Black Lives Matter and the Press
How Major U.S. Newspapers Covered Police Brutality Against African Americans, from Rodney King to George Floyd
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- 1 Rodney King
- 2 Jonny Gammage
- 3 Michael Brown
- 4 A Succession of Slayings
- 5 George Floyd
- 6 A Litany of Fatal Brutality
As a white woman teaching in Mississippi with a research area focused on media coverage of civil rights, I am asked, on occasion, how did such a career happen? The question implies that there is nothing in my background to lead me to this vocation; but of course, there is, though less a direct path than the result of a journalism career and the experience of having grown up in a small New Jersey industrial city hugging the Delaware River.
The easy answer is that being from New Jersey, I moved south without bringing the baggage of a native Mississippian. The truth is, my path was wobbly, to say the least, and not pre-ordained.
Or was it?
As a teen I volunteered at the local YWCA across the river in Pennsylvania. The YWCA of my youth was not a gym but a residence for women who abandoned the coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania for jobs in the big city. The YW was also a social club where women could play bridge. In addition, it provided the opportunity to develop social and leadership skills for teenaged girls, as well as offering summer and Saturday camps for younger children, which is where I earned my volunteer hours. The high school leadership programs pulled girls from three school districts, creating a diversity that extended past economic lines to include race, religion and ethnic background. It was also a community founded ←ix | x→on the principles of “eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.”
This is not to say I was ignorant of racism, or isolated from it. Around 1962 my parents took a family trip to Washington, DC. The route took us over the Chesapeake Bay, then a two-and-half-hour ferry ride. The water fountains were segregated, labeled white and colored. According to my mother, either my sister or I asked if we could drink the “colored” water saying: “We want to know what color it is!” I have never forgotten my mother’s reply: “When you are in a foreign country, you do what the locals do.”
The South, I decided, was a foreign country with its own rules and customs.
A more complicated answer rests in my experience in special education. After my brother became severely disabled as a teenager, my parents fought the local school system and the state to obtain educational services for him. This was before national laws were adopted guaranteeing the rights of children and adults with disabilities. The local school superintendent told my parents that because my brother was 16, he should drop out, and refused to meet with them again.
Dissatisfied with this answer, my parents continued their quest. A friend gave them a copy of the state constitution guaranteeing every child a “free and appropriate education.” That was all it took. My father walked the four blocks down the street from our house to the home of the superintendent, sat on his front porch steps and waited for the superintendent to come home from work. The superintendent’s reply? “Where did you get a copy of the state constitution! You have no right to have it. My decision stands.”
My parents subsequently approached the state Board of Education, followed by other meetings with state education officials. The result was an education plan that met my brother’s needs until he turned 21.
When my own son was diagnosed with severe autism, I followed my parents’ example serving, and continuing to serve, as his advocate. The law was on my side. When he was still in school, I filed several due process motions against my local school district (all settled in my son’s favor rather quickly). I continue to advocate for my child’s rights under state and federal law as he still receives government-funded services as an adult.
That is not the whole story but part of my path. I am sharing these stories for several reasons. The work of civil rights activists opened the doors for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society.
Simply put, same church, different pews.
As a journalist working in New Jersey for the Newark Star-Ledger, I drew a Saturday assignment to cover a Ku Klux Klan rally in South Jersey. I was not ←x | xi→thrilled with the assignment, as I was concerned about my safety. Based on what I knew historically about the KKK, I questioned the validity of lending news coverage to a bunch of hot-heads. Would an AP story not be sufficient? After all, I thought, if the KKK no longer was a factor in the South in the late 1970s, why would it rear its head in New Jersey?
But cover the story I did. The demonstrators were arrested on weapons charges before the rally began, whereas a peace rally across town was allowed to continue.
In 1981 I moved to Memphis, where I recoiled at Confederate flags brandished on businesses, homes and vehicles. For the next twenty-odd years I was forced to deal with rampant racism in the Deep South.
By 2002 I was a faculty member at the University of Mississippi. That year, the university installed a statue commemorating James Meredith’s enrollment in 1962. Meredith was the first African American admitted to the university, as well as the first admitted to any public school in Mississippi. President John F. Kennedy was forced to federalize the National Guard and call out the U.S. Army to quell the subsequent campus riot. The statue installed in 2002 arrived with controversies of its own. Meredith was opposed to the statue’s very existence and at its unveiling was not invited to speak. For me the statue controversy was the beginning of a lifelong preoccupation with the 1962 riot at Ole Miss.
I soon learned about the murder of Paul Guihard, an Agence France-Presse reporter slain on campus during the riot. I was incensed that his story merited little more than a paragraph in the books I read. Researching his story and the stories of the more than three hundred reporters who covered the protests of Meredith’s enrollment brought me to where I am today. First, my 2011 academic article about Guihard’s murder was published in Journalism History. Similar publications about Claude Sitton, the legendary New York Times civil rights reporter, and Sidna Brower Mitchell, the editor of the student newspaper in 1962, followed. In my book We Believed We Were Immortal (Yoknapatawpha Press, 2017), I wrote about the experiences of 12 of 300-plus reporters at the 1962 riot. In 2022, as a University of Mississippi committee member for the sixtieth anniversary of James Meredith’s enrollment, I edited a collection of essays entitled James Meredith: Breaking the Barrier (Yoknapatawpha Press, 2022). The book opens and closes with essays written by Meredith.
What does this have in common with the Black Lives Matter movement and media coverage of crimes committed against African Americans?
Everything.←xi | xii→
Just as the YWCA recognized the inclusion of diverse voices in its programming beginning in 1915, just as Jim Crow Laws were deemed unconstitutional in 1964, and just as my parents called on the state of New Jersey to honor its own constitutional provision for educating all students, so do today’s Black Lives Matter activists demand justice and equal treatment by the media.
Steven Hallock puts the events leading to what became known as the Black Lives Matter movement into perspective. He views the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, as the beginning of the movement, whereas other scholars point to the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida as the origin. It was Brown’s murder that catapulted the issues of questionable police shootings into a national narrative. The Washington Post began counting incidents in 2015, recording more than 5,000 by 2022.
Hallock examines the “how, when and why” of national Black Lives Matter coverage. Some cases are dealt with in greater depth than others, but the same narrative runs through all: unarmed Black people shot by police with varying degrees of newspaper coverage.
In this book, Hallock adheres to classic agenda-setting and framing theory. He pinpoints where the media coverage succeeded and where it failed, noting that the criminal justice system, and thus subsequent reporting, initially followed that same pattern.
Like most movements, the Black Lives Matter movement had a rocky start. A movement is not a movement at the beginning. Events are islands within a larger sea of news coverage.
Until someone like Hallock begins to quilt incidents and issues together into a historical garment with a proper unifying message, a movement can wither and fade. As the media assimilated historical background, the issues of Black Lives Matter became more clearly delineated. As Hallock notes, the patterns became clearer as the voices of the activists gained strength. Stories moved from victim-blaming to questioning official accounts. On some days, Black Lives Matter received minimal coverage. On others, as Hallock notes, the media responded with deeper stories.
Historically, the cares and concerns of minority citizens were overlooked in the news narrative. Editors, and especially Southern editors, struggled to find Black sources to respond to climactic news stories such as the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision. Black reporters were barred from covering Meredith’s 1962 enrollment at the University of Mississippi. The 1964 Freedom Summer volunteers entering Mississippi were greeted by a one-word headline: “Insurrection.”←xii | xiii→
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction, I found myself debating the issue over breakfast at a Southern hotel. The dining room was busy that morning. I was sharing a bar-height table that seated eight people. A middle-aged white man seated next to me noticed that I was reading a front-page newspaper story about Black Lives Matter. “What right do they have to block bridges?” he demanded. “Don’t white lives matter?” he added.
This is where media coverage comes in.
News coverage allows the general public to make informed decisions about issues. The media are responsible for providing social, economic and political historical context.
Hallock shows how the BLM movement developed, changed and matured through newspaper coverage, how an emphasis on BLM coverage developed over time, and yet some Southern newspapers, he notes, had a “lesser agenda” than their peers in other regions, a position reiterated by Charles Wilson in The American South (Oxford University Press, 2021): “In the twentieth century, the South’s pronounced traditionalism in customs and value was in tension with the forces of modernization that only enforced change.”
Tension is another word for resistance.
Where does this leave journalists, historians and scholars? The Black Lives Matters Moment continues to be fueled by police shootings of unarmed Black people. It has been diffused amid social media and COVID pandemic stories. Only further research can determine if the movement has peaked, if police reforms designed to reduce police brutality are successful and if news coverage adapts a model of reportage based on the Hutchins Commission call for honest reporting of the day’s news.
Steve Hallock has provided critical information to start the conversation among journalists and the public. His insights should be heeded.
–Kathleen W. Wickham, 2023
Kathleen W. Wickham, Ed.D., is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and the author of James Meredith: Breaking the Barrier (2022) and We Believed We Were Immortal: Twelve Reporters Who Covered the 1962 Integration Crisis at Ole Miss (2017). Before entering academia, she was a reporter in New Jersey for ten years at the Newark Star-Ledger and the Press of Atlantic City.
The lead story on the front page of the August 9, 2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch the day that 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man, was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—a predominantly African American suburb of St. Louis—reported of a worsening crisis in Iraq as the U.S. military undertook the first air strikes in northern Iraq against Islamic State militants who were holding hundreds of captive religious minority women as thousands of other residents fled the Irbil region to avoid being captured or slain. The big story locally, reported beneath a color photo of a man hoisting his girlfriend into the air as a state trooper watched from the background, was the opening that week of the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia, accompanied by a local story that state education officials were seeking explanations for a decline in standardized test scores.
But the same front page also carried a story set in St. Louis that, considering the tragedy that would visit Ferguson that day, lent an ironic twist to the day’s current events. “Two die after cops are sent to wrong place” was the story’s headline. “City police officers called after a violent domestic dispute in July were dispatched to the wrong address while the attacker returned and shot two people dead, officials said Friday,” wrote a staff reporter. “Police said it was not clear that officers could have saved the victims had they gone straight to the right place. ←1 | 2→But Melvina Green, whose brother was one of those slain in the city’s West End neighborhood, said she thinks so.”1 Accompanying the story were face pictures of three African American residents featured in it—the dead female victim, her dead neighbor, and the alleged shooter. The next day’s front page would lead with a story that also involved police miscalculation, gunfire and an African American victim. “The fatal shooting of a teen Saturday afternoon by a Ferguson police officer outside an apartment complex sent angry residents into the street, taunting police and firing shots,” wrote two staff reporters. “Michael Brown, 18, was shot at approximately 2:15 p.m. in the 2900 block of Canfield Drive.”2
Wesley Lowery, sent to Ferguson by the Washington Post to cover the developing story, would remember more than two years later thinking: “I’d be there for just a couple of days. I’d write a feature story or two, and then I’d go back to DC and get on with writing about politics. But it became clear that I wasn’t escaping Ferguson any time soon,” as the story in Ferguson endured for days and then weeks and then months. “The shooting of Mike Brown had happened on a quiet side street, in a spot surrounded by four-storey [sic] apartment buildings,” Lowery wrote for The Guardian in January of 2017. Although some argue that the Black Lives Matter movement arose from the 2012 fatal shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer, Lowery identified the shooting death of the unarmed Brown as the germ of the movement.
As the crowds gathered, others took to windows and porches, looking down at the chaos developing below. Within minutes of the shooting, word spread through the surrounding apartments, and beyond, that Brown’s hands were up in the air when he was shot. Darren Wilson had encountered Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson while responding to a call about two young men, matching their description, who had just been involved in the robbery of a nearby off-licence. People in Ferguson did not know whether Brown was attempting to surrender or attempting to attack Wilson when the officer shot him. They did know that the police in Ferguson looked nothing like them: an almost all-white force charged with serving and protecting a majority black city. … What happened in Ferguson would give birth to a movement and set the nation on course for an ongoing public hearing on race that stretched far past the killing of unarmed residents—from daily policing to Confederate imagery to respectability politics to cultural appropriation. The social justice movement spawned from Mike Brown’s blood would force city after city to grapple with its own fraught histories of race and policing. As protests propelled by tweets and hashtags spread under the banner of Black Lives Matter and with mobile phone and body camera video shining new ←2 | 3→light on the way police interact with minority communities, America was forced to consider that not everyone marching in the streets could be wrong.3
While events at Ferguson spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, the slaying of Brown was the latest symptom of a social and political sore that had plagued the United States long before that. This killing of an unarmed African American man was but one instance of a plague of police officers slaying minority citizens under questionable circumstances—and of troubling crime statistics when it comes to African Americans and other minorities in encounters with law enforcement. The Washington Post in 2015 began a project to log fatal shootings by on-duty police officers in the United States. “In that time there have been more than 5,000 such shootings recorded by the Post,” the newspaper reported in May of 2022. After the Michael Brown slaying, “a Post investigation found that the FBI undercounted fatal police shootings by more than half. This is because reporting by police departments is voluntary and many departments fail to do so. The Post’s data relies primarily on news accounts, social media postings and police reports. Analysis of more than five years of data reveals that the number and circumstances of fatal shootings and the overall demographics of the victims have remained relatively constant.” While half of the people shot and killed by police are white, “Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans.” An overwhelming number of those fatal shootings logged by the newspaper “are male—over 95 percent. More than half the victims are between 20 and 40 years old.”4
The vast majority of these shootings involve white police officers, and they frequently bring no consequences to the officers involved. “The deadly shootings of unarmed black men and women by police officers in the U.S. have increasingly garnered worldwide attention over the last few years,” National Public Radio reported as part of a special project in January 2021. “The 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., sparked a week of protests that catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement into the national spotlight. Since then, tens of thousands of people across the country have taken to the streets to protest police brutality of Blacks by mostly white officers.” Since 2015, the report continued, “police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide, an NPR investigation has found. NPR reviewed police, court and other records to examine the details of the cases. At least 75% of the officers were white.” Several of these shootings, the report revealed, were not the officers’ first, “or their ←3 | 4→last, NPR found. They have been involved in two—sometimes three or more—shootings, often deadly and without consequences.”5
Despite increased media scrutiny and national protests associated with high-profile killings by police of unarmed African American citizens, the numbers show no decreasing trend. During the year following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, Newsweek magazine, citing the Mapping Police Violence database project, reported nearly a year later that at least 229 African Americans had been killed by police in this country. “The vast majority are male, and range in age from three months to 88,” the magazine reported. “Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist who co-founded the project, told Newsweek that the figure is ‘most likely an underestimate because more recent killings have fewer articles reporting details such as the race of the victim.’ Sinyangwe added: ‘Excluding “unknown race” records, Black people make up a similar proportion of people killed out of the total number of killings as in past years.’”6
A 2018 analysis of police force use by Vox found that African Americans “are much more likely to be shot by police than their white peers.” An analysis of FBI data “found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates,” Vox reported. “Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population.” The data are incomplete, Vox reported, “because it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country.” But, “it highlights the vast disparities in how police use their force.” Also, “unarmed victims of police killings are more likely to be minorities.”7
- XIV, 302
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
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- Publication date
- 2023 (April)
- Black lives matter press and race police and unarmed blacks framing gatekeeping profiling protest paradigm conflict paradigm critical race theory Black Lives Matter and the Press How Major U.S. Newspapers Covered Police Brutality Against African Americans, from Rodney King to George Floyd Steve Hallock
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. XIV, 302 pp.