Editor’s note: We’re republishing this story, which first ran in August 2014, in light of a New York Post headline earlier this week that described a white murder suspect as a “clean-cut American kid.” Police have identified 23-year-old Kenneth Gleason as a person of interest in the September slayings of two black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which authorities believe may have been racially motivated.
On the afternoon of Aug. 9, 2014, a police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. Eyewitnesses said Brown was compliant with police and was shot while he was running away. Police maintained that the 18-year-old had assaulted an officer and was reaching for the officer’s gun. One clear thing, however, is that Brown’s death followed a disturbingly common trend of black men being killed, often while unarmed and at the hands of police officers, security guards and vigilantes.
After news of Brown’s death broke, media-watchers carefully followed the narratives that news outlets began crafting about the teenager and the incident that claimed his life. Wary of the controversy surrounding the media’s depiction of Trayvon Martin — the Florida teen killed in a high-profile case that led to the acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman — people on Twitter wondered, “If they gunned me down, which picture would they use?” Using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, users posted side-by-side photos, demonstrating the power that news outlets wield in portraying victims based on images they select.
Days later, a Twitter user tweeted out a photo driving home another point: Media treatment of black victims is often harsher than it is of whites suspected of crimes, including murder.
This is by no means standard media protocol, but it happens frequently, deliberately or not. News reports often headline claims from police or other officials that appear unsympathetic or dismissive of black victims. Other times, the headlines seem to suggest black victims are to blame for their own deaths, engaging in what critics sometimes allege is a form of character assassination.
When contrasted with media portrayal of white suspects and accused murderers, the differences are more striking. News outlets often choose to run headlines that exhibit an air of disbelief at an alleged white killer’s supposed actions. Sometimes, they appear to go out of their way to boost the suspect’s character, carrying quotes from relatives or acquaintances that often paint even alleged murderers in a positive light.
Here are a few examples:
That’s how the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal chose to present the story of Amy Bishop, a former college professor who eventually pleaded guilty to killing three colleagues and wounding three others at a faculty meeting in 2010.
And that’s the headline AL.com ran about the shooting death of a 25-year-old black man in Alabama in 2014.
This is how the Staten Island Advance covered the case of Eric Bellucci, a mentally ill New York man who allegedly killed his parents.
Meanwhile, NBC News ran this headline during ongoing coverage of the Trayvon Martin killing in 2013.
This Fox News headline quoted friends shocked that 15-year-old Jared Michael Padgett had entered his high school in 2014 heavily armed and killed a classmate, injured a teacher and taken his own life.
But in Florida, this headline in the Ledger focused on a police account that made the death of a black 19-year-old seem somehow expected, or at least unsurprising.
In the wake of the mass shooting in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014, the Whittier Daily News offered a headline showing one man’s disbelief that Elliot Rodger could have committed such a crime.
This was the headline given to an Associated Press story at Mlive.com about an Ohio teen who later pleaded guilty to a school shooting in which three students were killed and two were wounded.
But when an unarmed father of two was killed by a police officer while entering a vehicle that contained his own children, the Los Angeles Times served up this claim from officials.
In 2008, 18-year-old Ryan Schallenberger was accused of plotting to bomb his South Carolina high school. Ohio’s Chronicle Telegram wanted readers to know that he was a straight-A student, running an AP story with this headline.
And according to the Omaha World-Herald, this is what you needed to know about Julius B. Vaughn, a 19-year-old gunned down in Omaha in 2013.
Kerri Ann Heffernan was charged in 2012 in a string of bank robberies and stores. This headline at Wicked Local wonders how she’d come so far from her days as a smart high school student.
Of 22-year-old black man Deon Sanders’ killing in Ohio in 2014, WKBN’s headline said “gang member,” and that apparently was enough.