Media Coverage of Black Shooting Victims (Part I)

There is so much to say about media coverage of black shooting victims, particularly black victims of police shootings, that I hardly know where to start. I supposed the simplest place to begin is with an examination of the negative bias in the media’s depiction of black shooting victims. There is an outrageous double standard that is best illustrated by contrasting the media coverage of black shooting victims with its coverage of white shooting perpetrators (how’s that for an uneven scale??). When black shooting victims are portrayed, it is often using a “dangerous” looking photograph (mug shots seem ideal, when available), and any character assassination of the deceased that is available is included as relevant. The victim had marijuana in her system? He was behind in his child support? He was once convicted of a crime? Anything that might denigrate the black victim is treated as relevant to the media’s report about the shooting.

Remember the police shooting in Cincinnati, where Officer Ray Tensing fatally shot motorist Samuel Dubose in the head during a minor traffic stop. Well, check out the media pictures that were used for the news story when Tensing was indicted for murdering Dubose. Note the American flag behind a smiling, professionally dressed (shooter) Officer Tensing. Compare that to the mug shot photo used to depict (victim) Dubose. You’d never guess from the photo choices who was the victim and who was the one charged with murder, right?:

When Michael Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson police officer, there seemed to be a conscious media choice about how to depict Brown. Although some initial media coverage pictured him in his graduation cap and gown, much of the coverage then switched to a shot of him in a red jersey with his hands flashing what could be perceived as a gang sign. The implication was to portray Brown as a “thug” instead of a police shooting victim:


In fact, in response to the media choices around the Michael Brown photographs, a Twitter campaign launched using the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown to pose the question if they gunned you down, what photo would the media use in reporting your death? There was a huge response of contrasting pictures (like the ones below) to drive the point home that with black victims, the media often chooses an unflattering photograph that implicitly blames the victim, by making him appear “dangerous”:


To really see how sharp the double standard is though, you need to compare the treatment of black shooting victims to the treatment of white shooting suspects (like Officer Tensing, pictured above with his American flag). Here’s a shot of the Colorado theater shooter James Holmes who killed 12 people and wounded nearly sixty, used by CBS when reporting Holmes’ arrest:


The AP News story about the theater shooting began by describing Holmes (the shooter), “Tall and dark-haired, he stared clear-eyed at the camera in a 2004 high school yearbook snapshot, wearing a white junior varsity soccer uniform — No. 16. The son of a nurse, Arlene, and a software company manager, Robert, James Holmes was a brilliant science scholar in college.” When black people are killed, the media looks for a way to make the shooting appear justified; when white people do the killing, the media looks for a way to excuse or explain it.

The media coverage around Renisha McBride illustrates this as well. McBride was the unarmed black teenager who was shot in the back of the head and killed on the front porch of a Detroit home, as she was leaving after knocking on the door in an effort to seek help following a car accident. The AP twitter feed about the shooter’s conviction used its 140 characters to blame the victim, while also pointing out that the shooter was responsible enough to be a homeowner: Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch.”

The Huffington Post does an excellent job of juxtaposing headlines about black shooting victims and white shooting suspects. It’s worth the click — it’s pretty stunning to see side-by-side the way the black victims are maligned and the white shooters are praised for their outstanding academics or fine character or creative thinking. There’s a lot more to say on this subject of media coverage of black shooting victims. Enjoy Part II, which looks at the thugifying of black people by the news media.

In closing, this is how one Twitter user improved the reporting of Ray Tensing’s shooting of Samuel Dubose:



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