Police accounts aren’t always the gospel truth, so why do journalists treat them that way?
By JEAN MARIE BROWN
Story frames and the language of the narrative are two of the most powerful tools available to journalists. They can evoke emotion, cast doubt or explain complex situations. In the current coverage of fatal shootings involving police, media frames and word choices often seem to be cast from a law enforcement point of view.
Police accounts are almost always taken as fact, while the person who was shot is reduced to “suspect” status and often described using aggressive verbs and adjectives. News coverage of the death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina is just the latest example of this.
Coverage of the Scott case by the Charleston Post and Courier since the release of the video has been lauded as exemplary journalism. This cannot be said, however, about the first three days of the paper’s Scott coverage. Those stories reflected a troubling trend in police reporting in which the police account is taken at face value.
This kind of approach to police reporting violates journalistic standards and codes of ethics, which call for journalists to minimize harm, treating subjects as human being deserving of respect. Ethical guidelines also state that journalists should give voice to the voiceless and serve as watchdogs over those in authority.
The narrative of the Post and Courier’s first report told of the death of a man who “fought” Officer Michael Slager. The story limits Scott’s humanity – the reader learns the make of the car Scott was driving before being told his name – and minimizes the violence that has occurred.
The Charleston Post and Courier article published April 5 begins with a feature treatment. The gunshots that killed Scott are first characterized as “disrupting a hazy Saturday morning.”
This lead is used to represent the story, despite the following facts, which are interspersed in the article:
- *The shooting was the 11th this year in the Palmetto state involving a law officer.
- * The State Law Enforcement Division was called in almost immediately to handle the investigation.
- * Scott was 50-years-old.
Scott’s death is reduced to: “the occurrence at the corner of Remount and Craig roads as a traffic stop gone wrong.” He is accused by police of fighting with “an officer over his Taser before deadly force was employed.”
The gravity of the shooting isn’t addressed until the third paragraph and Scott isn’t identified by name or race until the sixth paragraph. From the beginning, Scott’s family questioned the police version of events, but their input in the story comes after the narrative of a confrontation between Scott and the unidentified officer is established.
The second day story is told from the family’s point of view. However, the family’s statements are balanced with police response. For example, the family’s questions and call for “transparency” is followed by an official summation of the events. A quote stressing that Scott was unarmed is met with a recounting of Saturday’s remarks from the police. The only photograph of Scott is a family snapshot that is held in someone’s hand.
The third day story continues the narrative that Scott had brought his death upon himself. This story is told from Slager’s point of view, complete with a photograph of him with the American flag as a backdrop. This story offers none of the counterbalance found in the family story the day before.
In fact, the story opens with a declaration: “A North Charleston police officer felt threatened last weekend when the driver he had stopped for a broken brake light tried to overpower him and take his Taser.”
Attribution from Slager’s attorney for that statement doesn’t come until the end of the second paragraph.
Scott’s arrest record is also introduced into the story, despite it having no real relevance to the incident. According to the article, Scott “has been arrested about 10 times in his lifetime, mostly for failure to appear for court hearings and to pay child support. The only indicator of violence in his past came with his first arrest in 1987 on an assault and battery charge.”
So in this case, a nearly 30-year-old arrest with no mention of a conviction is being used to support the narrative that Scott was the aggressor and that Slager felt threatened by his behavior, thus justifying the shooting.
The information about Scott is followed by a sentence on Slager’s exemplary record in the Coast Guard. The fact that two complaints had been filed against him since joining the Charleston police department comes after his attorney said: “He has never been disciplined during his time on the force.”
Had the cellphone video shot by Feidin Santana not been given to the family, not only is it unlikely that Michael T. Slager would have been arrested, it is also unlikely that the media framing of the Scott’s shooting would have changed.
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.