities get ahead to make up for past discrimination

78 percent of blacks and 41 percent of whites approve of the way Barack Obama is handling race relations

68 percent of blacks and 25 percent of whites believe the American justice system is biased against black people

37 percent of blacks and 57 percent of whites support laws in their states which say people can fight back with deadly force if they feel threatened, even if they could retreat

5 percent of blacks and 49 percent of whites are satisfied with the Zimmerman verdict (in the case of Trayvon Martin)

Okay, these make my blood boil, for a lot of reasons. I am a white female, raised in a mostly white community, and I am admittedly conservative. But hear me out anyway.

Several of these questions are ridiculous. A lot more black people think laws to further reduce discrimination against blacks are needed than whites think so. More black people than white favor programs to help blacks (and other minorities) get ahead to make up for past discrimination. More black people than white think the American justice system is biased against black people. And to all those I have to say, “DUH!!!”

Seriously.

All of these questions show clearly that black people are very attached to and invested in the success and welfare of black people. Let the record show that white people feel similarly about white people, Hispanics about Hispanics, Native Americans about Native Americans, Jews about Jews, Muslims about Muslims, gays about gays, straights about straights, men about men, women about women, et cetera. IT IS A HUMAN THING TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE SUCCESS, HAPPINESS AND OTHERWISE GENERAL WELFARE OF A GROUP YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF TO BELONG TO. EVERYBODY DOES THAT. It does not indicate a race gap that blacks believe their lives could be better. It indicates the fact that blacks are human.

Even Martin Luther King, as I discussed, had slightly selfish motives. It’s understandable, because we all do it, but it’s still not as noble as it may seem.

I’m not going to get into the Zimmerman/Martin case. That’s a whole ‘nother post, and it’s a messy one. I just want to make one last point about the questions, and then I’ll wrap it up.

Remember the phrase “special efforts to help blacks and other minorities get ahead“?

I don’t know about you, but I can smell the racism in this statement. The following qualifier “to make up for past discrimination” doesn’t excuse it.

Now, after that barrage of text, here’s why it leads me to the conclusion that TIME magazine is not good journalism.

The primary reflection of a news organization’s quality is in its presentation of material. Remember, journalism is about lack of bias. Many of the statistics are presented as evidence of a “race gap.” Very few have evidence to show that there is a race gap, and even fewer justify the claim that the gap means victimization of blacks. A race gap is what might be termed a sliding scale. If there is a race gap, it implies that various races have gaps between them in terms of employment rates or prison inhabitants or education level, as we have seen. That indicates that as long as there appears a gap, regardless of where it is numerically, between races, the statistic is indication of a race gap. Pretty simple. But TIME presents a lot of statistics which detail the status of the black community alone, and don’t compare it to any other races, thus the existence of a race gap is not proven.

When TIME does provide statistics detailing how other races fare in the same aspect, such as life expectancy or education, it may introduce the idea of a “race gap,” but it does not prove that the gap is based on active racism. Until you explain why more blacks drop out of high school, or why their life expectancy is shorter, you cannot prove that the gap between races is caused by racism. If blacks drop out of high school because teachers grade them unfairly or report them for disciplinary violations they did not commit, that may be termed racism. But if blacks drop out of high school for any reason that does not point to someone else deliberately trying to force them out because they are black, nothing has been proven.

What that boils down to is that TIME needs to do a better job of answering the question why. And come on, but that’s basic journalism. I learned that my first day of high school journalism. I was fifteen, and Melodie explained to us all that the basics of writing a news story involved answering the question words: what, where, when, who, why, how, and anything context-specific. Make us care, TIME. Show us what needs to change. If it’s something that we, as a people, can in fact change, we will. But if it’s something that is up to the individual whether or not he or she opens a business or gets their bachelor’s degree or doesn’t go to prison, there is nothing we, as a people, can do. The individual has to lead his or her own life, regardless of color. That is what America was built on. That is why we are crumbling now. Leave each other alone. Let us all live our lives without analyzing them and trying to make up excuses for those who haven’t done everything everyone else has done. Let each one of us do our thing. Let us be who we are. Enough with the trying to box us into races and genders and ages. We are each individuals, and we are glorious in our uniqueness. Even if that means we have failed (and I use the term failed loosely here, because failed by what standards?). Accept that each person’s journey is different, continue on your own, and move on.

And please, if you happen to be a journalist, don’t forget Why.

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