VH1’s Hip Hop Honors ceremony returned after a six-year absence Monday night, paying tribute to some of rap’s pioneering female artists: Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim and Salt-N-Pepa. But in the wake of civil unrest across the United States last week, following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in two separate police shootings,… [Read more…]
There’s a lot being reported about the five police officers killed last week in Dallas, as well as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were killed last week by police in Baton Rouge and suburban Minneapolis. Not all that is being reported is bad, not all good either. But I thought it would be helpful to think about the stories that aren’t being written or talked about.
Below are five stories we’d like to see journalists tackle. It’s not an exhaustive list, and if you’d like to add to it, drop a line or two about your ideas in the comments section. We’ll send our story idea list to editors and reporters. You never know who might be interested.
1. An investigation into the infiltration of white supremacists in U.S. police departments and U.S. military.
2. A data-driven story about how black and brown people are treated differently when it comes to applying and enforcing open and concealed carry laws.
3. Delve into unconscious bias training taking place at some police departments across the country. What’s successful, what isn’t, and what are best practices?
4. What happened to community-based policing? Back in the day a beat cop would have known who Alton Sterling was, that he sold CDs, was friends with the store owner, and meant nobody any harm. How do we get back to that style of policing, and why did congress cut funding for community policing in the first place?
5. Feature on interracial marriages, which have brought together extended families from differing backgrounds and experiences, and how they are dealing with/talking about current racial tensions.
Many journalists are missing the nuance, and missing the point
I’ve been watching, reading and monitoring coverage in the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and about 136 other black people killed by police so far this year, as well as the shooting rampage in Dallas that took the lives of five police officers. Guess what?
While I am pleased to announce a number of news organizations aren’t using irrelevant mugshots of the people killed in these police altercations, many if not most journalists, are still getting the stories wrong. What they’re missing is nuance.
“Just today I was reading a piece that will be up on the Maynard site this week that featured Paul Delaney, a reporter who began his work with the Atlanta Daily World during the Civil Rights Movement and became a foreign correspondent and editor for The New York Times. He talked about how social media and the inability for pause and reflection would have made reporting on the Civil Right Movement extremely problematic,” said Martin Reynolds, a Senior Fellow with the Maynard Institute, which specializes in media diversity. “It was the moments of downtime when deadlines had passed that the opportunity to talk to sources and pull back provided a more nuanced approach to coverage.”
Delaney is right, of course. As journalists we have got to be able to take time to explain the complexities of race as it exists today. It may feel like 1968 to some, but it isn’t. What’s happening now isn’t so black and white as it was back then. But journalists today are producing black-and-white coverage of what are no longer black-and-white issues. Here are a couple examples:
- First, the police officer who killed Castile in a mostly white suburban enclave of Minneapolis-St. Paul, is Latino, not white. But that’s the impression many people are left with after reading or viewing the news.
- Second, the stepmother of the sniper who killed the five police officers in Dallas is white. And by at least one account, Mica Xavier Johnson wasn’t even into black empowerment until recently. Not only is his stepmother white, Johnson hung out with fellow soldiers in the U.S. Army who are white while stationed in Afghanistan. To be clear, it’s not the fact that he had white friends that makes him not racist. It’s the fact that Johnson doesn’t fit the definition of a racist. Nor does Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer who killed Castile, for that matter.
Johnson and Yanez don’t fit the scholarly definition of racism, which holds that people of color cannot be racist because they lack the power and privilege to perpetuate racism on groups of people of another race or ethnicity. It will be interesting to see if Yanez is indicted or arrested in Castile’s murder, which would likely further support this definition, and would be similar to another case in New York involving an Asian American police officer.
That leaves us with the white cop who killed Sterling after shooting him six times. Was he racist? Maybe, maybe not.
Whether one agrees with the scholarly definition of racism or not, journalists ought to be able to break it down to help readers and viewers understand the meaning and dynamics behind the term.
And even if journalists don’t know whether racism spurred any of last week’s killings, what we do know is that all three of these individuals likely targeted others based on preconceptions about race. As for the police officers, there is also a good chance their actions resulted from unconscious bias.
So what is unconscious bias, how does it differ from racial profiling and how do journalists explain the concepts to viewers in text or in five second soundbites? By putting the shootings in context, and by taking the longer view.
Let’s start with racial profiling, which is the targeting of particular individuals by law enforcement authorities (or any authority really) based not on their behavior, but rather their personal characteristics. According to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, racial profiling can encompass “race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion — and means the impermissible use by law enforcement authorities of these personal characteristics, to any degree, in determining which individuals to stop, detain, question, or subject to other law enforcement activities.”
Racial profiling is premised on the erroneous assumption that people of a particular race, ethnicity, national origin or religion are more likely to engage in certain types of unlawful conduct than are individuals of another race, ethnicity, national origin or religion. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights concluded:
“Thus it is not racial profiling when law enforcement authorities rely on these personal characteristics as part of a subject descriptions or in connection with an investigation if there is reliable information that links a person to a particular race, ethnicity, national origin or religion to a specific incident, scheme or organization.”
The key word here for journalists to tease out and explore is whether police used personal characteristics as THE description they used to encounter Castile and Sterling, or PART of a description. In other words, just because Castile’s nose may have looked like a robbery suspect’s nose, isn’t likely enough of a description for police to detain, let alone shoot him to death. Just as Sterling wearing a red shirt isn’t likely enough of a description for him to be detained, or shot to death. Though grand juries and/or district attorneys in both cases may disagree with my legal opinion. But that’s a different story.
Whether racial profiling is at the heart of last week’s police shootings is further complicated by another complex concept: unconscious bias, which are attitudes or stereotypes that people form simply by absorbing messages from the media and world around them.
According to a growing body of research, everyone has unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from our tendency to organize the world by categorizing people. The problem comes in when these unconscious biases impact, among other things, hiring, patient care and policing.
How can journalists best explain or convey implicit (or unconscious) bias to viewers and readers. First, journalists have to recognize their own unconscious biases.
Martin, of the Maynard Institute, recommends reading Young Men of Color in the Media Images and Impacts.
“Share it with your editor. Share it with a few colleagues and take an hour to discuss it among yourselves,” he added. “In doing so, think about your own biases and how they impact how you see the world. And then as you go about the job of reporting, make an effort to be intentional about how you do your work. The antidote is there for healing the sickness of distorted portrayals. But journalists must be willing to take it. It is us who must be healed.
“I would also recommend reading Sally Lehrman’s book News in a New America,” Martin continued. “It was published in 2006, but is nevertheless an important read to provide context for working journalists. Lehrman, an award-winning medical and science policy writer, has also been leading the work around improving trust of media. She said we have to address the “powerful human processes that create misunderstanding.” I couldn’t agree more. In her view, it’s about much more than hiring, retention and developing a coverage strategy. Those things come later. But a more probative look at oneself must come first.”
Ethical reporting is a must to help the country heal from a week of wall-to-wall violence
Journalists reporting on the deadly shooting rampage in Dallas, as well as on the killings that led to that carnage, are no doubt tired and dealing with emotional strains while trying to do herculean jobs. It’s easy to lose focus of how to stay on top of this story in a responsible way. There’s so much happening that it’s hard for journalists to understand what’s going on, let alone explain that to readers and viewers.
Here are a few suggestions:
Seek truth and report it. First and foremost, reporters must remember to provide context to help readers and viewers digest all that’s happening around them. Remember that one person does not represent an entire race, nor an entire movement. Mica Xavier Johnson, identified by police as the shooter, told police he was not affiliated with the peaceful Black Lives Matter protest Thursday evening. This one sentence should be included in every story, every tweet, every broadcast produced today.
Let’s be clear: Johnson did not represent Black Lives Matter, or African-Americans overall, for that matter. He was just one person filled with hate.
And while we’re all in a rush to learn more about the shooting suspect, let’s not forget to tell the stories of the five Dallas police officers who were killed. And we also shouldn’t forget to tell the stories of the citizens who tried to help those officers last night by protesting peacefully.
Finally, we should not forget the reason why people were protesting. Context matters. It’s important that we be as comprehensive in our coverage as possible. Do not lose sight of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile or the countless other black men, women and children recently killed by police.
Avoid hyperbole. Please avoid comparisons to 9/11 as CNN has been doing since last night. This is irresponsible, bad journalism. Unless the police come out to say something different, this has nothing to do with coordinated attacks connected with religious extremism.
This has everything to do with a U.S. Army veteran who wrongfully sought revenge against innocent police officers. The alleged killer in Dallas was upset about the police-involved deaths this week in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn. He had no right to take the law into his own hands against any police officer.
At the same time, don’t downplay events either. Black lives are every bit as important as blue lives, and vice versa. Our reporting should reflect just that.
Don’t inflame. Emotions and tensions are high enough. Do not do what The New York Post did this morning when it splashed the words “Civil War” across its front page. Such an irresponsible action does nothing but cause harm and is in direct violation of our code of ethics as journalists. This is not a war, at least not yet. Let’s not help it become one. This means not airing photos of the shooter’s mother’s house as some cable news networks are doing. This means calmly, professionally reporting the facts, not adding fuel to the fire. It also means avoiding rash, over-the-top reactions to developing news. And it means being fair and as accurate as possible.
In fact, journalists should avoid the blame-game altogether. Passing judgment is not our job; reporting is.
Don’t jump the gun. Everybody wants to be first. But it is more important than ever to get it right. Not getting it right could mean the difference between a possible loss of more innocent lives and maintaining the peace. Be accountable and transparent. Tell readers and viewers where you are getting your information, and how. Explain ethical choices, clarify facts, answer questions about fairness, and expose unethical conduct by authorities and by fellow journalists.
Watch your tweets. Only tweet, or retweet, what you know are facts. Don’t editorialize. No biases, misinformation or ill-formed opinions should be included in your tweets. It’s easy to send out a tweet, but near impossible to take it back.
Be compassionate, yet objective. There’s a balance. Try to be empathetic without compromising principle. Yes, we have a job to do, but we must be respectful and mindful that people on all sides are hurting. And by all means, don’t be a jerk. At such a painful, sensitive moment in history, nobody has time for that.
Now is not the time to retreat. We are reporters. Our job is to record history, a history that is in the making right now. It’s more important now than it was a day ago to go into the communities and neighborhoods we’re supposed to be serving. Sure, you may be scared or reluctant. Get over it. And when you do go out into the communities you’re supposed to be serving, don’t go armed with a full camera crew. Teams of two are okay. Put on your best walking shoes, go into neighborhoods and talk with people you don’t normally see — people you don’t normally want to see.
This is our opportunity to provide inclusive, accurate, fair and complete coverage of the communities we serve.
It’s time to listen. When you go into communities and neighborhoods you don’t normally cover, go to listen. Residents will be skeptical. Don’t get defensive when they inevitably criticize you or your news organization. Be open, instead, to their concerns. Be willing to hear them out. Be a check on power, not complicit with it. Our job is to report all sides of a story. You can’t do that just by chewing the fat with the mayor and police.
Last, but not least, take care of yourself. Self-care at this time is very important. If you feel yourself getting emotional, it’s okay to take a break. Do some yoga. Yell. I’m told it’s cathartic. Meditate. Drink plenty of water. Take time for you and be intentional about it. Covering violent crime is traumatic enough. Add the dynamics of race and police on top of it, and it can be downright exhausting. Take time to let yourself exhale, which will help with emotional healing.
Tracie Powell is the founder of AllDigitocracy.
The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Reportedly first uttered by an Irish bartender named Mr. Dooley, I first heard the phrase as a middle school student while “interning” at The Atlanta Daily World, one of this country’s oldest black newspapers. At the time, it was told to me by the then-publisher Cornelius “C. A.” Scott. Mr. Scott gave me my first taste of journalism; it’s been in my blood ever since. I was too young to know what these words meant back then, but they’ve been echoing in my head continuously all morning.
What would C. A. Scott do?
The Atlanta Daily World, founded by Morehouse graduate, William Alexander “W. A.” Scott in 1928, ran photos of lynchings on its front page on an almost daily basis to bring attention to racial discrimination, white supremacy, and police brutality. It became one of the most influential, and successful, newspapers of its time. By the time I arrived in the 1980s, the Daily World, was a mere shell of itself having been disrupted by integration and mainstream media outlets with deeper pockets, but less commitment to covering black news as starkly and passionately as the Scotts did.
Many are angry over The New York Daily News‘ front cover. Editors at The New York Daily News warned potential readers by trumpeting on its Twitter time line that today’s edition would feature a full-display of a dying Alton Sterling, the black man killed by Baton Rouge police on Wednesday. Some are describing his murder as an execution.
I believe C. A. Scott and his contemporaries would approve.
Alton Sterling is a human being. Was a human being. He was a father. He had a voice. And like everybody, he had a past. Whatever his past was is irrelevant. Less than a day after police killed Sterling, Minnesota police killed another black man, Philando Castile, after stopping him for having a broken tail light. His girlfriend and four-year-old daughter were in the car with Castile.
The role of police officers is to serve and protect, not to judge.
All of this needs to be taken into account when considering The New York Daily News‘ front page.
I understand that tabloids often produce startling covers in order to sell newspapers. I understand that tabloids, by their very nature, are provocative. But I also know that pictures are worth more than 1,000 words. I know that sometimes you have to get into people’s faces in order to make them understand. I know how easy is to ignore a block of text, but much harder to tune out a picture. I know that sometimes you need visuals to make people pause and force them into a much needed conversation.
And I know that the role of journalists, our very mission, is to give voice to the voiceless, hold power to account, and to afflict the comfortable. A journalist’s job is to tell the truth.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile no longer have their voices. The New York Daily News cover, as frighteningly disgusting as it is, needs to be seen. It’s Alton Sterling’s voice. It also needs to be a rallying cry to everyone from Hillary Rodham Clinton to police chiefs from Oakland to Chicago that enough is enough. It needs to be a tipping point for systemic change, from federal law to county courthouses across this country.
No more district attorneys urging grand juries to no bill cases where police kill black men and women with impunity. No more U.S. Justice Department investigating these cases without consequences. No more police taking black lives for granted. No more do nothing U.S. congress. No more hash-tag activism without real change. No more news media looking for reasons to excuse the inexcusable. No more people walking around like sheep, asleep to the perils faced by those people on a daily basis. No more all lives mattering without black lives mattering.
No more. Enough is enough.
This image is a tipping point. Or it should be.
Did The New York Daily News publish this cover to make money? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Single copy sales are collapsing, dropping in double digits for the last three years. If the Daily News wanted to simply use the image to sell newspapers, they wouldn’t have posted the picture on Twitter last night; they wouldn’t have scooped themselves. I’ll call them later, but I bet editors at the Daily News argued for hours about whether to publish this image.
By publishing the image, The New York Daily News is fulfilling an obligation to be a truth teller.
Black newspaper trailblazers of the 1920s through the 1960s – those heroes who risked their reputations, heck their very lives, to raise awareness about public lynchings – helped bring an end to such widespread practices.
They had to.
A newspaper’s job is to afflict the comfortable. The New York Daily News, this time, is doing its job.
Without the video, officers involved in shooting likely would receive less scrutiny
When the term “citizen journalism” was coined few people thought bystanders would be filming police officers fatally shooting citizens. Yet it is happening with alarming regularity, including early Wednesday morning in Baton Rouge, La.
A bystander filmed two Baton Rouge police officers attempting to detain Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, after a call to police “from a complainant who stated that a black male who was selling music cd’s and wearing a red shirt threatened him with a gun” outside the Triple S Food Mart, a convenience store.
The video quickly went viral across the Internet and also sparked peaceful protests in Baton Rouge. The graphic video shows two officers tackling Sterling when he apparently refused their commands to get on the ground. During the scuffle, one officer appears to shoot Sterling multiple times.
Sterling’s death is the latest in a string of fatal police shootings captured on video across the country.
Facts in this case are still unclear, but commentators on national television were quick to point out that without the cellphone video there would be no reason to even suspect the police of wrongdoing. But because of the video there will be an extensive investigation.
Some state lawmakers have tried to make filming the police illegal, but have not been successful. A citizen journalist must keep his distance and not interfere with police, but the act of filming the police in a public area is not a violation.