There is still much to be learned about the Tamir Rice killing in Cleveland, Ohio. But we know this, as Tamir's parents said: "the police officers acted quickly"--a measured but incisive understatement. Officer Timothy Loehmann shot him twice, 1.5-2 seconds after he got out of his car. And we also know that 4 minutes after the shooting, it was an FBI agent, not Loehmann or his partner, who began administering first aid before paramedics arrived. Despite having no audio, the video has shed a good deal of disturbing light on the killing. (But it is a critical absence: Deputy Chief Ed Tomba asserted that Tamir was instructed 3 times to put his hands up before he was shot. So far, there has been no one but the police officers to corroborate that contention, but the video shows some damning inconsistencies with the officers' initial statements.) Of present concern is one major local media's coverage of the tragedy.
One day after the shooting, news website Cleveland.com posted an article by the Northeast Ohio Media Group reporter Brandon Blackwell. The NEOMG, while sharing content with The Cleveland Plain Dealer, provides the majority of the Cleveland.com content. In his first story, Blackwell wrote about of Tamir's mother's criminal history. Then, days later, Blackwell, along with writer Bob Sandrick, wrote a piece on Tamir's father's criminal history.
The story on Samaria Rice is ostensibly about the attorney the family hired to represent them in this tragedy. The headline: "Lawyer representing Tamir Rice's family defended boy's mom in drug trafficking case." Six of the 9 paragraphs however, have nothing to do with the attorney, but everything to do about Samaria's criminal record' and two sentences about its possible impact on her son.
The story about Tamir's father, Leonard Warner, is astounding in its bias, making no attempt whatsoever to connect his father's history to why a police officer killed a 12-year old boy. This is journalism as it most tin-eared and irresponsible. If NEOMG were comprised of more diverse and conscientious voices, I highly doubt these stories would have ran as they did, if at all.
Cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn and other NEOMG writers made things worse with attempts to justify the reasons for and content of those articles. Blackwell updated his Warner article, adding a third paragraph sentence to explain that "[p]eople from across the region have been asking whether Rice grew up around violence." According to the Cleveland Scene, NEOMG member Mark Naymik tweeted Blackwell "[g]ives small window into this young boy's life. A frame of reference, perhaps for why he had toy gun?" Quinn wrote that Cleveland.com ran with the stories about Samaria and Leonard because they "shed further light on why this 12 year old was waving a weapon around a public park."
The post-hoc justifications for irresponsible reporting are trite, and nothing less than insulting. As the Plain Dealer employee, in an open letter to Plain Dealer and NEOMG staff wrote, "some people" in the region are wondering whether race was a factor in the shooting. "Some people" are wondering whether the officer's parents have a criminal history. Why did Blackwell and Quinn not lead with articles for "those people" across the region? Blackwell's facile explanation explains nothing. And for Quinn to claim Tamir was "waving a weapon" is more than disingenuous; it is a gross misrepresentation, but one that suits his feeble Blackwell defense.
Cleveland.com's justifications for the stories also defy reason. I'm trying to pin down the logic here: Tamir's parents have a criminal history. Tamir had a toy gun. Tamir was shot by police. So their criminal history explains why Tamir had a toy gun? If they had been law abiding citizens, their son would not have a toy gun? Parents with criminal histories should not let their children have toy guns? Or maybe this is it: all and only law-abiding citizens, without fail, teach their children to behave responsibly with toy guns? I am at a loss.
Cleveland.com stories about Tamir's parents were nothing less than an attempt to create an insidious "blame the victim" narrative (or rather, blame the parents) one day after the child was tragically killed. That narrative presumes law enforcement reaction is justified when such killings occur, one that says "Look at the parents; Tamir was congenitally prone to violence." And in the context of yet another African-American boy being killed by a white police officer, that narrative takes on an even more noxious tone. That Tamir, or more precisely, his parents are to blame for letting their child have a toy gun, and thus for his death is precisely what "some" people want to believe, and, if the comments under the Blackwell stories are any indication, Cleveland.com articles did not disappoint, reinforcing the worst, and of course the most racist, prejudices.
In the wake of the Michael Brown and now Eric Garner grand jury decisions, we are again wondering about the circumstances surrounding an African-American's killing at the hands of a police officer, and the systems and law-enforcement reactions that bring about these devastating results. But we should also consider the role and impact of those whose responsibility it is to report these tragedies when they occur. We should applaud the Plain Dealer employee's open letter to NEOMG, calling out the journalistic irresponsibility of those articles and their defenders. We should hope that more people like that employee are at the table when these stories are being reviewed.
Bryan Adamson Teaches at Seattle University School of Law