Skewed reporting by The Wall Street Journal & The New York Post about the shooting death of an unarmed black man by NYC police on Thursday perpetuate stereotypical narratives about black men.
*UPDATE: The New York Post removed a mugshot from its story about Akai Gurley and replaced it with an image of Gurley with his daughter. *
Another unarmed black man was shot and killed by a police officer as he walked down a pitch-black stairwell inside a New York City housing project last week. Police Commissioner William Bratton described the unarmed man as “a total innocent,” adding that he “was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type.” After reporting that quote, The Wall Street Journal goes on to report: “Mr. (Akai) Gurley has 24 prior arrests, the majority of which are drug related, but also include robbery and criminal trespassing.”
The Wall Street Journal later updated its story, providing more personal details about Gurley’s life — he lived in Red Hook with the mother of his 2-year-old daughter — but without the earlier details about his arrests. That information was removed, but not before white supremacist groups began quoting the information in online propaganda (I won’t bother linking to the sites, which are easily found through search).
While The Wall Street Journal included details later deleted, The New York Post ran a story using Gurley’s mugshot, without revealing his prior arrests. When there’s a mugshot to imply a black male killed by police is a criminal, you don’t need words.
Aside from the fact that arrests do not necessarily make Gurley a criminal, details about his arrests are totally irrelevant to the story, having no connection to how or when he died. The details about Gurley’s arrests, including use of his mugshot, are examples of subtle media bias that is all too common in modern journalism.
Neither The Wall Street Journal nor The New York Post are guilty of the kind of blatant media bias recently demonstrated by Minneapolis TV Station KSTP earlier this month. KSTP aired a highly flawed report about the city’s mayor and a young, black male community organizer supposedly flashing gang signs in a photograph when the two were simply pointing at each other. The news story, now more commonly known as #pointergate, has been roundly criticized by media watchdogs, including the Society of Professional Journalists and All Digitocracy and is so ethically egregious that journalists will host a public forum about the story in Minneapolis next month. Still, the Journal and the Post show us more subtle media bias is just as harmful, or more so, when it comes to perpetuating harmful stereotypes, particularly those about people of color.
Reporters and editors at the Journal and the Post likely didn’t realize that their reports were skewed. This form of media bias is more prevalent in news reports, but journalists can avoid subconscious bias from appearing in news reports. Here’s how:
- Acknowledge your own possible biases and ensure that the people you’re writing about have a voice in your coverage, especially victims of shooting deaths. The Wall Street Journal somewhat accomplished this in its update by showing Gurley as a young father of a 2-year-old rather than its initial report that implied he was a criminal.
- If you don’t know what your biases are, test yourself. Ask whether you’re characterizing an individual unfairly. Challenge your own assumptions about people. Before hitting publish, or sending copy to an editor, ask yourself whether in a story like Gurley’s, if it is fair to focus on his arrest history. Are the details relevant to his shooting death? If not, why publish this information? These questions are best asked before publication, not after, in accessing whether your reporting gives an inaccurate impression of an issue, individual, program or community.
- Provide context. In Gurley’s story, The Wall Street Journal provided the context from police that the shooting victim was innocent and not involved in criminal activity at the time of his death. Even with this context, the reporter and editors still included Gurley’s arrest history, which neither matched the headline nor the thrust of the police account of what happened. It also placed focus on Gurley, as a criminal, rather than on how rookie Officer Peter Liang shot and killed an unarmed black man. Or how Gurley’s death is part of a wider trend in New York and in the U.S. of unarmed black men being shot and killed by police and other authority figures. For the record, not that The New York Times is perfect, but it did a good job putting Gurley’s death into context and in providing specific details about how the shooting happened.
- Follow journalism codes of ethics. Article IV of the American Society of News Editors’ (ASNE) Statement of Principles includes this sentence: “Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.” SPJ’s Code of Ethics states, in part, that journalists should examine their own cultural values “in approach and treatment” of news coverage. It also encourages journalists to: realize that private people have a greater right of control information about themselves than public figures, this includes police officers; weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information; avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do; consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. SPJ’s Code of Ethics also states that journalists should balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges. But, in this case, Gurley wasn’t a suspect. At least not until news outlets made him one, which brings us back to SPJ’s first tenet: A journalist’s responsibility for the accuracy of their work.
Have a more diverse and inclusive newsroom. Studies show when people from diverse backgrounds, and those with diverse experiences, work together in a structured environment to solve shared problems, their attitudes about diversity can change dramatically, according to tolerance.org. It is also important to value and nurture diversity of thought. Gender, race and cultural diversity create better newsrooms but are no guarantee against bias (as evidenced earlier this year when The New York Times characterized slain Missouri teen Michael Brown as “no angel,” language that dehumanized and negatively characterized the teen. (Brown was also unarmed when killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in August.) The story was written by a black writer. “Varying the types of thinkers in a company also helps guard against “groupthink,” a dangerous tendency in groups to focus first and foremost on group conformity, often at the expense of making good decisions,” according to a recent study on diversity in the workplace.
- Last, but not least, commit to change. Newsrooms and journalists need to make conscientious efforts to be more aware of their hidden biases. Monitor and attempt to ameliorate hidden attitudes before they are published. This can be achieved by paying closer attention to language, body language and to the stigmatization felt by target groups, according to tolerance.org.
Tracie Powell is the founder of All Digitocracy.