In light of the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, journalists are faced, once again, with the task of making sense of black protest for the American public. It bears asking what media professionals have learned, not just in the six years since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spurred national outrage, but also in the decades, and centuries, of black American resistance.
How the news covers activism matters profoundly to a democracy because the media can influence public support or rejection of policies that might solve social ills such as racism and police brutality. Following the dozens of uprisings that swept U.S. cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, reported on the cause and possible future prevention of such unrest. The commission asserted that, in addition to generational poverty, housing and employment discrimination, and over-policing, the media was partially responsible for the neglect felt by black communities.
The commission wrote:
Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now … They must insist on the highest standards of accuracy—not only reporting single events with care and skepticism, but placing each event into meaningful perspective. They must report the travail of our cities with compassion and in depth.
Yet in recent investigations of post-civil-rights-era protests (from Watts, Los Angeles, in 1992 to Baltimore in 2015), researchers found that media coverage continues to reinforce stereotypes of black incivility and denigrate the legitimacy of black outrage. For instance, news that denies black agency by fixating on supposed “outside agitators”—a common insult lobbed at the northern students and clergy who joined forces with black southerners in the 1960s—came roaring back with a vengeance over the past week. USA Today and other outlets ran headlines that uncritically repeated officials’ lines, such as “‘There are anarchists’: Minnesota officials say ‘outside agitators’ are hijacking peaceful protests.” Later, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz was forced to backtrack on this claim, as the large majority of those arrested in Minneapolis had local driver’s licenses.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison journalism professor Douglas McLeod and his colleagues have detailed what they call the “protest paradigm” in a range of media coverage of public activism. The paradigm tends to dismiss or disparage protesters and protest tactics through a reliance on police and government sources, along with episodic, conflict-based stories that fail to engage the complex social causes of protest. Such reporting, McLeod says, undermines social-movement agendas by depicting challenges to the U.S. status quo as sinister or frivolous. Perhaps most important, public-opinion research shows that this coverage has a negative effect on the public’s assessment of the validity of protesters’ claims and tactics. When news stories employ sensational images of property damage, using terms such as riot and the even more sensational mayhem and chaos, researchers have noted a rise in public support for law-and-order crackdowns on protest, rather than support for social policies to address the roots of protest.
Passive and ambiguous language is also common in news reports, stripping responsibility from state actors and softening facts. Consider how often local news media uses the term officer-involved shooting, a euphemism right out of police public-relations guides, instead of shot by police. WUSA9, a Washington, D.C., station, deleted a tweet that read, “#BREAKING: Pepper spray caused a short stampede in Lafayette Park during a peaceful march honoring George Floyd,” after receiving intense criticism for failing to name the police as the source of the apparently sentient pepper spray. Likewise, The New York Times received pushback for a tweet that read, “Minneapolis: A photographer was shot in the eye,” after the photojournalist Linda Tirado was shot by police with a rubber bullet and likely blinded permanently in one eye. BuzzFeed engaged in bizarre wordsmithery with its headline “15 Not-Peaceful Things the Cops Were Recorded Doing During This Weekend’s Black Lives Matter Protests,” with not-peaceful standing in as a euphemism for violent.
What’s more, many reports on the violence that occurs at some protests fail to reflect the power imbalance between armed and armored police officers and water-bottle-throwing young people by using language such as melee and scuffle, which implies minor, equally matched struggles. This coverage almost never explains to audiences the way tactical police responses to protest create conditions for increased unrest. Journalists would be better able to report fairly by using more black organizers as sources, or by reporting on the organizers’ motivations beyond a singular event. Additionally, journalists can report directly from protests so that they can see power dynamics firsthand.
Yet I am also seeing changes in language that make me optimistic this time around. Some outlets (besides the usual alternative media and niche ones) have begun to run headlines that reconsider representations of blame and reassess assumptions that result from an unbalanced reliance on police as sources. These include NBC News’ “U.S. Police Failing to Respect Right to Peaceful Protest,” Slate’s “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide,” and The Atlantic’s recent coverage of police militarization titled “When Police View Citizens as Enemies.”
Likewise, mainstream journalists who have been on the ground to witness police escalation tactics, and in some cases those who have been seriously hurt by them, are pointing out the inconsistency of the values law enforcement claims to be protecting. Jackie Kucinich, the Washington bureau chief of The Daily Beast, tweeted about the use of tear gas on peaceful protesters in the District, and Abby D. Phillip of CNN pointed to the disconnect between the suppression tactics being used on peaceful protesters at the White House and the president’s claim that he was their ally.
Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper, founded during the abolitionist movement, published an editorial in 1827 that read: “Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations of things which concern us dearly. From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented … Such should know more of our actual condition, and of our efforts and feelings, in forming or advocating for plans for our amelioration.” Euphemisms, passive voice, sensationalism, and a sole reliance on official sources are not objective, nor are they at all reflective of the “compassion and … depth” the Kerner Commission called for 50 years ago. If the goal of a more democratic society is to embrace rather than stifle racial progress, newsmakers must recognize the weight of their editorial choices.