A terror attack unfolded in New York City last week, according to charges brought by prosecutors on Monday. A Baltimore man—white, a veteran, wildly racist—told police he’d traveled to New York City to hunt black men, an act he believed would convince white women to stop having interracial relationships. Like so many visitors, he wandered some of the city’s least charming streets in the vicinity of his Midtown hotel—though instead of a typical tourist itinerary, he was guided by a raging bloodlust. This coward—an able-bodied 28-year-old seen jogging with the weapon on surveillance video—found a 66-year-old black man busy rifling through trash for recyclables and stabbed him repeatedly with a two-foot-long sword. The victim, unarmed, staggered a block to a police station before dying later in a hospital. The suspect eventually turned himself in at a police station in Times Square.
If that description makes you wonder what sartorial choices the alleged murderer made before the killing, or whether the victim had been caught smoking pot more than a decade ago among other minor, completely irrelevant offenses, you might not find flaw in recent coverage of the death of Timothy Caughman.
Other readers were left dissatisfied with the way the story unfolded in the city’s tabloid pages, as a case-study of a preventable media problem: biased reporting that habitually dehumanizes black men and treats them as a threat (a problem that dates to slavery). Time and again, victims who enjoy empathetic and respectful treatment by media are found in suburbs and represented as dainty white damsels in distress.
Newsrooms must do more to stop the reductive habit of viewing black men, even when they’re victims of crime, through a lens of threat—a common problem on the crime beat, where the news is always grim and seems to wear on writers. How else can one explain the total lack of empathy apparent in early reports from the New York Post and New York Daily News?
What crime writers don’t seem to recognize is that they are often writing obituaries for the city’s most unlucky.
The Post went so far as to dub Caughman—the victim of a random, heinous crime and a man deserving of an obituary-writer’s respect—as “a career criminal.” The past 15 years were apparently very lean in that so-called career, since he hadn’t faced arrest since 2002 and was attacked while rifling through garbage to generate a meager income. Some basic questions to ask when deciding whether to run the criminal background of a crime victim: Was it serious? Was it recent? Is it pertinent to the story in any way? The answer on all counts for Caughman: Hell no.
These sorts of brief descriptions are where reporting in this case failed badly, repeatedly. Some depictions of the attack were so upbeat they were downright crass. The Post dubbed the suspect, before police named him, as “sharp-dressed.” Now, it’s been some time since I’ve lived in New York City, and I know the Post fancies itself an unfancy publication, but since when is a pair of jeans and a black jacket a fashion statement? Even for beachy Los Angeles, the suspect’s outfit could be described, at best, as incredibly basic. The pointless compliment evokes nothing in service of finding the suspect, which any description should, and instead falls into line with an alarming trend in coverage that describes neo-Nazis as “dapper.” As if a haircut and a button-down are worth focusing on when dealing with deadly bigotry. Silly as they may seem, these little descriptions that creep into stories are the difference between respecting a man who died at the tip of a coward’s sword, or not.
Any obituary writer can tell you: Taut turns of phrase and well-chosen nouns are of the utmost importance when capturing the gravity and impact of a death. What crime writers don’t seem to recognize is that they are often writing obituaries for the city’s most unlucky.
Too often, journalists’ efforts to deliver more nuanced crime stories are stymied by the known dead ends of the genre. If an arrest is made, good luck getting permission to talk to low-profile suspects as a reporter—the Daily News landed an interview with the alleged killer, a solid get—or finding out who the suspect’s lawyer is from the police. Coverage is almost always one-sided as a result. Those who come to the story late often tell it a bit better, as The New York Times demonstrated in its own coverage of the attack.
The pages of New York tabloids have long been lined with the most sensational descriptions imaginable—a truism that can be used to explain away flippant choices, like the way the Daily News said the stabbing was an act of “quenching his racist thirst.”
Beyond the tabloid flourishes, the Daily News’s Senior Justice Writer Shaun King delivered a broadside to his paper’s coverage, saying:
“As people chip away at [the] character [of black victims of white violence], the hidden message always falls somewhere between “this person might have deserved what they got” and “does it really matter if someone murders a throwaway person.”
This puts King, who is black, in the uncomfortable position of taking aim at his own newsroom, a tension he addresses in the column: “My intention is to say that the great efforts of local reporters run the risk of being soiled by phrases and takes that criminalize blackness and dehumanize people like Timothy Caughman unnecessarily.”
The coverage didn’t just come up short with its descriptions of victim and perpetrator; the Post story also made an unsourced and wholly unsubstantiated claim that the attacker and victim had fought:
The suspect is believed to have stabbed Timothy Caughman several times in the chest and back when the two got into a fight near the corner of Ninth Avenue and West 36th Street around 11:30 p.m. Monday.
Any editor should pump the brakes upon reading that. In breaking news, particularly with crime reporting, some things are easier to nail down than others. Location, time, nature of outcome—these are quickly attainable through police reports (or, more realistically, the police desk jockey who will grudgingly read those back to you). What typically must wait is: the motives, the blow-by-blow of the conflict, the stuff that needs witnesses, interviews, and evidence to determine. Don’t assume what happened in anyone’s last living moments. Editors need to ask reporters “how do we know that?” more often, and reporters may need to go back and press police with the same question.
At least one underlying assumption here is that no one is attacked without provocation, which is patently untrue, particularly when it comes to the deaths of too many black men. Though their reputations were muddied by their attackers and police later, men and boys like Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis were killed for no good reason whatsoever. No one should die for listening to music too loud. No one should die for wearing a hoodie in a cop-wannabe’s neighborhood. No one should die for selling loose cigarettes. But they do. They die for reasons that make no sense.
An editor and a writer may never have intended to make these errors, but the reality is that many people don’t know they are biased. Journalists should at least try to find out. Take some simple quizzes through Harvard to try and measure your own implicit biases around race, gender, sexuality, and other differences that demand consideration for others. The answers may be surprising. No one wants to be the last person to recognize cultural disparity they’re a party to—ahem, Aaron Sorkin.
Beyond that, hold your fire on the dead. Not because you’re going to avoid telling the truth, but because reporting is empathetic work, and your main source can’t tell their own story.
The reverse is also true: Don’t go too far in making an angel of any victim. We are all flawed, and no one deserves a kicker as saccharine as the last sentence of this story. The instinct to dissect the victim’s social media is strong, but posts shared with the world are unlikely to capture an accurate reflection.
In a time when a prominent civil-rights movement calls itself Black Lives Matter, it’s up to media to improve how we cover death in the black community. A core tenet of the movement is to speak the names of the dead, to express a public curiosity about the manner in which black lives are lost—a solemn practice that mirrors the attribution standards and curiosity of good journalism. Every death is grieved by survivors who may not have known the dead: The protest following Timothy Caughman’s death was attended by hundreds, in part to inspire coverage that tells the story the deceased can’t.
Crime reporters should look at their own work in these cases as a first draft of a person’s obituary, with the requisite respectful treatment of the dead.Shaya Tayefe Mohajer teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and works as a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Previously, she was the news editor for TakePart.com and a reporter for The Associated Press. She is a graduate of New York University's masters program in journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Shaya_in_LA.