How Journalists Cover Police Brutality is a Matter of Life and Death

Are journalists ready to reckon with systemic racism?

By: Julie Pierce Onos

 “Since 1935, nearly every so-called race riot in the U.S.—and there have been more than 100—has been sparked by a police incident.” The media has an opportunity to spark racial justice by clearly showing the problem is not the so-called race riot or protest – it is the police incident that sparked it.”  – Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Author, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America

For Black people, media coverage of police brutality is a matter of life and death.

Is it a peaceful protest or a riot? Did the protest become violent, or did police unleash violence on protestors? Journalists have a sacred responsibility in how they choose their language to convey information, and potentially inspire others to change the status quo—a responsibility we are watching unfold live as protests against the murder of George Floyd bourgeon into a nationwide uprising against police brutality and global uprising against systemic racism.

Can the media’s coverage of police brutality protests inspire solutions towards racial justice?

Over the past few weeks, the New York Times has shown the power of language with headlines such as Protests Swell in U.S. and Beyond as George Floyd is Mourned near His Birthplace, describing the protestors as “peaceful” and “passionate,” likening the atmosphere to a music festival. More importantly, it quotes the protestors, allowing them to explain their reasons for taking to the streets in their own words. The newspaper supplemented their coverage of the protests with articles about police departments across the US re-examining their use of force, showing that the public is seeking solutions.

However, the New York Times has not always treated police violence, and structural racism with this nuance and context. When thousands protested the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015, the paper emphasized the futility of the movement, and did not examine the history of disproportionate force used against Black men—even though according to Mapping Police Violence, over 104 unarmed black people were killed by police in that year, alone. While another writer examined Political Lies about Police Brutality, with statistics showing Black people are unfairly targeted and abused by police, it failed to ask the larger questions about what the police should be doing instead. It is one thing to point out a tragedy—but what is that, without imagining solutions?

Still, this was progress compared to twenty years earlier, when peaceful protests in response to the NYPD brutally beating and sodomizing Abner Louima were recorded in history as “a forceful display of anger” while the assault itself was described as “police beating.” On the night in question, police were called due to an altercation outside a popular nightclub. When they arrived, they honed in on Louima—even though according to both their account and his, there was no specific reason as to why he was targeted, specifically. Even though there was no evidence that Louima instigated the altercation, police officers beat him on the way to the station, broke his teeth with a broom, and then sodomized him with its handle. It sparked demonstrations, but while the journalists covering the demonstrations accurately represented the protestors’ demands, they once again failed to ask these larger questions around how the police should have responded in the first place.

It feeds a narrative suggesting that if Black people were not suspected of being felons, they would be safe from police brutality—a fantasy that is not grounded in truth. In reality, Black people who are not suspected of any crime have been brutalized throughout history, and are still brutalized; young black men are twenty-one times more likely to be shot and killed by the police. For Black communities, the issue isn’t just being shot and killed; it’s the manner in which no one is an individual. We are all Black, and are therefore all suspect.

Reaching back another twenty years, an unarmed black boy suspected of theft was shot in the head while fleeing police.  The earliest mention of this case in The New York Times was in an October 1984 article, Court Weighs Deadly Force by Police, written when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case ten years after it happened.  The article laid out both arguments, stating that the State of Tennessee argued the shooting was constitutional as it was in line with a law that allowed police to use ‘all necessary means to apprehend or stop a suspect (including lethal force), while the lawyers for the boy’s family argued that lethal force is unconstitutional because it deprived him of his constitutional rights to due process and right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure.  The article omitted the fact that the boy was Black. It also omitted the fact that the shooting took place at a time of growing tensions between the Black community and the Memphis Police Department, when the Black death rate was 18 times higher than the white death rate.

It took another ten years for the Garner family to receive money from the city of Memphis for a wrongful death suit—but it was protests, unrest and images of a grieving father that made justice possible. In fact, a researcher named Abraham Tennenbaum found a 16% reduction in police homicides and a reduction in overall shootings as a result of this ruling.

Now we are witnessing legal changes to lethal practices such as the neck restraint that killed George Floyd, along with proposed changes to police tactics responding to protests across the country. It begs the question—if media had properly reported, and contextualized these instances of police brutality in the past, would so many people have died between then and now?

After the 1968 Kerner Commission identified white racism as the cause of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, the New York Times covered US President Lyndon B Johnson’s panel to address the cause of the riots as an effort to “investigate the epidemic of racial disorders and to recommend remedial measures.” From the beginning, race was framed as a disorder and the President’s calls for reconciliation rang hollow—but the panel still lead to articles with titles like, “Johnson Unit Assails Whites in Negro Riots: Will Urge Drive on Prejudice, Neglect and Ignorance,” only furthering the narrative that riots were Black peoples’ problem, and not a result of disproportionate police brutality or grievances in the Black community. The heartbroken were vilified for their devastation, and the media moved on.

More than fifty years later, is the media finally ready to hold itself accountable for upholding systemic racism?

Over the past two weeks, the political will of the people feels different. While some media coverage is conflating protests with riots, acting as if inconvenience and property loss is the central point of concern, others are covering the protests through the lens of deconstructing the complex layers of systemic racism, showing the power of language and framing to yield concrete results. Democratic legislators in Congress are proposing legislation against police brutality and racial bias. Minneapolis, Colorado and New Mexico are banning chokeholds and neck restraints. Seattle and Denver temporarily banned using tear gas on protestors. On June 7, 2020, Minneapolis City Council members decided to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Could it lead to more systemic change? Anti-racist language explains the complex layers of systemic racism, giving decision-makers the tools to develop robust solutions that combat police brutality. Sometimes this looks like community policing and independent police misconduct reviews. In the future, it could lead to a force of social workers and mental health professionals being deployed to deescalate situations, rather than calling the police and resorting to violence.

If the media is going to help dismantle the disproportionally harsh and lethal treatment of Black people by the police, it must first understand systemic racism. Only then can the media properly inform the public, and give them the tools to re-imagine the role of police in our society and the end of police brutality.