On the final Monday night of May, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.
The county coroners initially suggested Floyd was killed by the “combined effects of Mr Floyd’s being restrained by police, underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system.” In other words, Floyd’s death was deferred to his medical conditions, not by the 8 minutes and 46 seconds an officer restrained Floyd’s neck with his knee, and apparently not by the almost final three minutes the officer knelt on his neck after another officer found Floyd to have no pulse. Floyd’s death was filmed and shared online.
Hands clenched, eyes palmed between our finger-tips, we could see what happened.
For reporters, this was the first hint.
The elected president of the police union in Minneapolis said “Let us not rush to judgement,” and in the days following, suggested Floyd was a “violent criminal.”
This was the second hint.
By Friday morning, the day had been a year. I awoke at 6 AM to find a Black and Latinx journalist had been arrested on live television for doing his job.
State police suggested that the reporter, CNN anchor Omar Jimenez, did not identify himself. He did. It was on live television. His white colleague, also questioned by police, was not arrested.
This was, at least, the third hint.
When journalists around the country covered The Story, at least two divergent and dichotomous storylines emerged.
The front page of the New York Times on Tuesday morning read:
AS CHAOS SPREADS, TRUMP VOWS TO ‘END IT NOW.
PEACEFUL PROTESTERS TEAR-GASSED TO CLEAR WAY FOR TRUMP CHURCH PHOTO-OP.
“There’s not a single ‘real story.’ Last night in DC the story was largely the vandalism and looting,” Politico’s Ryan Lizza said on Twitter on Monday night. “Tonight in DC the story was clearly the police attack on peaceful protesters so Trump could have a photo op. This is not as clear cut as some partisans crave.”
An officer “knelt” on Floyd’s neck, and so, he died; or an officer killed Floyd with excessive force. Rioters and looters, damaging property, committed acts of “violence;” or police around the country, largely validating the point of the protests, shot, pepper-sprayed, and beat largely peaceful protestors, journalists, and bystanders.
Lizza, and a number of other journalists, have not taken any of the hints. And he is, without realizing it, making something clear: journalists decide what the story “largely is.” Who is writing the story, and who is editing the story, determines its frame. It is an editorial decision. A choice. And one based on the personal experiences of reporters, as well as their understanding of history. American journalism, a field mostly staffed by white reporters, for years has refused to collectively decide what truth to tell: the one journalists believe they see with their eyes or the one they hear from the Black people that they cover. It is far more comfortable for many journalists to simply look and not ask, to write what police officers of authority tell them and not question what outcome that leads to when reporting it out. To publish mug shots without considering the repercussions. To trust those with the legal power to enact violence, rather than those without.
The Story is not the inconvenience of property damage or the pain of rebuilding, but a power imbalance that stretches back to the founding of the United States. Something that Black journalists and activists have tried to shine a light on for centuries.
As reporters were attacked by police on camera during the protests, some reporters quickly emphasized the erosion of democracy. But often, they failed to note that Black reporters have often been unduly targeted by police well before last week, or that what is happening in public happens to the very citizens who we want to trust our coverage — the people we are supposed to inform on a daily basis. In a tepid open letter to law enforcement, some of the nation’s most prominent journalism groups suggested this week that police have their “utmost respect” and asked police to stop firing at, tear gassing, and pepper spraying journalists. Nowhere in the letter was the word Black or any mention of the police violence Black communities face both on a daily basis and during these protests.
Of course there must also be room in the news to cover the destruction of small businesses, which journalists have covered extensively. Many small businesses were destroyed were owned by Black descendants of slaves and Black immigrants, in a country where the wealth gap between Black and white Americans is staggering. But the magnitude of difference between a system that takes away Black lives and the loss of a physical building should be evident. Safia Munye, who owned Mama Safia’s Kitchen in Minneapolis, said as much to NPR: “I know I can’t come back from this. But this can be replaced. George’s life cannot.” And yet, still, many major news organizations used their platform to write about the “violent” protests occurring in cities, while omitting any mention of violence or killing in Floyd’s death, writing about his killing in the passive voice. One Associated Press headline initially read:
MINNEAPOLIS COP WHO KNELT ON GEORGE FLOYD’S NECK ARRESTED.
Some journalists took the time to emphasize that it was their right to take photos of protestors, without permission and without blurring faces, when Black activists have said (for years) that they have been targeted with violence after appearing in such photos. Reporters are within their right to take these pictures, and with live video, this is sometimes unavoidable. But taking photos of protestors’ faces without permission is not virtuous. And publishing them is not a neutral activity: not only does it help contribute to police databases, but it adds to fears of retribution. A number of men visibly involved in the Ferguson protests have since died.
Northwestern’s student newspaper attempted to listen to their community last year by, in-part, removing photos of protestors from one of their stories. the student paper was pilloried by a cast of popular reporters and pundits for their response, which was followed by The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative DC outlet, sending a reporter to harass Troy Closson, the paper’s Black Editor-in-Chief.
“What we want to show marginalized students more than anything is the Daily is really listening to you,” Closson wrote after the backlash. Reporters that criticized the student paper typically did not note that he was one of the few Black journalists to ever lead the Daily Northwestern, nor did they note that the Northwestern students, some of them undocumented, can be disciplined or expelled by administrators for appearing in protests. They infantilized the student reporters, many of them journalists of color, and framed the paper’s choices as a rash mistake, rather than a thoughtful attempt at addressing the deep divisions between journalism and community in locations around the country.
On a national level, there has been little change. While some coverage of Floyd’s death has tried to do justice to the anger and protests that have followed, the patchwork framework and lack of focus from major American media outlets soil those stories. When one of us fails, it is another indictment of the industry that is widely not trusted in communities of color, after failing to report on them impartially for generations.
None of this criticism is new. When it comes to the way violence against Black people is portrayed in the media. Black activists and journalists have literally been saying the same thing for hundreds of years.
Ida B. Wells, the Black journalist who famously suggested Black people in the South should have a Winchester rifle “in every home” to defend against lynch mobs, wrote in 1892:
“It is a contribution to truth, an array of facts, the perusal of which it is hoped will stimulate this great American Republic to demand that justice be done though the heavens fall. It is with no pleasure I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”
Wells’ reporting, based on meticulous research, worked to debunk the notion that Black men were being lynched en masse for committing actual crimes, a notion that isn’t a far cry from the violence we see inflicted today. But at the time, Wells was treated by many contemporary white journalists as unserious.
The Sacramento Daily Record-Union said Wells’ was “handicapping herself, cutting off the possibility of good her mission might accomplish.” They wrote Wells’ suggestion that many accusations against Black men in the South are false, and her journalism as a whole, “is laboring in the right direction, but her method appears to be inflammatory, and is therefore weak.”
Simeon Booker, the first Black reporter at the Washington Post, hired in 1952, sat alone in the newsroom cafeteria. His colleagues shunned him. While he left the Post after two years, Booker continued his work, covering much of what his colleagues refused to cover or acknowledge. After Emmet Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was lynched while on summer vacation in Mississippi, Booker became close with his mother, showing America in the pages of Jet Magazine exactly how correct Wells was about the lies placed on the feet of Black men and boys. “I just couldn’t believe that a race of people could be just set aside, told you couldn’t work here, couldn’t live there, couldn’t eat there,” he told NPR in 2007. “It just was so hard on me. I just revolted.”
It is not hard to see how the same logic is used, even now, against Black journalists. How the stories we pitch are framed as going too far, or, are sometimes denied to be stories at all. Wesley Lowery, a Black journalist and former National Correspondent at the Washington Post, had his job threatened after describing the Tea Party movement as rooted in racism. Countless other Black journalists, including myself (not in my current position), have been asked to delete a tweet decrying racism or Face Implied Consequences, often with a simple email: “Subject: About Your Tweet.” Black reporters can offer context, editors seem to be saying, but only if it fits neatly into their worldview.
While racial and economic diversity are not the end-all-be-all to solving journalism’s failure to report accurately on Black communities and communities of color around the country, they are certainly the starting point. You cannot have a full-throated conversation about equity in news coverage without newsrooms seeking out that equity in themselves.
But forty years of newsroom surveys tell us things have not significantly improved. The last annual survey from The American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Media Editors (ASNE), conducted in 2019, found that major newsrooms fail to reach parity with the U.S. Census, let alone match the demographics of their own city.
“The data in this year’s visualizations present a stark and sad reality,” wrote Meredith Clark, the lead researcher and an assistant professor at the University of Virginia. “For all of the efforts to diversify the country’s newsrooms, the power of leadership largely remains the domain of white men.”
2020 will be worse, considering there will no longer be a survey. In March, ASNE cancelled their annual survey of newsroom diversity. After an abysmal response rate last year and problems within the organization, the 40-year-long survey was axed, leaving newsrooms to have no context for how other newsrooms are doing unless they publish the data themselves.
In recent years, leaders of several major news organizations have lamented about the lack of racial and economic diversity in newsrooms, but have not radically shifted their hiring or retention practices. Reporting conducted by student journalists via the Asian American Journalists’ Association found many of America’s top newsrooms currently recruit two-thirds of their intern class from the most selective U.S. colleges. Many news organizations have no substantial internship program that leads to an actual full-time job. And very rarely, for an industry that does not often pay well, is there parity in pay: the Washington Post Union’s pay study, which found that employees of color are paid less than white men, is a clear-cut example of that.
There is also the question of trauma: Why do many white journalists and editors at major news organizations continue to fail to cover protests like this with an eye on speaking truth to power? Why is it acceptable that the burden remain on Black journalists, who are exhausted, in covering these issues with care and respect for Black communities around the U.S.? Yamiche Alcindor, a Black correspondent at PBS Newshour, described the feeling to Yahoo News as an ongoing car crash. “I get back in the car and get in another car accident, and the airbags go off again. They keep going off.”
Lowery, now a correspondent for 60 Minutes, was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, along with other reporters, for doing his job in 2014: covering the killing of Michael Brown. In his 2017 book, “They Can’t Kill Us All,” he echoed the other Black journalists, and the Black lives taken away, that came before him. “I am Black man in America who is often tasked with telling the story of Black men and women killed on American streets by those who are sworn to protect them, but who historically have seen and treated those men, women, and even their children as anything but American,” he writes.
“Their story didn’t start or end on the streets of Ferguson.”
In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, which stemmed from police beating a Black man and kicking a pregnant Black woman, were ill-advised for strategic gain, but “expected.” Riots, he said two years later, were the language of the unheard. But writing for the Saturday Review, King made clear why he believed they were inevitable, should the system of policing not be reevaluated.
The “end of this road is clearly in sight,” King wrote after the riots, also known as the Watts Rebellion. “The cohesive, potentially explosive Negro community in the North has a short fuse and a long train of abuses. Those who argue that it is hazardous to give warnings, lest the expression of apprehension lead to violence, are in error. Violence has already been practiced too often, and always because remedies were postponed. It is now the task of responsible people to indicate where and why spontaneous combustion is accumulating.”
Police arresting several men during the Watts Riots. (UC Regents / UCLA Library)
The Los Angeles Times covered the riots and won a Pulitzer for their coverage. And the paper, now one of the most diverse major newsrooms in the country, has come a long way. In taking stock of some of the paper’s missteps, long-time LA Times’ reporter Doug Smith wrote in 2015 that some of the paper’s coverage could only be described as police “apologia.” The most haunting part of his assessment is an aside: that Robert Richardson, a Black advertising salesman for the paper, had volunteered to cover the riots. “At once an admission that the paper had no black reporters and a false intimation that white reporters could not cover the unrest,” Smith wrote.
“Fifty years later,” he wrote, “it’s unthinkable that reporters or editors would show such unskeptical deference to public officials.” Unfortunately, fifty-five years later, it is not.
Two years after the riots in Watts, Otto Kerner, the white Governor of Illinois, was tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson in-part with telling the U.S. government how the country had failed Black Americans. As riots were still happening across the country, Johnson wanted to know: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”
Soldiers of California’s 40th Armored Division direct traffic away from South Central L.A. during the Watts riot. 1965. (National Guard Education Foundation)
The Kerner Commission’s Report was broadly critical of the United States, as well as its media. The committee’s words were honest, searing, and as relevant then as they are now. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective,” the commission wrote. “That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now.”
It did not. Johnson did not accept the report. The words fell flat on many newspapers who had yet to hire many white women, let alone a Black journalist. And Dr. King was shot and killed shortly after, the country again erupting into riots.
But the Kerner Commission’s words still ring true today. Words like them, spoken many times by Black activists and journalists, are an indictment of some major media companies’ desire to speak in slogans, like “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” rather than do public introspection about whose democracy they are protecting.
They are monuments to news organizations that have been told over and over again to listen, but failed to consider their responsibility in telling George Floyd’s story.
And they are a testament to those that take to the streets to say other taken names, made sacred names, and the pain that brought them to wander there — edited out and toned down in favor of what many of my colleagues have called truth, facts, and objectivity.
Images courtesy of Munshots, Koshu Kunii, UC Regents / UCLA Library, National Guard Education Foundation.