Reporters have often blindly parroted law enforcement’s version of events, marginalized communities of color, focused on violence rather than protesters’ demands, and used irresponsible language when covering police brutality.
This is part two of a series examining how the media has shaped Americans’ perceptions of police. Read part one here.
On May 25, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he suffocated him to death. In the weeks that followed, thousands of overwhelmingly peaceful protests erupted in all 50 states as Americans joined together to demand justice and to declare that Black Lives Matter. In many cases, those protesters were met with the very thing they were protesting: police brutality.
But if all you learned about the protests came from the headlines of some of the nation’s largest newspapers or the chyrons and talking heads of the most-watched cable news programs, you might have felt differently about what was happening across the country.
“A night of fire and fury across America as protests intensify,” blared a headline in the Washington Post. “Appeals for calm as sprawling protests threaten to spiral out of control,” proclaimed the New York Times. “Buildings Matter, Too,” declared a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
MSNBC’s Brian Williams lamented the vandalism of high-end retail stores at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, California, while news stations across the country celebrated and praised police officers for kneeling with protesters who, in some cases, they later tear–gassed and brutalized.
Rather than accurately placing the blame on police officers, WUSA, the Washington D.C. CBS affiliate, published a tweet indicating that pepper spray had developed agency and “caused a short stampede in Lafayette Park during a peaceful march honoring George Floyd.” (WUSA later removed the post.)
The words “riots,” “chaos,” and “looters” graced one television news chyron after another, while Fox News’ coverage was filled with so many egregious lies and misrepresentations that it earned its own story.
Americans who attended the protests or followed them online quickly discovered that these media accounts didn’t accurately represent what was happening on the ground, in their communities.
These people had watched as police officers in New York City rammed into a crowd of protesters with a car. They looked on in horror as cops in Atlanta violently pulled college students out of a car and tazed them. They saw Los Angeles Police Department officers beat protesters with batons. They observed Philadelphia cops tear gas helpless protesters in an incident the Philadelphia Police Department later incorrectly represented. They bore witness as Buffalo police officers shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground—in an incident the Buffalo Police Department lied about—causing him to fracture his skill and lose the ability to walk.
In part one of this series, we reported on the outsized role Hollywood has played in glorifying law enforcement officials. But there’s another hugely influential entity that has played a key role in America’s understanding of police: the news media.
For decades, many Americans largely accepted the official police accounts and media stories about crimes without a second thought and held overwhelmingly positive views of law enforcement. Many people in the United States didn’t see racism and discrimination in law enforcement as a systemic problem. But in the days and weeks that followed Floyd’s death, as millions were glued to their television screens, computers, and phones, watching videos and following news about the protests, the pattern of police violence became undeniable, and so did the media’s role in downplaying or obscuring it.
“They’re Usually Taking Their Sources at Face Value”
One of the most common ways in which the media misrepresents how events unfold is by relying on police reports and sources as the leading arbiter of truth in any given incident. This whitewashing—in which the media downplays the aggressiveness of many police officers and exaggerates the violence of protesters—dates back decades, according to media experts.
“When police officers are covered in journalism, a lot of times it is a pretty static good cop, good samaritan portrayal,” said Danielle Kilgo, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Kilgo, who has researched the media’s depiction of law enforcement, said there’s “very little accountability for police officers” in journalism. “They’re considered official sources, so a lot of times, especially in breaking news, they’re considered the reliable place to go when there’s some sort of conflict or crime or issue that involves police entities. Their records and their statements are taken as an official source,” she told COURIER.
This dynamic is particularly true in local television news, which disproportionately focuses on violent crime and frames stories from a police perspective. Stephanie Nichol Whitehead, a criminal justice professor at Indiana University East, said that reporters don’t want to lose the trust of sources, and so will often regurgitate police officers’ talking points without a healthy dose of skepticism.
“The news sources are definitely going to just go with whatever the police are saying without any critical take,” she said. “Most local news isn’t critical to begin with, they’re usually taking their sources at face value, so of course when it’s coming from the police, I guess the thought is ‘Why would you question it?’”
This results in what is essentially misinformation that marginalizes worthy voices and issues, Whitehead said. Rather than frame stories from the perspective of protesters and Black communities, or provide important historical context about how they’ve been over-policed, the news media has instead historically emphasized disorder and violence.
This dynamic once again played out during the George Floyd protests, according to Kilgo. “I do see a lot of what we’ve seen before, this sort of demonization and denigration of protesters and what they’re out there for, and to some degree, protection of police.”
“There’s a huge emphasis [in media] on riots and confrontation and arrests and violence of the protesters, and there’s a lot less coverage of the protesters and their demands, and the reason why they’re there, beyond the fact that they’re connected with George Floyd,” she added. “We know that this is about much more than just one man’s death; it’s connected to a system of racism that has affected communities for centuries. That part is not discussed as much in coverage, and that’s how it’s always been.”
The George Floyd Uprisings: A Case Study in What the Media Gets Wrong
Pamela Oliver, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, said the coverage of the George Floyd protests followed a typical trajectory: It started out sympathetic to protesters, but quickly became more focused on the disorder and the disruption than on the protesters’ demands and historical examples of systemic racism.
“Then the narrative turns anti-protester,” she said. “It’s initially, oh it’s a terrible event, the police were awful. Then after there’s a riot, the general white public is saying ‘Oh why did they tear up their own neighborhoods? They’re bad.’”
Kilgo also critiqued the use of the term “riot,” which the media has used repeatedly throughout the years to paint complicated situations with broad strokes.
“We see this all the time in protests when there are officials that are calling them calls to violence, or when they talk about the 1960s protests as the 1960s riots, when they talk about the LA protest of [the beating of] Rodney King as the LA riots. They’re conforming to this idea of riots, that these protests … are all sort of lumped into this one word,” Kilgo said.
“The word riot is associated with these particular kinds of protests in a way that it’s not with other protests, and that riot part of the protests really indicts the protesters. It does not indict the police [and their violent response to protesters] on a regular basis.”
By using the term “riot” and focusing on protester behavior, the media has failed to examine police behavior in the same way, Kilgo added. “Because of that, they are afforded that invisibility that we see today.”
Many media outlets also regurgitated law enforcement officials’ unvetted claims of outside agitators stirring unrest during recent protests, even though it’s a centuries-old trope used to delegitimize protest movements. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Heather Ann Thompson noted in an interview with Vox, the media’s parroting of such claims was extremely similar to the coverage of the unrest of 1968.
“The media rhetoric just sounds so familiar,” Thompson said. “The distinctions that people are continually trying to draw between the ‘real’ protesters and violent provocateurs. The repeated rhetoric about outside agitators versus legitimate protesters. A lot of that media rhetoric is the same.”
This framework for coverage serves to maintain the status quo, according to a 2007 study from scholar Douglas McLeod. He found that media narratives emphasized the drama and disruption of protests rather than the demands, grievances, and agendas of protesters, which ultimately trivialized the protests and had a negative impact on public support.
Kilgo came to similar conclusions in a 2019 study she co-authored with Summer Harlow, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Houston. Together, they analyzed the coverage of 16 newspapers and found that in anti-Black racism protests, 43% of coverage used a “riot frame,” emphasizing that protesters were causing an inconvenience, setting things on fire or destroying property. In contrast, only 22% of coverage employed the “debate frame,” which includes the grievances, demands, and agendas of protesters.
Kilgo and Harlow concluded that “structural and organizational biases built into the norms and routines of traditional journalism have contributed to consistently detected press patterns that marginalize and delegitimize social movements.”
While they were not shy about pointing out the media’s failings, both Kilgo and Whitehead also acknowledged that the tenor of coverage was at least moderately different this time around, as the news media seems to have finally begun to interrogate the role of police in accelerating violence. They attributed this in part to the dramatic increase in videos being shared on social media platforms as well as the rise of digitally native media organizations, such as Unicorn Riot, which have reported the unvarnished truth and pushed back against the traditional media framing of protests.
Another factor, Kilgo said, was that journalists repeatedly found themselves under attack from police officers, which seemed to lead the coverage to tilt away from blindly accepting the official law enforcement narrative. “Journalists are getting injured, which is forcing journalists to pay more attention to police officers than they have in the past,” Kilgo said.
Similarly to the ways in which Hollywood is being called on to make deeper, more institutional changes to the ways it has harmed communities of color, the news industry is being forced to reflect on its own coverage of protests and movements and identify its blindspots.
Over the past month, many of the nation’s leading newsrooms—including the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times—have come under fire for their lack of diversity and its impact on their reporting and newsroom culture. Controversies surrounding coverage of the protests and the government’s response even forced the resignations of leading editors at the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer.
The issue of diversity in reporting is a legitimate one. Much like Hollywood, newsrooms have long struggled to hire reporters of color. In 2017, the proportion of white journalists at the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle was more than double the proportion of white people in each city. In recent weeks, various media companies and newspapers across the country have acknowledged their shortcomings and promised to prioritize more diverse hiring practices.
Despite the progress in how the media covers protests and movements, both Kilgo and Whitehead noted that there was still a long way to go. “For the most part, if we look at the standard mainstream reporting, it looks like a lot of the same,” Kilgo said.
“I think it’s still geared more towards covering the police in a favorable light,” Whitehead added. For that to change, she said, the media needs to provide more historical context for its audience and give protesters more of a voice.
“The history of policing and race is something that I’d like to see more discussion about in the media. There’s this presentation almost like these are isolated incidents without any historical context of just how long racial violence has been a problem with policing,” Whitehead said. She wants more acknowledgment that the reason people are taking to the street isn’t new, but rather a reflection of a “consistent, systemic problem.” She also wants the media to rethink its “absolute glorification of violence by the police,” calling it “hugely problematic.”
Until the media truly takes stock of its role in whitewashing police brutality and makes wholesale reforms to how it covers law enforcement, Americans will have no other choice but to continue bearing witness online, where new videos of police terrorizing civilians and protesters pour in seemingly by the hour.