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.
Once kept from the public, police violence is out in the open because of social media
The videos of the shocking deaths of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile give us another glimpse into the disturbing truth of police brutality — whether we want to see the videos or not. Sterling was shot to death in Baton Rouge, La., after an anonymous caller to police reported that a man selling CDs outside a convenience store was also carrying a gun. Castile died during a traffic stop in Minnesota.
Although the investigations continue, Castile appears to have been guilty of nothing. At most, Sterling was carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, but he wasn’t hurting anybody.
With better police work, both would be alive today. Instead, the brutal images of their deaths are widely available online. Should we be seeing them? Yes.
When the police are the perpetrators of violence, social media is now becoming a first responder to the news. Whereas accusations of police brutality and other violence were once dismissed as hearsay or the facts not made clear, the public now has an unprecedented level of access to see what is really going on.
As Sherri Williams notes in a piece for NBC, social media and digital devices are taking a leading role in documenting police brutality. These videos are crucial for the scope of the issue to be recognized — the modern equivalent of Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, insisting on an open casket at his funeral.
But when social media is the new first responder, the viewer is put on the digital front line of incredibly violent acts. To be sure, our exposure to black death on a recurring basis may have unforeseen psychological effects, especially for people of color, perhaps even leading to PTSD-like symptoms of distress.
It is difficult to know how portrayals of devalued black life will shift public perspective, but it is important that images of senseless black death become a catalyst for action, rather than simply serve as voyeuristic news-fodder. Otherwise, repetitive images of anti-black violence may do more harm than good.
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.