I get a lot of my news from Twitter and happened to be perusing my personal timeline in the wee hours of Sunday morning when I came across yet another story about a young Black teen who was shot multiple times and killed at the hands of the police. His name is Michael Brown, and he was unarmed at the time he was gunned down by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri–a predominately Black suburb where he lived. Witnesses say he was shot multiple times and some who saw the tragic scene say his hands were in the air before the very first shot was fired. His friend, who was with him at the time of the sooting, has the officer even fired a warning shot before fatally shooting Brown. Police have not said anything about the shooting. Residents want answers.
But I wouldn’t get many of those details from the report I read from the Associated Press, a global news force considered an authority. Instead of giving all the details available of Brown’s killing up front in an attempt to show the events that lead up to his death, the AP used their story to paint the picture of an “angry crowd” who allegedly screamed “kill the police,” a detail the reporter had listed before noting the “confrontation” lasted for hours.
This story I saw of Brown’s death was Tweeted from the AP’s handle like this:
It was the very first report I had seen of this fatality, and the actual headline on the new source’s website gave me even fewer details, but implied so much: “MISSOURI CROWD AFTER SHOOTING: ‘KILL THE POLICE.”
The report continued with details about this “angry” mob as if they were the most important part of this story: “The fatal shooting of a black teenager by police sent hundreds of angry residents out of their apartments Saturday in a St. Louis suburb, igniting shouts of ‘kill the police’ during a confrontation that lasted several hours.” The next sentence mentioned, “A St. Louis County chapter of the NAACP called for the FBI to look into the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson.” So wait, was the NAACP chapter a part of that “angry mob?” It was hard to tell the way the story was laid out.
When I looked further through the story to find any mention of why Brown was shot, I saw that a spokesman for the police, “didn’t give the reason for the shooting.” But interestingly enough, the report states: “St. Louis County police said a large crowd confronted officers following the shooting, yelling such things as ‘kill the police.'”
So the police have no details, even to this point a day later, on why one of their own shot and killed a boy or even what happened at the time he was killed and the only statement they want to make here is about an “angry” crowd shouting “kill the police?” That’s potentially a different story in and of itself. But not one that was driving the headline. Why wasn’t that source–the police– mentioned much further up when painting the imagery of the “angry mob” so that readers could draw their own conclusions, whatever they may have been?
Why was there only a picture of an “angry crowd” even though the end of the story paints a much different picture: “mourners left votive candles, rose petals, a large stuffed animal and other remembrances at a makeshift memorial in the middle of the street.” This peaceful depiction of a crowd was not attributed to police and left at the very end of the story that seemed to center around the crowd reaction of a boy slain, instead of the boy himself. Why?
Why was the police’s description of the scene the loudest when an officer’s behavior was very much in question? Why was the crowd’s actions–no matter how passionate they may have been in the wake of such a shooting–more important for the police to mention to reporters than their own actions? Actions that sparked the community reaction in the first place. Why hadn’t the reporter asked these things? Why was the police’s story even most important to him as he was reporting?
The way the story was already being framed was troubling.
The Associated Press is a huge international news source that is picked up and used as an authority by many other news outlets–including NewsOne.com which is in the same company as HelloBeautiful. We know the media, especially an outlet as large as the AP which is picked up by several outlets, plays a major part in shaping public opinion. It is for that reason that most news reporters will tell you that their intention is to report, “fair and balanced news.” Even if Fox News has (perhaps laughably) trademarked this phrase as their own slogan, the concept is one most reporters learn while studying journalism and should aspire to, so that when the public forms their opinion on stories at least they have the fullest picture possible.
But where was the “fair and balanced” depiction of the Michael Brown’s killing in this report and the reaction that followed, even in the opening paragraphs that shaped the resulting story?
I wasn’t the only one wondering why the AP’s story didn’t seem to add up. All around Twitter, other people asked the AP why they were framing the story to be so heavily focused on the alleged bloodthirsty crowd, even in those early hours as news was developing about the actual shooting at hand.
To be clear @AP specifically said chants of ‘kill the police’ were AT the vigil outside the PD, which video refutes. 1/2
— Patrick (@QuadCityPat) August 10, 2014
— Goldie Taylor (@goldietaylor) August 10, 2014
I checked to see if the AP’s reporter on the story, Alan Scher Zagier, had responded to that question, especially since many had pointed out that there was no video available to back up what he said police had said. He has not responded to the question at the time I write this.
However, it should be noted, that on his personal Twitter handle, he has Tweeted out his story and framed it in a much different way than the AP did:
— Alan Scher Zagier (@azagier) August 10, 2014
So if this reporter’s experience was of a crowd that was “confronting police” why did all the articles with his name begin with more explosive allegations. Even if you click on the link in his description you will find a more volatile headline and opening paragraph: “Angry crowd chants ‘kill the police’ after officer fatally shoots black teen near St. Louis”
There’s a huge difference between the headline and even Zagier’s own description.
But even once the story moved on from the crowd to Brown’s own death it seemed to be notably omitting details or brushing off others that may be crucial to how someone puts this story together in their minds to try to understand it.
Buried way down in the fifth paragraph of the AP story was one small mention that Brown was unarmed at the time he was shot. This is an important detail to mention of the victim of a shooting incident, especially where police are firing the shots, yet it was barely even there, only referenced to a sign Brown’s stepfather carried:
“The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported several distraught relatives were outside talking with neighbors, including Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, and stepfather, Louis Head. Head held a sign that read: ‘Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!'”
This detail, mentioned only as an after thought and from that sign carried by Brown’s stepfather after already setting the stage of “anger” at police may leave one to wonder if Brown was really unarmed or if his stepfather was just being biased. Other reports I found at the time, readily mentioned that “authorities” said Brown was unarmed. So why didn’t this one?
Even the AP’s own local source, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave more details that were readily available, though their headline also focused on the: “Anger, Confrontation After Fatal Shooting Of Teen By Ferguson Police” and lead with the mention of “angry residents into the street, taunting police and firing shots.” Their additional details that would come from an eye-witness who saw Brown’s shooting, are much further down in their story too:
Piaget Crenshaw, 19, said she was waiting for a ride to work when she saw a police officer attempting to place Brown in the squad car. She then said she saw the teen, hands in the air, attempt to flee. Several shots hit Brown as he ran, Crenshaw said.
Forget the crowd, isn’t that a huge part of the real story in the first place? That Brown–who was not only unarmed–was seen trying to get away when police shot him multiple times is a HUGE detail to include in the story. A much different implication than the report he was only “shot by police.” Why didn’t the AP pick up this part of the story from their local source? Especially on the day after Brown died and people were searching for answers. Especially when some of those ‘angry crowd” members the reporter wrote about may have very well been angry because the police had given no explanation, no apology, no nothing in response to their actions that didn’t add up when you consider the eye-witness accounts. The AP quoted Brown’s grandmother: “They won’t tell me nothin’?” So they were not able to make any statement to the family and yet police had time to note how angry the crowd was? Well, if you put it like that I could certainly understand the frustrations.
But here’s the thing, the story didn’t put it like that. None of this seemed to be a coincidence. The AP’s report I first read seemed even more dangerous especially when I considered the source that helped form the headline and lead: the police. Bias much?
Another tragic reality, besides the fact that Brown lost his life at all at the hands of police, is that he may very well end up getting framed in his own killing. The police, who couldn’t tell his own grandmother anything, and still have not made a statement on the actual shooting, are now reportedly starting to tell some media outlets that Brown may have been stealing. The way the stories are framed about his theft of “either candy or cigarillos” seem to offer this possible theft as an explanation as one reason why police had to confront him, and thus shoot him multiple times in the end. It is….interesting that the police can offer details on everyone’s actions but their own.
Not to mention Michael Skolnik, Political Director to Russell Simmons and Editor-In-Chief of GlobalGrind points out:
Ferguson police are only ones saying #MikeBrown stole something from store. Parents went to store + workers said they never called police.
— Michael Skolnik (@MichaelSkolnik) August 10, 2014
This is curious. Particularly when it would behoove an officer to portray Brown as a criminal doing something wrong even though, even if , he was a petty thief, there are certainly criminals with much more grave offenses who were arrested for their offenses and living today.
But while reading reports that Brown might’ve been stealing, I was shocked that few mentioned what his friend, Dorian Johnson, who was with him at the time he was shot and killed has told reporters:
“We wasn’t causing harm to nobody. We had no weapons on us at all,” Dorian Johnson said. He was walking home from a convenience store with his friend, Mike Brown. They were walking on the street when a police officer in a vehicle told the boys to get out of the street. Dorian Johnson says they kept walking, causing the officer to confront the boys, first from his car, then he got out of the car, firing a shot. He said he and Brown were scared and ran away from the officer.
Johnson’s account is not included in many of the stories I’ve read today that readily include allegations that he may have been stealing. And his account is critical to trying to understand this story. Especially if what he says is true: that a cop fired a warning shot even before firing 10 shots that killed an unarmed Brown who had his hands in the air. Now who knows if Johnson is telling the truth, but who knows if the police are either? Why would outlets be so quick to tell the police officer’s story when he clearly has the stronger motive for distorting the truth? To date, the officer’s name has not been released, nor has an arrest been made in the killing of Michael Brown.
The AP certainly isn’t using all the facts and details available today to tell the full story, no matter how complicated it may be on either side, so that their readers can draw their own conclusions in a fair way. And since so many outlets pick up the AP’s news, this distorted version of events is already spreading like wildfire.
The public is always left to draw their own conclusions from news stories, but when led to the water in a certain way, it’s no wonder a lot of people drink up dark details and draw distorted conclusions. I’ve already heard many versions of “well he shouldn’t have been stealing,” or “he shoudn’t have done anything for the police to come for him” as if to justify Michael Brown’s murder. Do we not forget that the police does know how to make an arrest, if they need to, without killing someone?
Let me remind you of Aurora, Colorado mass killer James Holmes who was (very) armed when he killed 12 people in a movie theater and injured several others in 2012. But police never fired one shot at him; instead he was put in the back of a squad car and is still alive today standing trial. Some people find it even easier to grapple with his atrocity knowing that he is described as “mentally ill,” a detail that is being considered as juries try to reach a verdict, two years after the crime was committed in a trial where the evidence is undisputed. Yet a Black boy who may or may not have stolen some damn convenient store goods when he was possibly pursued and gunned down is already being written off? One day after his death?
It’s asinine. And some media outlets irresponsible reporting is fueling these conclusions.
Police are already claiming in reports that Brown was resisting arrest at the time he was killed. But was he resisting or running away scared, as his friend notes? It’s hard to tell for sure given the different witness accounts but all of these accounts should be considered. If the eyewitness reports are considered, the police motives for the shooting in the first place seem questionable and may give them further motives to give the press and public other details.
Even the way the crowd is depicted–and was depicted by police–can be crucial to how some see this story. A crowd in a suburban neighborhood that is mourning and also “confronting” the police because a police officer shot a teenager in their community 10 times even after his hands were up and he was running away, it paints a much different story than an angry mob of “mostly Black residents” (which reports were sure to note) chanting “kill the police!” because an officer shot a “man” after he may or may not have stolen something and then got into an altercation with the cops. And were the cops already in the neighborhood or did they actually confront the crowd who was mourning? All of these distinctions are very important as we’re trying to piece together a puzzle of a tragedy in which Brown will never get to tell his side. We can only work with the details we are given which is why they all need to be heard.
Sadly, when it comes to stories about Black deaths, reports from “trusted news sources” are often written in a way that results in a reader concluding that the Black person “deserved” their death or “brought it on themselves.” I saw this happen in the coverage of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner — all of whom were unarmed a the time they were shot and killed and two (Grant and Garner) who were killed at the hands of police. The details of each of these deaths did not add up and many of the voices that could shed some light were discounted, like that of Rachel Jeanteel who testified in George Zimmerman’s case that she heard some of the events. She was painted by media and defense as “uneducated.” Or even Jordan Davis’ friends who were in the car with him when he was murdered. Two of the young men testified in court, and media reports were sure to include that Tommie Stornes was on probation for a burglary he committed in 2011, as if that had anything to do with what he saw when his friend was gunned down for playing music too loud in 2012. So what did these implied details have to do with what the person witnessed?
Ramsey Orta, the man who captured Garner’s death on camera, and his wife were both recently arrested. This was shortly after the homicide ruling for the man who was described by friends as a “gentle giant,” but had been choked to death by police. Police have said he died of “asthma” (and readers of the story have blamed him for being “fat”) even though the video clearly showed multiple police officers taking him down and one putting him into the fatal chokehold as he could be heard screaming “I can’t breathe!” In that way I’m thankful for social media and smart phones. The police–and other shooters–can say whatever version of the story they want but you can’t argue with a tape. Although, apparently, you can try to discredit what viewers see with their own eyes. I wonder if there’s a bigger reason Orta found himself arrested. He would reportedly tell the officer who cuffed him: “You’re just mad because I filmed your boy.” His wife reportedly insists their arrests are a “set up.”
Besides witnesses being discredited (how long before reports turn up negative narratives of the witnesses of Brown’s death?) the actual deceased’s dirty laundry seems to always been dragged out and put on display as their tragic death’s are reported. I saw this happen in the case of Renisha McBride, and the AP was widely criticized there too. Just three days ago they came under fire for the way they reported the verdict of that teenager’s convicted murderer, Theodore Wafer, after they Tweeted the news:
“MORE: Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch.”
Not surprisingly the headline prompted backlash and, yes, even outrage from people on Twitter.
For even as her murder was found guilty, Renisha McBride’s name was still being unnecessarily muddied by a detail that had nothing to do with the fact that her murderer’s verdict had been found. The detail seemed to be placed there to imply, even if subtly, that she was in some way guilty too. Throughout the entire trial outlets would not let readers forget that her toxicology report found a blood-alcohol level of .218 and marijuana in her system. Even though she was shot on Wafer’s porch after knocking (or even banging) on his door to ask for help after an accident.
I heard people read these stories and ask: “well why was she drinking or high?” “Why was she out late?” “Why didn’t she just stay in the car and wait for police?” As if being intoxicated, staying up late or asking a neighbor for help were reasons someone should get their head blown off? If so over half of us would be dead. Meanwhile the AP copy described a murder as a “suburban Detroit homeowner,” a carefully worded description that tells you something.
It obviously crossed someone in the newsroom’s mind that the detail that McBride was drunk was unnecessary and the setup of the story implied different things than the story itself because the Tweet was eventually deleted and the story was Tweeted a second time with a different headline:
Interesting how reframing and omitting just a few words can make a story look entirely different. One way or the other. Words should be chosen carefully…the first time.
Yes, facts are facts, and facts and reported details should always be included in a story if they’re important to the story, even if they show an unfavorable side of a person who has died. But the inclusion of some facts and blatant ignoring of others is wildly dangerous in a newsroom, especially when it comes to the reports about the lives of Black people who we know some people in society already want to see a certain way, even before they pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV. Some news reporters are making things worse.
How stories are told are also especially important in the aftermath of this kind of incident. There are still decisions that need to be made about in Brown’s death, especially whether that cop will see his day in a court of law. We know the history of police convictions, so before a possible trial can the kid who was killed get a fair story first!? I do not pretend to know the whole story, I just wish all sides of the story that are available would be presented in a way that’s not leading.
Beyond being beyond tired of reading about what police and citizens around this country seem to think is an open hunting season on Black lives, I am sick of reading stories in mainstream media about these killings and murders that seem to cherry pick some details and discard others leaving readers with narratives that end up implying different things than a fair and balanced story might show. I’m not making judgements on what any of these Black people may or may not have done, what I’m asking is that major news media not make those judgements for me or other citizens. When media does this with Black stories in particular they’re only adding to the problem and enabling despicable behaviors to continue.
Like many of our parents tried to teach us as children: “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that can make all the difference.”
I’m still trying to nail that lesson in some areas of my personal life, so I’ll leave room for the possibility that we can all learn, or relearn this too. We can, and should, all strive to do better with the way we say things, even after missteps. Media outlets–and really people, in general–have the power to potentially change minds with our words, and maybe even by extension, lives. It’s up to each of us to decide how we want to use that power: responsibly or harmfully.
That said, I hope news outlets would stop focusing on the crowd in the first place and go find some answers as to why Michael Brown’s death really happened and now that it has happened: what is going to be done about it. We will do our best at HelloBeautiful to give you all the facts.
But on the media landscape as a whole, I remind my peers: we certainly don’t need to give any more unnecessary ammunition to trigger happy police or citizens who would look at Black folks in the night and think us “suspicious,” because they read narratives about “crazy mobs” in reports that were spoon-fed by the cops, after cops shot up neighborhoods in the first place. The real story here is that Brown was shot multiple times by a police officer and the community still doesn’t have any answers. That’s enough.