By Bob Butler
The second half of 2014 has been marked by the shooting deaths of four African-American males by local law enforcement — Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York, John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio — that have attracted the attention of national media and the federal government, and shined a light on the issue of policing in minority communities.
It has also been marked by some exceptional journalism on the subject, as well as some alarming narratives from journalistic choices that, while not necessarily intentional, serve to perpetuate stereotypes of Black men as dangerous criminals.
Race is present in the dynamics around these stories and those who are involved in producing these stories. Put another way: while a diverse group of journalists has been on the ground reporting this story, the same cannot be said about who makes decisions about what will be covered and how.
Some of the coverage goes into great detail about how the victims’ actions may have contributed to their own demise: John Crawford should not have tried to buy a toy rifle at Walmart, Mike Brown should not have (allegedly) stolen cigars from a convenience store, Eric Garner should not have (allegedly) been selling loose cigarettes and Tamir Rice should not have been playing with a toy gun.
These cases are not the first, nor will they be the last, involving Black males and the police. It must be pointed out that Black males are not the only ones being shot. Dillon Taylor in Utah and Gil Collar in Alabama were White and also unarmed when police shot them. The difference is the media coverage of their cases does not imply that they deserved to die.
From the breaking news coverage of these events to the analysis that followed, and will hopefully continue, it is important to recognize the negative patterns that can emerge in such stories, and to discuss strategies for countering these patterns.
Two questions can help guide this process: Is this information relevant? And how will this affect the story?
A big part of how narrative is shaped in these stories starts with the photos of those involved. While availability of photos can be a challenge, especially in the early stages of a fast-moving story, efforts must be made to paint the fullest picture (pun intended) of the central figures. Images depicting black men solely as menacing, threatening or dangerous only fuel existing stereotypes.
Weighing whether to include details about a black victim’s criminal background or drug use also contributes to the narrative. Here, balance is important. Is there an attempt to report the officer’s history? Does the officer have a disciplinary history or a record of complaints regarding use of force? Is the victim’s background relevant to the specific incident that ended his life? If so, explain this to readers, lest it be interpreted as gratuitous or malicious.
In the case of Tamir Rice, why did the Northwest Ohio Media Group report on his parents’ criminal records? What did that have to do with Rice being shot by police?
Stories like Ferguson and the deaths of Crawford, Garner and Rice reaffirm the urgency of more diverse American newsrooms. Look no further than the membership of the National Association of Black Journalists to find many examples of responsible reporting.
NABJ was founded in 1975 in part, “to monitor and sensitize all media to racism.” Nearly 40 years later, NABJ still finds it necessarily to fulfill this role. It is our hope that those committed to a better approach to exploring issues of race and society will join us in examining how we can all improve.
Bob Butler is the President of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). NABJ is the largest organization for journalists of color in the nation, and provides career development as well as educational and other support to its members worldwide. For additional information, please visit, http://www.nabj.org