News media doing a disservice to the public in how they are reporting Wisconsin shooting of Tony Robinson
By JEAN MARIE BROWN
Questioning the police and their account of events should be standard in newsrooms. But too often, journalists seem to readily accept police narratives at face value.
This has become the case with the narrative in the shooting of Tony Robinson, an unarmed man fatally shot by police Officer Matt Kenny in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend. The type of journalism emerging in this case has led to an over-reliance on official sources, and an emphasis on conflict that has pushed concerns about protest to the forefront and has given police control of the narrative.
Unlike the police chief in Ferguson, Missouri, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval understands the fundamentals of crisis management and responded quickly to news that Kenny, a white officer, had shot Robinson, who is black. While Koval’s transparency is laudable, two of the first things you’re taught in journalism school are (a) don’t rely solely on official sources and (b) find as many sources as possible.
News reports in the Wisconsin State Journal, New York Times, USA Today, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and NBC Nightly News show that those two rules, and other basic principals of reporting, may not be getting followed in this case. The voices of neighbors and other witnesses to the events leading up to Robinson’s death have been ignored.
According to police, officers responded to three complaints that Robinson was being disruptive, but it is unclear whether journalists are trying to find out who may have made those calls or if anyone was aware of Robinson’s behavior. There is also a lack of skepticism by journalists regarding police procedure in this case. Accounts of the incident in the news relay, without question, that Officer Kenny “forced” his way into the home where Robinson was and that Robinson then “attacked” him.
Is it typical for officers to “force” their way into homes without a warrant? Is this even legal? If the officer “forced” his way into the home, is it accurate to describe Robinson as the aggressor? Following only the chief’s narrative puts Robinson in the role of the villain. Journalists appear to have quickly – too quickly – accepted police accounts that Robinson was the aggressor and/or the bad guy. Is this accurate reporting or just the police narrative? The two are not necessarily one-in-the-same.
Robinson’s character is also scrutinized with reports on his police record and a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. But no such scrutiny is given to Officer Kenny’s last fatal shooting, one characterized by Chief Koval as “suicide by cop.”
Unfortunately, scrutinizing citizens, but not the police in officer shootings, has become the norm. When 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland, Cleveland.com initially reported on Tamir’s father’s police record and other parental shortcomings rather than focus on the police officer, a man who had been fired from his previous police department job due to performance issues.
Rather than seeking out people with knowledge of Robinson’s behavior that night and the confrontation in order to tell a more comprehensive story, journalists have turned their attention to making predictions about what those protesting the shooting may or may not do. This does readers a disservice because there are still a number of unanswered questions about how and why Robinson died.
Delving into what happened and police attitudes about enforcing the law could not only add depth to the underlying tensions that provoke protests when shootings such as this one occurs, but also helps the public, and public officials, better understand the dynamics of these shootings and how they can be prevented, which is our job as journalists.
Journalists reporting on incidents like the Robinson shooting need to do the following to ensure that they get the most accurate information possible:
- Seek out witnesses;
- Look for patterns of behavior on the part of the police, not just the victim;
- Make sure that those patterns of behavior relate to the situation at hand for both parties;
- Question police procedure and
- Choose your words carefully.
Jean Marie Brown is an instructor in the School of Journalism in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She has a master’s degree in journalism from TCU and she earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Prior to teaching at TCU, she worked for Knight-Ridder and later McClatchy newspapers as a reporter, mid-level editor and senior editor.