Covering the Ambiguity of Police Violence

A police officer gives some sort of instruction to someone who was not a criminal suspect. Maybe he was telling someone to move out of the way or get on the ground. Accounts differ about what happens next. However, everyone acknowledges that the encounter ended when a police officer used physical force. The other person in the incident is either seriously wounded or killed by police.

The shooting of Michael Brown shows how difficult these incidents are for journalists to cover. Witnesses say that Brown had raised his hands over his head to show he was not holding a weapon before he was shot and killed by a police officer in in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. A day later, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that Brown “physically assaulted the police officer.” Since journalists weren’t there, they have to try and assess the credibility of each source. Even if an objective journalist is going to cover both sides, she has to decide which position will be presented first, knowing that this will favor one side or the other. Most journalists started with the one aspect of the incident that is not under debate: Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot to death by a police officer.

Numerous studies have shown that crime coverage is biased against blacks at nearly every stage of a criminal case, so it may seem unusual that Brown would get sympathetic headlines. (See link at the end for teaching tools on racial bias.) However, communication scholar Regina Lawrence argues that the use of force often disrupts the normally cozy relationships between metro news reporters and their police informants. Most news events are planned in advance, which helps the event planner control the story. Breaking crime news is not planned in advance, but police departments keep careful control over what information is shared with the news media. Maintaining control is easy, because criminal suspects do not want to tell journalists their side of the story before availing themselves of the legal system.

Officer-involved violence is different, because police departments trying to portray the use of force as “justified” may have to compete with a wide range of community leaders and activists challenging the police’s use of force as “brutality.” Inner city residents, particularly black and Hispanic residents, may have to live in fear of police violence on a daily basis. After cases of police violence, journalists may become more interested in the experiences of the disenfranchised as a way to represent “both sides” of the issue. Protests like the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter can get widespread attention as a specific protest to the Ferguson shooting, even if they would otherwise be ignored. (More abstractly, journalists deciding an event is newsworthy may create opportunities for additional sources to get in the news, as I found in the case of presidential press conferences.)

It may be natural to look at the proliferation of specialized online media sites and social media and conclude that the balance of power has shifted even more toward activists protesting against police brutality since Lawrence published her book in 2000. However, it is important to remember that the Internet is just a tool. It is up to people to use the Internet to publicize incidents, just as people need to actively solicit attention from traditional media organizations. If we look back to the Trayvon Martin case, it took over a week for that case to get any national media attention. Martin’s family hired civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump to help publicize the case – and explain the civil rights issues to a national audience – as he pursued a civil case against George Zimmerman. (Crump was retained by the Brown family on Sunday night.)

The biggest difference in media between the Michael Brown shooting, the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the various cases Lawrence describes is the presence of several witnesses who argued the shooting was not justified a day before any police agency offered an official justification. Witnesses immediately defined the incident as the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Unlike most incidents, the police had to respond to a dominant narrative told by members of the community. In the last 24 hours, the police response appears to have created enough doubt that CNN posted a story with the headline “What we know about Michael Brown’s shooting” that began with a focus on what reporters do not know:

It’s a case of he said, he said. The accounts of why a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, this weekend couldn’t be more disparate.

One side says the teenager was surrendering, his hands in the air to show he was unarmed, when the officer opened fire. Authorities counter that Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to take his gun.

The trajectory of media coverage regarding this police shooting may be the opposite of other police shootings, where the official statements from police come first and then get called in to question. In this case, it appears to be the accounts of local witnesses and other residents of Ferguson who started the narrative and are now being called in to question. Coverage of community protests has focused on violence, disruption and looting (by people who may not be connected to the protests) instead of the message of the protesters. This is fairly typical of protest coverage.

It will be interesting to see whether this case stays at the forefront of the public consciousness, given the wide range of international crises and yesterday’s shocking death of Robin Williams attracting a large share of audience attention. Activists will need to push nationally, not just locally, to keep this civil rights case in the public eye. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown may be a powerful way to make the case for civil rights and equal treatment, because it also holds journalists accountable for pervasive biases in the images they choose to represent racial minorities who get caught up in the American criminal justice system.

* In my teaching, I found students got a lot out of Travis Dixon’s book chapter “Teaching you to love fear: Television news and racial stereotypes in a punishing democracy. In S. J. Hartnett (Ed.), Challenging the prison Industrial complex: Activism, arts & educational alternatives (pp. 106-123). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.” Dixon summarizes many studies on racial bias in reporting on the news, similar to a review article, but targeted more directly for an undergraduate audience.

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About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

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