On March 29, 2021, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by a Chicago police officer, but it did not make international headlines, partly because early news reports relied on a police statement that said he died in an armed confrontation. An image of a gun recovered at the scene was released. The prosecutor in Cook County, at a bond hearing, said a gun was in Toledo’s hand when he was shot dead.
None of those three pieces of the story seem to be fully accurate.
After body camera footage was released two weeks later, a video clip shows a chase ending with Toledo turning his body toward the officer, arms raised. There is no gun is his hands when the shot is fired.
More media attention developed around the story after the footage revealed the story from law enforcement was misleading.
As a scholar who researches media coverage of police and protests, I believe Toledo’s death exposes a blind spot in journalism: a tendency to go with the “police said” narrative without outwardly questioning if it is right.
Journalists are responsible for creating the first draft of history, quickly. Breaking news reporters often rely on the accounts and statements made by official sources. These are people journalists may work with regularly; they are often more accessible under the pressure of a deadline – especially if a victim’s friends and family are hard to reach or less willing to speak to the press.
All of this gives police an opportunity to shape the initial version of the event – and it gets their version of the story into the public consciousness before victims, families and their supporters are able to.
But often they do so in a way that is incomplete, misleading or presented for strategic reasons. The official statement in Toledo’s case made no mention that it appears that a gun was tossed away and Toledo was raising his hands. The incident report him between the ages of 18 and 25, rather than being a 13-year-old child.
Similarly, on May 26, 2020, a day after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the city’s police released a statement to media with the subject line “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” It noted the “suspect” had “physically resisted” and died after “suffering medical distress.” It does not say that an officer had Floyd pinned to the ground with a knee on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Just months before, in the police incident report documenting the 2020 death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, officers listed her injuries as “none” and suggested there was no forced entry to her building. In fact, a battering ram was used and Taylor was shot multiple times.
In June 2020, when a 75-year-old man fractured his skull during a protest in Buffalo against police brutality, the initial official response was he “tripped and fell.” Video quickly circulated showing he was shoved to the group by police in riot gear.
When, in the case of Toledo, the incident is away from the cell phones of bystanders, it can take longer to establish precisely what happened.
Journalists have been criticized for being too quick to rely on police to tell the stories of victims. That is why the public tends to know more about the criminal histories of victims and their families, especially soon after an incident, than it does about the histories of the police officers who shot them.
I recently analyzed media coverage of the protests following the 2018 death of Stephon Clark, who was holding a mobile phone when police shot him in his grandmother’s backyard. The people close to Clark, like his family and friends, weren’t the key sources providing information about Clark’s character in coverage.
Instead, over the six months of news coverage analyzed, news stories most often relied on police accounts and records that profiled Clark in stereotypical and stigmatizing ways. They were helped along by the district attorney, who released personal text messages and internet searches from Clark that detailed relationship difficulties and apparent suicidal thoughts.
After presenting incomplete, misleading or downright wrong police reports as fact too often, reporters and editors are now speaking up about the problem. It was notable that journalists were among those most critical of the media response to Toledo’s killing.
“This is why journalists must stop reporting law enforcement accounts as fact,” tweeted The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Chris Geidner, the executive director of The Appeal, a media site on law and criminal justice, went further: “… any narrative reliant on ‘police said’ is a failure of journalism. At best, police should be treated as one source for a story – an unreliable narrator in instances like officer shootings – and thus not sufficient to establish the story.”
Treating police sources with necessary and appropriate skepticism could provide news audiences with a more complete picture of incidents such as police shootings and disrupt a process that has privileged some voices over others.
And it isn’t a radical idea: Questioning and verifying information has always been a part of the journalist’s job.
The Capitol Insurrection
The chaos at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was not typical. Nor was the coverage.
My research on protests shows that how the media portrays unrest – as riot or resistance, for example – helps shape the public’s view of the protest’s aims. Typically news coverage pays more attention to disruptive tactics than to the aims of protesters, especially when it comes to anti-Black racism protests or action that radically challenges the status quo.
By focusing on the disruption while underreporting the protest’s substance, agendas and goals, coverage contributes to a “hierarchy of social struggle” in which the voices of some advocacy groups are lifted over others.
But this was different. News audiences aren’t necessarily used to seeing violence and disruption at citizen demonstrations. It proved a novel test of how the news media would frame the unrest and the aims of those involved.
A study of demonstrations between 1967 and 2007 concluded that protests were often framed as public nuisances, especially when those doing the protesting were ideologically liberal. Conservative protests were less likely to be seen as nuisances. My research has highlighted the tendency to frame anti-Black racism protests as “riots” more than other protests.
But much of the coverage of events at the Capitol stripped euphemistic labels like “protests,” “rallies” and “demonstrations” from their description of what was going on. Instead news media labeled the event as a “siege” or “insurrection” carried out by a “mob.” It is also notable that at least one major network, CNN, described the events as “terrorism” – a term still more common in descriptions of Muslims and people of color than white supremacists.
Despite the escalation of events from protest to insurrection, the initial coverage seemed to include the grievances of those taking part.
Many commented on social media that if these had been Black Lives Matter protesters, there might have been a very different outcome – the assumption being Trump-sponsored insurrections are treated differently by authorities. Some news media outlets made this comparative difference clear in their reporting. This is not a typical narrative in mainstream protest news coverage.
Even the initial news coverage by Fox News seemed largely in line with the framing of other news channels, until the evening, when commentary from the “Tucker Carlson Tonight” show shifted the network’s narrative.
Carlson’s monologue half-addressed the siege, but asked the audience to consider why people like Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot and killed during the break-in, attended the rally in the first place. Detailing her tragic death, Tucker said, “She bore no resemblance to the angry children we have seen wrecking our cities in recent months.”
My colleague from Michigan State University Rachel Mourão and I have used panel survey data from 2015 and 2016 to explore attitudes about protests in general and Black Lives Matter’s core grievances specifically. The results showed that increased consumption of news from right-wing organizations like Fox and Breitbart didn’t really affect people’s views about protests generally. But it did strongly correlate with more negative opinions about some of the core grievances and demands connected with Black Lives Matter.
Less than 24 hours after the siege, the homepage of right-wing outlet One America News Network’s (OAN) website was devoid of any pictures of protests. Meanwhile, Breitbart had a Mark Zuckerberg image front and center. That article described how Facebook had “blacklisted” Trump after the “events” on Capitol Hill.
Right-wing media undermine and erase the impact of undemocratic actions. Out of sight, out of mind.
Some news organizations have vowed to address shortcomings in their coverage, including how reporters cover protests. If the unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd was the event that triggered a welcomed media reckoning, then the insurrection at the Capitol could be the event that helps outlets better understand why framing is important.
Links to original essays on The Conversation:
- Being skeptical of sources is a journalist’s job – but it doesn’t always happen when those sources are the police, April 18, 2021
- The insurrection at the Capitol challenged how US media frames unrest and shapes public opinion, January 17, 2021