Almost everybody, including local and some national media, is on pins and needles awaiting the verdict in a case involving the murder of two unarmed residents by a Cleveland police officer. But how did a Cleveland council member get quoted as promising to riot in his ward if the officer is acquitted? Blame it on the narrative that so often frames coverage of police brutality in poor minority neighborhoods.
“The norm that media sets for anything that could possibly be upsetting involving poor minorities, … says there’s going to be civil unrest,” said Jean Marie Brown, a former managing editor with Knight Ridder and McClatchy newspapers who now teaches reporting at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Cleveland is a city on edge as it awaits the verdict of police officer Michael Brelo. Brelo has been charged with voluntary manslaughter for shooting Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in 2012. Dozens of law enforcement officers chased the couple after their car backfired near police headquarters in downtown Cleveland. When the chase ended, 13 officers had shot the couple 137 times. But Brelo stood on the hood of the couple’s car and fired as police surrounded the pair.
With rumors of “outside agitators” arriving to stir things up if Brelo is acquitted – and visions of flames illuminating inner-city Baltimore – local leaders have been making plans to handle protests. Cleveland’s mayor Frank Jackson turned to Twitter, promoting unity and calm with the hashtag #OneCle; and council member Kevin Conwell has been attending meetings to organize local residents who will help moderate protests if the officer is not found guilty. One meeting drew reporter Brian Bull, who was filing a story for NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
A transcript of the raw tape provided by NPR relays the exchange between Bull and Conwell. In it Conwell states that he plans to “ride” the neighborhood for three days following the verdict.
But Bull heard the word “riot” as his follow-up questions clearly show.
Bull: “He’s acquited (cq) and you’re telling me that you’re prepared to riot?”
Conwell: “Oh, I have to ride. I have to ride. I have to show leadership. And I’ll be out there riding all the time. Seeing what’s going on. Riding the streets. …
Bull: “When you say rioting, I usually think of screaming, chaos, everything from vandalism to fires to arrests being made. Is this the kind of rioting you’re speaking of?”
Conwell: “If that happens. We want to do prevention. We don’t want it to happen at all. … People need resources and opportunities … We don’t want to have the rioting to happen in the city of Cleveland. We don’t need to have that happen at all.”
Bull: “So when I hear you say rioting, that’s controlled riots — an organized rally perhaps to express anger if he’s acquitted. Is that fair to say?”
Conwell: “That is fair to say, you’re right.”
Bull has worked in public media since at least 1999, according to his LinkedIn profile and is the current president of the Native American Public Telecommunications board of directors.
Once NPR learned of the mistake, the network quickly issued an apology and a new web transcript. They also corrected the segment by making Bull record another lead-in for Conwell’s remarks.
Even when the term “riots” does not make logical sense in the exchange, Bull still hears it. Why?
Mark Memmott, NPR’s editor for standards and practices, admitted he didn’t know how the error occurred. “I can’t explain in the end, why it happened other than just a complete misunderstanding,” he said.
Bull didn’t respond to a request for comment. Instead his employer, local NPR affiliate WCPN, issued a statement.
“In early versions of the story “Cleveland Braces For Verdict In 2012 Police Shooting” that ran on Monday morning, May 18th, during Morning Edition on 90.3 WCPN ideastream, it was reported that Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell said he would go out “rioting” if police officer Michael Brelo is acquitted in the shooting death of two black suspects,” wrote chief development officer Mary Grace Herrington. ” An error in the report resulted from a misunderstanding between what Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell said (“riding/ride”) and what the reporter/producer heard (“rioting/riot”). ”
But making such “misunderstandings” are dangerously easy if the media relies on narratives to predict the news. With all the talk of riots and unrest, local events are clearly framed as an explosion waiting for a match. Bull may not have intentionally bought into this narrative, but its power likely influenced him, thus allowing him to ultimately accept that Councilman Conwell was planning a three-day “riot,” even though that makes little common sense.
Other reporters repeated Bull’s mistake, few of them conducting their own independent reporting. Morning Edition anchor Steve Inskeep’s tweet about Conwell’s intent to riot went viral. Inskeep retracted the tweet – because it included a typo, not because it was wrong. Inskeep only learned of the error after a Cleveland City Council spokesman brought to his attention on Twitter.
Conwell is still shaking his head over the misquote. And he points a finger at reporters who didn’t bother to check the audio of the NPR story.
“You know what I found out with several reporters? When it was tweeted out (that I said I would) ‘riot’, they didn’t listen to the tape,” Conwell said. “It just took straight off.”
Frames must stand on events, not narratives
A story framed by six months of local protests and meetings would have made everyone question Bull’s hearing, NPR’s reporting, and their willingness to believe a council member would act so irresponsibly. Clevelanders have been marching and rallying over police involvement in three controversial deaths: Russell’s and Williams’ in 2012 as well as Tanisha Anderson’s and Tamir Rice‘s last November. While the protests have been disruptive, they have also been nonviolent.
Cleveland isn’t unusual. When police officer Matt Kenny shot an unarmed Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin, protests related to that incident were not violent. Citizens protesting the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police were also non-violent.
“If you look back over the past year, at the numerous shootings and verdicts, you’d have to argue that rioting and unrest is the aberrant behavior, not the normative behavior,” Brown said.
But too many in the media have decided that police shootings in black communities ultimately lead to unrest. And that’s why NPR accepted the unacceptable: That a local politician would help ignite destructive anger rather than working to diffuse it.