As Greeleyville, South Carolina’s Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church burned to the ground Tuesday night, Twitter users called attention to six recent fires at Southern predominantly African-American churches with the hashtag #BlackChurchesBurning and #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. Although Tuesday’s fire turned out to be caused by lightning, not arson, many critiqued the lack of media coverage of the church fires, such as activist Deray McKesson:
I find this line of criticism unpersuasive for two reasons. Firstly, there has been plenty of coverage of the black church fires, from Monday onward. A Google News search turns up 890+ stories online on just last night’s fire alone, and all three cable networks have devoted substantial airtime to the event. It’s hard to say what more activists want, short of wall-to-wall coverage.
But more importantly, if anything, media outlets need to be devoting less coverage to the black church fires.
Alright, put down the pitchforks and torches and hear me out.
The Washington Post deserves a lot of credit for publishing not one, but two separate pieces that poke holes in the narrative that we are in the midst of an uptick in the number of black church burnings. The first, by Christopher Ingraham, notes that church fires in the United States are actually surprisingly frequent, with an average of 34 fires and five arsons a week. The six black churches that caught fire in a week fall safely within those numbers.
The Post‘s Phillip Bump took it one step further in a piece called “The good news: There probably isn’t an unusual rash of arsons at black churches.” The supposed trend that Twitter has seized on, Bump writes, “is more a function of our habit of seeking out patterns than any abnormal targeting of black churches.” Of the six “church burnings” activists have seized on, he notes, two were likely arson, but two were likely electrical and two are still undetermined.
A great parallel to this recent hysteria would be the infamous “Summer of the Shark” back in 2001. In a relatively sleepy summer, the media suddenly seized on the epidemic of shark attacks that was plaguing the nation. It wasn’t until years later that everyone stepped back, checked the statistics, and discovered that shark attacks didn’t increase at all.
What we are seeing, in essence, is a massive case of confirmation bias. After an uncommon occurrence like the Charleston shooting, the first black church fire was seen by activists and supportive media outlets as part of a trend… even though church fires are perfectly common. As more and more (again, common) black church fires took hold, an “increase” in church burnings became the dominant narrative.
But confirmation bias makes outlets only look for stories that confirm their hunch, not repudiate it. Bump notes that in the same time period, there have been seven non-black churches that have caught fire, including three that authorities believe were victims of arson. Despite those churches actually outnumbering the supposedly “targeted” Southern black churches, #MultiracialAndWhiteChurchesBurning isn’t exactly trending on Twitter.
I can already see one line of criticism: who cares if black church burnings aren’t increasing? They’re still tragedies that need to be publicly and loudly reputed and deserve widespread national coverage. If anything, the fact that black churches are burning down every week means they deserve more coverage.
To be sure, the intentional burning of even one black church is one too many, and deserves our condemnation. But the news––especially cable or radio news––is a zero-sum game. Last week there were thousands of murders, rapes, illnesses, car accidents, shark attacks, fires, hate crimes, deaths, maulings, Seth MacFarlane movies, and countless other tragedies. The national media has a limited amount of time to spend on each tragedy, and some simply won’t be newsworthy enough to reach a national stage.
Let me put it this way: who wants to step up and say that networks should cover church fires that left no one hurt and that might* be racist at the expense of, say, the 74 children murdered by ISIS for committing “witchcraft”? Because as someone literally paid to watch the news all day, I’ve seen a lot of coverage of the former, and none of the latter.
But more importantly, the media has a duty not to mislead consumers. By intentionally or unintentionally giving the impression that church burning are suddenly increasing or out-of-control, that’s exactly what they’re doing. And by focusing only on churches of one race and only in the South, they’re doing so in a way that’s poisonous to the region’s already precarious race relations.
We should mourn any and all churches that are the victims of arson or accidental fires, and support them as they seek to rebuild. But using their tragedy to craft a false, divisive narrative helps no one.
*I say might be racist, because it’d be a mistake to assume that if the black church burnings are arsons, they must be racially motivated. It’s certainly possible or even likely, but according to the Insurance Information Institute, vandalism, revenge, or covering up burglaries are far more common motives for church arsonists than racial hatred. And thought it’s uncomfortable to contemplate, one of the leading motives for arson in general is insurance fraud.
[Image via screenshot]
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