Privilege and Journalism

Entry for BiCultural Mom's Multicultural Awareness Blog Carnival

Critical Theorist argue that the mass media maintains the dominance of positions of power.

According to A First Look at Communication Theory, theorist, like Stuart Hall, say “that the field of communications continues to be stubbornly, sociologically innocent.” Thus mass media in itself serves to keep those with privilege with privilege. 

I will use Critical Theory to talk about this story.

I’m choosing to analyze a set of articles on an incident that occurred last month at Alta High School. The article I will begin with is called “Alta student learned ‘lesson’ about racism."

I will give some background on the issue then break down the article and show the places where Rosemary Winters the article’s reporter made the author of the racist act seem personable, childish and nice to the public. I will use excerpts from the other articles to show some of the subjects and issues that this story involved.

We will see the language used to showcase white and social class privilege, enable it and the effect of technology in social justice and how it can be used to counter any privilege.

From my research on critical theory I gathered that some of the flaws in the critical approach are that your bias impairs your judgement, so your ideology will mold how you judge. I want to clarify my bias is that I am a woman of color. This analysis is also based on my personal truth and understanding of life through my experiences. I will also highlight the bias of the reporters and journalist who told this story.

In mid- March of this year, at Alta High School there was a high school spirit bowl where students were put into color groups, white, red and black for the Alta colors. Each one of the colors signified a class year; sophomores dress in red, juniors in white, and seniors in black. The point of the spirit bowl is for each class to show its enthusiasm and class pride. In the enthusiasm students were yelling white, black and red power rants. According to his mom one of the white team students found a white pillow case and put it on his head and started chanting white power as a joke. He then proceeded to run around waiving his hands in “Heil Hitler” salutes. A student of color took offense and asked him to remove it. The student called his parent and told him what happened. His father told him to go to the administration and make a complaint. Nothing was done so they wrote a blog entry and published it and distributed it to the media. This caused an explosion of feelings from parents and students. The blog is still up and under the original post, 1224 comments, bounce between outright racism to congratulations on this young man’s courage to speak out.

The article starts saying the student who wore what resembled a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) hood is back in class and his mother is speaking out in his defense. When I first read this it made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t understand why. I kept reading. The mother goes on to explain “what really happened” and justifies her sons actions and even says her son found the white KKK hood, that he wore, with precut holes sitting on the bleachers.

She posses the question, “Was he thinking about the KKK when he was at an assembly dressed to show school colors?’ and responds saying “No, he wasn’t... we’re hoping he has learned from this.” The article immediately goes on to explain what the school district is doing to address the incident.

In the first 13 paragraphs, there is not even a slight mention of the blog and the actions that brought to light these issues within the school and the Sandy community after the distribution of Larz Cosby’s counter-story. It highlights that the Principal and Assistant principal are on paid administrative leave. And their concern with “cheers of ‘white power’ and ‘black power’ at the spirit bowl, along with red-bedecked sophomores swinging their arms in a tomahawk chop.”

Although, it is understandable that the mother would be in defense of her son who acted out KKK and Nazi gestures, this is not the main story.

Most mothers of students of color or underprivileged white students don’t get a chance to defend their children’s version of the story when they are arrested or reprimanded for bullying other students.

The way the author phrased the mother's statements made the actions look common place in the school during spirit bowl. Through the word choices and the phrasing it appears that the whole school was a part of racist actions not just this individual student. The student was just going along with what everyone else had been doing. The hood was even ready and tempting him to put it on. It couldn't of been his fault. He learned his lesson not to go along with everyone else.

The mother was given the privilege to explain and excuse her sons actions in the beginning of the article already framing that the student and her parenting were not to blame for the racist actions and that the school district was addressing the situation so it wasn't even a big deal. Because of the privilege of the student and the power that the writer had in bringing out this privilege it transformed the incident from being an instance of racial bullying and intimidation into “boys being boys” or child’s play.

This incident was about a minority student being bullied in public at a school function. This article twisted the story into a heroic depiction of a child who did not know better and now is paving hope for the future and opening up the way for other students to “understand the history and hurt of discrimination.”

Hall’s theory goes into the coverage of the 9/11 attacks and the underlying harmony of the articles and news pieces used to cover the story. The quotation he used was from “a story in an oped piece in the Los Angeles TImes: When he was joining the London Times in the 1920s, my father asked his uncle, who was on the Times’ board, who really formulated Times’ policy. ‘My boy,’ his uncle said, ‘the policy of the London Times is set by a committee that never meets.’

Analyzing the media coverage of this incident, we can see the concordance in the articles and writing style to address the systemic problem of racism. I will quote parts of articles, that form this invisible alliance that enables the underlying white privilege of our Salt Lake Valley.

Fox News Report Excerpts:
The incident happened last Thursday at a "Spirit Bowl" in the school gym. The junior class was supposed to wear white. One junior came in a white hood that covered his face. Witnesses said he also went around giving a stiff-armed salute mimicking how the Nazis saluted Adolf Hitler.

He did all of this right in front of fellow junior, Larz Cosby, who identifies himself as "mixed race." Cosby recalled, "So everyone is like, 'Oh Larz, look at him, What are you going to do? You know, they're looking at me like I'm going to do something. And I say, 'Really,' and I take his hood off. I grab it and throw it behind me. And I said, 'Come on dude."

He said his first instinct was to throw a punch.

"I've never seen this before. Never. I've been discriminated against because of my color. But no one has ever run around with a white hood on," Cosby said.

ABC 4 News Report Excerpts:
A blog Larz Cosby wrote about the incident has gotten hundreds of hits and a couple dozen of comments.
One classmate wrote, "I do think that what the kids did was just a joke ... But I also see where you're comin' from..."
Another wrote, "I ain't white and I go to Alta, but you don't see me crying."
And still another commented, "They're a bunch of meatheads that think they can do anything, but they're not racists."
Racist or not, there's now an investigation.

Fox 13 News Follow up:
Alta High Principal Mont Wilderberg announced his retirement by sending a letter to the Canyons School District. Widerberg along with the school's vice principal were put on paid leave after several students were being investigated for racist behavior.

Wilderberg was principal at Alta for the past 10 years and a employee within the Jordan and Canyons School districts for 32 years.

KSL News Report:
Parents: Alleged racism incident at Alta High overblown

Earlier in the day, the parents of the student who was accused of making racial gestures to other students say this incident has been blown out of proportion.
They say their son did have a white pillowcase on his head at several points during the spirit assembly — which they say was not appropriate — but that he never meant for it to be a reference to the KKK.
The assembly in which this incident happened is called the "Spirit Bowl," and it's an assembly where each class dresses in their school colors: red for sophomores, white for juniors and black for seniors. Each year at the assembly, classes compete in games and dress wildly in their respective colors.
During this year's assembly, the parents of the student accused of racial discrimination say their son was chanting "white power" with members of the junior class in opposition to the students cheering "black power." Several times during the assembly, the student ran down onto the floor with the pillowcase over his head.

Deseret News Report Excerpts:
Alta High incident overblown, friends, parents of accused student say

Members of the school community and beyond are still reacting to claims of racism within Alta High School where two administrators remained on leave Tuesday following a district investigation.
The parents of the accused student said Tuesday the event was misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. The boy was dressed up in all-white — his class color — to show class pride. Sophomores wear red, juniors wear white and seniors wear black to the Spirit Bowl. The parents said he was chanting "white power" with members of the junior class in opposition to the students cheering "black power."

They said their son also momentarily wore a white pillowcase another student brought to school, which was a poor choice, but wasn't intended to be racist or invoke any KKK connections.
Some students reacted in kind, saying the incident doesn't warrant the kind of attention it has received.

"I think it's been overdone a lot more than it really was," said Alex Milner, a student at Alta.
Ryan Jensen said Cosby's claim the stunt was directed at him are false.

"He just got up and kind of pointed at the seniors and he ran around the gym," said Ryan Jensen of his friend. "He didn't direct it to any individuals."

It had everything to do with the spirit rally and nothing to do with racism, said Ammon Barker. "You make costumes for the thing, just try to show as much school spirit as you can,"  he said. "They misinterpreted it."

“Racist or not”, “Overblown”, “Misrepresented”, “Alleged”, “Joke”, “Blown out of proportion”, "

I've never seen this before. Never.", 

all these words and phrases are used throughout the different reports. Out of thousands of quotes from Larz Colby’ blog ABC News and the Deseret News chose to quote people questioning the validity or excusing the students behavior. Even when they did quote, the, "multi-racial," Larz' first "instinct" was to "throw a punch." The “committee that never meets” seems to have convened on this story.

Naive or not they were able to effectively discredit the story's validity and severity.

The way the mass media and its reporters chose to present this story was with a bias in excusing and defending the students actions.

In the end, this investigation was brought to light because of the courage of a student of color who spoke out against an oppressive system and oppressive actions not only directed at him but at his essence and his background. In our days oppressed people have the privilege of the social media to get their story heard when the mass media chooses to ignore or minimize it.

We can read all of these articles, but when we question them and think critically we can go and read and investigate the counter story because of the power of the internet we can friend Larz Cosby on Facebook, Twitter or follow his blog and ask him his version of the story. We can read the blog comments under his original post and see what his peers are saying to him and about the issue.

Hall, talks about “the possibility that the powerless may be equally obstinate by resisting the dominant ideology and translating the message in a way more congenial to their own interests.” This idea may have been a little bit less plausible in years passed but in our time the social media and the power of technology can give the oppressed and the silences a voice to destroy the oppression of the mass media and it’s power.

In case you want to read each report:

Winters, R. (2011). Alta Student Learned ‘Lesson’ about Racism. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from

Vaughn, A. (2011). Alta High Principal Retires While on Leave During Racism Investigation. KSTU-Fox 13 News. Retrieved from,0,1793057.story

Hunsaker, B. (2001). Racism at Alta High? District Investigates. ABC4NEWS. Retrieved from

Park, P. & Roche, L. R. (2011). Parents: Alleged racism incident at Alta High overblown. News Division. Retrieved from

Park, S. & Farmer, M. (2011). Alta High Incident overblown, friends, parents of accused students say. Deseret News. Retrieved from

Student Blog:


Great, great points Flor! Excellent article! So many times I get asked, "Why do Black people need their own newspaper?" "Why do Latinos need a distinct community online just for themselves? If White people did that, they'd be called racist!" Well, the answer is simple...White privilege allows them to tell their side of the story almost exclusively and people of color often have the door shut in their face and their opinions are left in the cold. But with the determination and resilience of minority communities, they establish their own means of telling their stories and being heard. They uplift each other and provide the ear to listen that mass media often doesn't offer. Loved your post Flor and I can't wait to share it! <3
IG said…
“committee that never meets”. thats so true. the media is always so biased
Jen said…
What an excellent post! The power of the media is scary because of this type of bias. I am glad that blogs like yours and other social media help spread the true stories about what is going on in the world. Thanks for sharing this story.
HapaMama said…
So sad that this kind of behavior still happens, and that people would just brush it off as a "joke".

Journalists need to be able to see things from outside of their own personal perspective -- or at least acknowledge that they have a point of view -- and consciously make an effort to see other viewpoints.

Goes to show you the power of the blogosphere!
Anonymous said…
Finally, an issue that I am passionate about. I have looked for information of this caliber for the last several hours. Your site is greatly appreciated.
HapaMama said…
So sad that this kind of behavior still happens, and that people would just brush it off as a "joke".

Journalists need to be able to see things from outside of their own personal perspective -- or at least acknowledge that they have a point of view -- and consciously make an effort to see other viewpoints.

Goes to show you the power of the blogosphere!
Jen said…
What an excellent post! The power of the media is scary because of this type of bias. I am glad that blogs like yours and other social media help spread the true stories about what is going on in the world. Thanks for sharing this story.

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