Eli Witek

Eli Witek

I recently attended a training on the science of implicit bias and its effects on police work.

This class was a follow-up to an earlier event, which I wrote about for The Beacon, which was a class on implicit bias provided specifically to concerned community members at the behest of DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger.

This latest class was open to the community, and I was there as a person, not a representative of the news media.

Fair and Impartial Policing, the name of the company that provides the training, is certainly a worthy topic. But fair and impartial reporting is what weighs on my mind.

Any time we write about crime, or breaking news, the basic facts available in the moment can have a dehumanizing effect: John Doe, insert age, is an alleged criminal, not a fully realized person with hopes, dreams, family and friends.

It’s on us to do what we can to avoid these pitfalls, and to avoid stereotyping — but then there is the collective you, the reader.

Something recently infuriated me, and it brought up a lot of concerns we, as a paper, will have to grapple with as we expand our social-media presence.

On Nov. 22, we wrote two news items based on press releases from the DeLand Police Department, and shared the stories on our Facebook page.

One item was about two missing DeLand Middle School girls, both white and middle-class. The other news item was about a serial rapist targeting prostitutes in DeLand’s Spring Hill neighborhood.

Less than 20 minutes after the two stories were published on our website and shared on Facebook, we got word that the two girls were found safe, and our news item (and Facebook post) were immediately updated.

Nevertheless, the Facebook post on the missing-but-now-found white girls continued to trend upward. Today, statistics on that post show that it was shared 1,444 times. Some 3,407 people reacted, and 1,619 clicked on the link.

The story about the serial rapist in the historically African American area of DeLand? Seventy-one shares, 247 reactions and 790 clicks.

A suspect in the series of rapes was arrested two months later, on Jan. 21.

“Missing white woman syndrome” is a term that describes the media’s disproportionate coverage of young, white, upper-middle-class women who have gone missing.

In many cases, and certainly at The Beacon, the media do not drive the car — the public does.

Statistics could indicate that our readers care 1,934 percent more about missing white girls than about low-income women being raped.

But statistics can be misleading, and Facebook is a self-perpetuating machine. There is no specific blame here, which is all the more frustrating.

Implicit-bias training specifically tackles how our bias manifests, and how we can manage that bias so our behavior is not discriminatory. The first step, of course, is being aware of it.

But what happens when the implicit biases of individuals become so systemic they are part of the larger structure of the world?

An interesting example in the training was a police officer who was sent to investigate a report of a suspicious vehicle.

The call to police came from the bias of someone who saw two not-white males sitting in a car. Although the men were doing nothing illegal, the presumption was they were up to no good.

The police still had to investigate. This is what training facilitator Dr. Lorie Fridell referred to as possibly leading to “profiling by proxy.”

Even if the police were respectful, and the two men in the car were respectful, the fact is the only reason police were involved in the men’s lives was because of bias.

It’s a problem with no clear solution. Even the best-case scenario leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

I don’t really have an ending to this. But there isn’t really an ending anyway — this is a conversation that will continue.