In the months following the killing of George Floyd, news programs were filled with details of the murder, reports on demonstrations calling for justice, and discussions of how to reform community policing. For Janis Chakars, this media landscape was an opportunity to involve his Introduction to Media Research class in a topic that is both critical and current.
His assignment: How did FOX and MSNBC frame systemic racism following the police killing of George Floyd? He asked each student to examine five broadcast transcripts and provided them with a broad analytical rubric - did the shows accept the concept of systemic racism, question it, or provide multiple views?
The result of the research, which examined more than 100 programs from May 25 to July 25, 2020, captured the deep divide in the country, On FOX, 39 of 66 programs questioned whether systemic racism exists; on MSNBC, 54 of 67 programs accepted systemic racism as real. Only 15 shows of the combined total provided multiple views of the topic.
According to Erica D’Mello, a senior in the class, Chakars “picked Fox and MSNBC because they’re prominent networks with opposing views.” FOX is the highest-rated channel in prime time, known for its conservative views. MSNBC, its popular rival, espouses liberal causes.
She believes that two news organizations reaching almost diametrically opposed views of such a vital issue “contributes to the polarizing divide in the country.” She adds, “The media responses surprised me. Based on the evidence, it was shocking to conclude that systemic racism is not an issue.”
Jailah Johnson, also a senior in the class, agrees. “If people watch only FOX or MSNBC, they won’t know the perspective of those who hold opposing views.”
Johnson admits, “I was surprised at how divided the two networks were in covering systemic racism … Systemic racism does exist. As a person of color, I have seen it.”
Explaining why he selected media framing of "systemic racism" as the topic for class research, Chakars says, “It seemed irresponsible to do otherwise. The events of this spring and summer and the issues they raise demand our attention. It is the real world, and we need to confront it. A lot of people described what happened after police killed George Floyd as a reckoning over systemic racism, so we set out to see what that looked like on TV news.”
Although final papers are not due until December, students have discussed their research in class. “Naturally, the students saw the results as a reflection of society's divisions,” Chakars notes. “They saw those divisions reflected in the news media. They discussed the erosion of straight news on cable news and the rise of punditry and talk-style shows.”
Students found the media divide disturbing. “The fact that one largely denied the truth of systemic racism and the other embraced it very consistently as a top problem in society caused the students to reflect on the truth and duty of journalists,” Chakars found. “They began to consider the implications of such news media on our ability to move forward as society committed to justice and freedom for all people.”
Chakars is pleased with the work of his students and the critical thinking they exhibited. “Our class is about media research, but in this case, it is also about life and death, and freedom and equity. It is about social solidarity and every one of our RISES values,” Chakars concludes.
“They know how relevant their work is and they can be especially proud that, when their world was hurting, they did not look away. They did not turn the channel. Instead, they tried to figure out what was going on.”