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.