Dos & Don’ts: How Can Media Ethically and Accurately Cover #BlackLivesMatter Protests?

What should journalists do? What should they avoid?

Over the past few days, protests have spread across the United States—and even around the world—in response to yet another police officer killing an unarmed Black man. It has lead to scenes of police cars being torched, and thousands in the streets demanding an end to police brutality.

But how has the media covered it? Riots make the news far more often than peaceful protests, and some media outlets interview more people—and gather more perspectives—than others. We gathered a few dos and don’ts, for people covering the protests, and analyzing the information coming in.

Do Pay Attention To the Frame

Is it a riot or resistance? According Journalism Professor and social movements and marginalized communities expert Danielle K. Kilgo, journalists have an enormous amount of power to sway the public’s opinion of a protest, and protestors depending on the language that they use, and the people that they choose to—or not to–interview. According to her extensive research, she found that the 2017 women’s march was well-received, and understood by the public. Meanwhile, #BlackLivesMatter protestors are often portrayed as violent, and , along with indigenous rights protests, are more likely to be described as disruptive or confrontational.

How are you framing your story? Are you writing that a protest became violent without any details, or are you accurate describing the scene, and attributing the violence with the essential context of why people are protesting in the first place?

Don’t Share Images of Police Brutality

While many well-meaning people have been sharing images and videos of Black people being beat up, and even killed by police in hopes that it will “shock” people into action, the reality, as Gal-Dem’s Kemi Alemoru points out, is that many white/non-black journalists in the newsroom are treating it as “strong content” while Black journalists are repeatedly triggered, and then expected to carry on with their jobs and report the story.

Instead, consider posting pictures and stories of victims of police brutality (or other forms of violence) while they are still alive. This article about George Floyd’s legacy as a community organizer at a Christian work programme is wonderful—and arguably makes for much better, robust and more responsible journalism.

Do Examine Your Own Bias

Do you have the privilege to tune out and look away? If so, it is time to examine your own privilege and bias, even if—especially if—you are also a person of color, who might have bought into the “only white people can be racist” mindset. White bias, and white supremacy is a force defining our world, and colorism buys into that paradigm by privileging people of color who are lighter skinned, and more closely resemble whiteness. It is time for anyone who has benefitted from this system to do some serious unlearning, which doesn’t always have to be so serious.

Over the past few days, dozens of people have published reading lists of excellent books examining everything from the history of white supremacy to the racism of the tech industry. Buy them, discuss them, and open conversations with friends—but it doesn’t need to be limited to books. What do you watch, what do you listen to? Often our media diet shows our implicit bias—and a great way to unpack that is by watching different films and tv shows that center black characters, and black stories. Another way to broaden your horizons is by watching and listening to some of the amazing black creators out there, here’s a few with YouTube channels and podcasts about everything from beauty and fashion to history and popular culture.

Don’t Ignore Black History & Systems of Oppression

Part of the problem with bad framing—especially journalism that reports on “riots” or “peaceful protests turning violent” is that ignores the context of why people are protesting. While often these protests are triggered by recent events—such as a police killing, or police brutality—these expressions of violence have their own distinct history, in many cases going back to slavery, and slave patrols.

Despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement—which were only possible through the hard work and dedication of Black activists—hundreds of structural inequalities today stem from as far back as slavery, particularly the economic inequalities put in motion by property ownership and inheritance. While most news articles about the #GeorgeFloydProtests, or any other #BlackLivesMatter and anti-police brutality protests for that matter, likely will not be able to speak to the enormous, varied history of Black Americans, journalists covering the story should bone up their knowledge for their own benefit—you never know when you could work it into an article, adding context and depth for your readers.

Do Center Black Voices & Experiences

Black journalism has a long, and rich tradition. From Ida B Wells—the mother of all American investigative journalism—to the first Black publications during the 1800s, offering new perspectives on race relations, and reported on lynchings while mainstream, white publications looked away. While these journalists and publications have been essential to shedding light on everything from segregation to the race riots of the 1960s, they are barely ever acknowledged and Black journalists remain disproportionally underrepresented in US newsrooms compared to the overall Black population. So, fix this! Hire and commission Black journalists—there are plenty of networks of talented people, and there are no excuses.

“Black people are an integral part of this country,” says Marissa Martinez in an excellent video breaking down the history of Black journalism in the United States. “If you have no Black journalists in the newsroom, you lose insight into what a large portion of the population is thinking.”

What did we miss? Like many others, we are also on a journey of exploring how we can best support racial justice in this moment, and amplify the voices that need to be heard. Don’t hesitate to get in touch on social media, @MDI_UK on Twitter, and @mediadiversityinstitute on Instagram.