Trust in the media is at an all-time low—a September 2014 Gallup poll found that only 40 percent of Americans trust the media a great deal or fair amount. “As the media expand into new domains of news reporting via social media networks and new mobile technology, Americans may be growing disenchanted with what they consider ‘mainstream’ news as they seek out their own personal veins of getting information,” Gallup's report on the data speculated.
That disenchantment was on display this week after a bomb went off near an NAACP office in Colorado on Tuesday morning. There were no injuries, only minor damage to the building, and no official motive, but the incident holds significance in the context of the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests and a history of NAACP bombings. But when the story only received spotty coverage online, people turned to their “own personal veins” of information—their social media feeds.
Several news sites did cover the bombing on Tuesday, including The Denver Post, Newsweek, BuzzFeed, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times. But the “mainstream media” generally refers to the major 24 hour general interest news networks—CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Think Progress, a left-leaning news site, found just one on-air reference to the incident on the three networks in the 24 hours after the attack, from Wednesday morning on CNN. MSNBC aired a segment on the story on Wednesday night.
But on social media the story—and the backlash to the perceived absence of coverage—was huge. There have been more than 156,826 tweets using the #NAACPbombing hashtag, 1,500 posts on Instagram, and several Tumblr posts with tens of thousands of likes and reblogs. People criticized the media, but also showed that the media ignores stories at its own risk. If the media decides a story isn’t important, social media can overrule it. “[T]he mainstream media is not covering this,” one Tumblr user wrote. “[C]heck out #NAACPbombing on twitter for more information, and please spread the news.”
There are still, of course, a lot of questions about the bombing. On Tuesday morning someone set off a homemade bomb against the building that houses the NAACP chapter and a predominantly black barbershop. The FBI believes the attack was deliberate and is looking for a white man in his 40s as a person of interest. And while we can speculate on the culprit and the motive, the FBI is still investigating the motive, and being called a person of interest isn’t the same as being guilty of a hate crime.
Several people on social media have argued that the media undercovered the story because the would-be victims (no one was hurt, and the building suffered minimal damage) were black, while others argued that since no one was hurt, the building wasn’t damaged, and there’s no official motive, there wasn’t a story. Twitchy, an aggregator of conservative tweets, accused “agitators” of “hyp[ing]” the story.
The FBI has said this could be an act of domestic terrorism or a hate crime, and there is a history of NAACP bombings that warrants mentioning. As civil rights icon and Democratic Representative John Lewis tweeted:
Given the hashtag backlash and the historical context, it's difficult to argue that the NAACP bombing was not under covered (though after the Charlie Hebdo attack, cable’s eye inevitably turned elsewhere). But on social media—where more and more people are getting their news—it was less a news story and more an argument, with no fact checking and little context.
When MSNBC finally aired a segment on the incident, they struck the right balance, acknowledging the unanswered questions and historical relevance. “If the crime does, in fact, turn out to be an act of terrorism, or a hate crime, it would not be the first time the NAACP has been targeted,” anchor Chris Hayes said Wednesday night.
Hayes went on to interview Jesse Paul, a Denver Post reporter covering the story locally, who noted that while the owner of the barbershop believes he wasn’t the target, nothing is official.
“The overall feeling is that this was targeted at the NAACP,” Paul said, “but I think it is important to mention that there hasn’t been official word yet that the NAACP was the direct target.”