By JOSEPH TORRES
Editor’s note: AllDigitocracy is highlighting police beat reporting in light of the multiple stories in the news of late regarding the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police and the way news organizations have covered these stories. This is a continuation of that series.
“If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American. By failing to portray the Negro as a matter of routine and in the context of the total society, the news media have, we believe, contributed to the black-white schism in this country.”
—1968 report from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission)
When it comes to race, there are so many lessons our nation has either failed to remember or willfully ignored.
Nearly 50 years ago, riots shook up our country as cities like Newark and Detroit burned following confrontations between the police and local black residents.
To understand the roots of the unrest, President Lyndon Johnson created the Kerner Commission to study what happened, why it happened, and what could be done to prevent this kind of conflict from surfacing again.
And in its 1968 report, the commission found that discrimination and segregation “had long permeated much of American life,” threatening “the future of every American.” It also found the media contributed to the turmoil by neglecting to cover the “causes and consequences of civil disorders and the underlying problems of race relations.”
Now, nearly half a century later, it’s easy to question how much has really changed. Over the past year, police brutality has drawn national media coverage following the killings of unarmed Black men, women and children. And the subsequent protests have also grabbed the press’ attention.
But activists of color are troubled that so much of the reporting has framed protesters as criminals and has failed to address the larger issues of systemic racism, such as the over-policing of communities of color.
Media coverage of the killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore — who died in April after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody — is but another recent example. After a day of rioting in Baltimore following Gray’s funeral, many journalists called protesters “thugs.”
As Rashad Robinson of ColorofChange.org wrote in May: “The news media has done nothing but smear and condemn protesters, rather than ask important questions about the systemic conditions that created this conflict.”
However, a new generation of racial justice leaders — from Black Lives Matter organizers to immigration-rights activists — is using the Internet and social media to challenge traditional media’s stereotypical coverage of their communities. At the same time, they’re urging the media to pay greater attention to black women, Latinos and Native Americans, who have also been victims of police brutality but whose stories often go untold.
And perhaps unexpectedly they have played a key role in policy debates over the future of the open Internet, safeguarding the structures that will be critical in any effort to challenge and change the media narrative on race — so we’re not repeating the same stories 50 years from now in the ongoing fight for racial justice
The Police and the Press: An Old Story
The fight for a just and equitable media system is essential to any struggle for racial justice. It’s much harder for injustice to prevail without the support and participation of a popular press.
This is why the publishers of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper in our country, wrote in its inaugural issue in 1827: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. … From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented.”
Throughout history, people of color have struggled to make their voices heard as many mainstream media companies — if not most — have either supported or failed to challenge slavery, Jim Crow laws, the removal of Native Americans from their land, lynching, the internment of Japanese citizens and residents, the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, the targeted surveillance of Muslim Americans, and many more injustices or racist policies.
Over the past decade, a few newspapers have apologized for their role in supporting the killing of black people or for failing to cover the civil rights movement. Among those outlets is The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., which played a leading role in the 1898 riots in Wilmington that killed, according to some estimates, dozens of black residents.
More media companies should consider making amends. But instead of learning from past mistakes, the media continue to “get everything wrong that it seems to always to always get wrong and make the same fundamental mistakes,” says Dr. Jared Ball, an associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication in Baltimore.
And when it comes to coverage of racial unrest, says Tracie Powell, a writer and founder of AllDigitocracy.org, one of those fundamental mistakes is allowing the police to control the narrative.
But the press has long relied on law enforcement when covering stories about riots or unrest. Just consider this passage from the Kerner Commission report and compare it to what’s happening in places like Baltimore today:
Many people in the ghettos apparently believe that newsmen rely on the police for most of their information about what is happening during a disorder and tend to report much more of what the officials are doing and saying than what Negro citizens or leaders in the city are doing and saying. Editors and reporters at the Poughkeepsie [media] conference [hosted by the commission] acknowledged that the police and city officials are their main — and sometimes their only — source of information. It was also noted that most reporters who cover civil disturbances tend to arrive with the police and stay close to them — often for safety and often because they learn where the action is at the same time as the authorities — and thus buttress the ghetto impression that police and press work together and toward the same ends (an impression that may come as a surprise to many within the ranks of police and press).
Nearly 50 years later, activists and journalists remain at odds over coverage of racial unrest.
STELTER: I wonder, are you saying the press should automatically assume the worst about the officers, about the authorities?
MCKESSON: I’m saying that there should be balance in the way that the critique is spread. And there isn’t. So, when I see news articles or when I see broadcasts that present the police narrative as true, so when they say things like …
STELTER: But it is oftentimes true, the police narrative.
MCKESSON: Is it true? I don’t know if it was true with Mike Brown. I don’t know if it was true with Rekia Boyd. Or I — maybe we differ on what true means.
STELTER: But aren’t you talking about anecdotes, as opposed to the statistics? Are you saying the majority of statements by police officers in the U.S. are not true, public statements, press releases, et cetera?
MCKESSON: What I’m saying is that the police are killing people and that they’re saying that it’s justified in every case, in a way that it just isn’t.
The interview captures the division that remains between how communities of color and a White-dominant press view coverage of race.
Controlling the Narrative
Powell is also critical of journalists who allow the police to control the story by accepting anonymous sources instead of demanding on-the-record interviews. “This goes against what journalism is all about,” Powell says. “We are falling down on the job.”
Powell cites CNN’s Don Lemon as a prime example. In April, Lemon interviewed a family member of one of the six officers involved in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. During the interview, CNN allowed the relative to tell the story from the perspective of the police without revealing her name and while obscuring her face. Lemon did little to challenge the narrative she presented.
Powell also points to South Carolina’s Post and Courier for its coverage of the shooting death of Walter Scott — a 50-year-old unarmed Black man — by a white police officer in North Charleston, S.C. An initial story reported that Scott was shot while attempting to grab a taser from the officer during a confrontation. The paper included Scott’s arrest history — made up mostly of failures to pay child support and failure to appear at court hearings.
Including this information contributes to the narrative that the officer was justified in fearing for his safety. The message from much of the coverage, Powell says, was that “these communities are bad and are filled with dangerous people who cause their own death.”
As the world now knows, a video that local resident Feidin Santana recorded on his cellphone showed that Scott was actually shot in his back while running away from the officer, who has since been arrested and charged with murder.
Likewise, Ball is troubled that the media failed to challenge the origins of an online rumor that led to a confrontation between the police and students in Baltimore on April 27 — the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral.
According to press reports, the police responded to an online flyer that called for students to meet at the Mondawmin Mall in Northwest Baltimore at 3 p.m. to take part in a “purge,” a reference to a movie in which all crime is made legal for one night. The police arrived in riot gear and closed down the nearby bus and train stations, which prevented area students from getting home.
The police have long harassed many students in that neighborhood, Ball notes, so law enforcement’s aggressive response turned a tense situation into a full confrontation, which ended in a day of looting and rioting.
The media changed the narrative, Ball says, without questioning the legitimacy of the online flyer or challenging the police response. “A social media scare produced a riotous spectacle and framed the remaining protest fraudulently,” he says.
Journalist Adam Johnson, who contributes to AlterNet and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, attempted to uncover the origins of the purge flyer that the Baltimore Sun reported on during the afternoon of April 27. He reached out through Twitter to the Sun journalists who reported on the flyer. He asked them to provide information on who was responsible for circulating it, but they offered only a vague response. Instead, another Sun reporter, who posted the flyer online, responded to Johnson on Twitter and said she first learned of the purge flyer from a Facebook friend.
Johnson searched online to find out who was responsible for calling for a purge. Instead, he found examples only of people sharing the flyer on social media who were either indifferent to the rumor or condemned it. But none of this stopped the media from reporting on the flyer based on second- or third-hand hearsay, Johnson says.
“The problem with social media is that the reporters [feel] they don’t have to cite evidence,” he says. “So the purge rumor just is. It’s a thing because everyone online says it’s a thing, but without citing the original post — either screen-capped or linked — along with the context with which it was presented, the reader is left thinking everyone sharing it is doing so in support. The way the original Sun reports were written, this was the distinct impression the reader was given.”
Reporting on the purge flyer in this manner heightened the climate of fear, which in turn allowed the police to take advantage of the situation by cracking down on protesters. “Every single time that a trope is uncritically repeated by the media, by largely white media, I really personally believe it is heavily informed by racism because it confirms to a bias, ” Johnson says.
And as Zoe Carpenter reported in The Nation in April, the Baltimore Police Department used its Twitter account to spread “many pieces of information … that seemed to cross the line between public-safety information and propaganda” which the media then echoed. This included, Carpenter noted, a warning about “credible information” that black gang members were planning to harm a police officer. But instead, gang members told reporters they had agreed to a truce to protest police brutality.
Meanwhile, Vice News reported on June 24 that in documents it obtained from the Department of Homeland Security through a Freedom of Information Act request included a comment made by an employee in an email chain who said the “FBI Baltimore has interviewed the source of this information [about gangs targeting police] and has determined this threat to be non-credible.”
Part Two of “Willful Blindness” will be published tomorrow.
Joseph Torres writes frequently on media and Internet issues and is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Joseph also serves on the board of directors of the Center for Media Justice and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. Before joining Free Press, he worked as deputy director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and was a journalist for several years. He earned a degree in communications from the College of Staten Island. Follow him on Twitter @JosephATorres.