The Media Today

Breonna Taylor, Sarah Everard, and the relentless police story

March 15, 2021

Last week, Shaylah Brown and Marina Affo, reporters with the USA Today Network, came together, on the paper’s 5 Things podcast, to discuss the killing of Breonna Taylor—a Black emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, who was shot by police in her apartment a year ago Saturday—and their experiences covering the story as Black women journalists. “I’m twenty-six, she was twenty-six, and her life was only just beginning,” Brown said. “She easily could have been any one of us… You can literally sit in your house, not go out at all, lock the doors, and you can still be killed by the police.” They also critiqued aspects of the media coverage of Taylor’s killing, including the need to humanize her, a lack of context around police brutality, and the time it took after her death for her story to be told. “There wasn’t any coverage for a long time, and after there was coverage, there were still people questioning who she was, and who she associated with,” Affo said. “As soon as it’s a Black woman who police killed, you’re like, well, there has to be something else, there has to be more to the story. Maybe it was her fault.

Over the weekend, the one-year marker of the killing inspired a further wave of coverage, much of it pegged to fresh protests, in Louisville and elsewhere, for justice (no officer was criminally charged with shooting Taylor; one was charged with endangering her neighbors), and to a federal lawsuit that Taylor’s boyfriend just filed against Louisville police. It’s not just Taylor: other stories of police brutality and wrongdoing that sparked last year have continued to reverberate through the present news cycle. Last week, a trial began in the case of Derek Chauvin, the white cop who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, in May, and the city agreed to pay nearly thirty-million dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by Floyd’s family. In Iowa, Andrea Sahouri, a Des Moines Register reporter who was arrested while covering the protests that followed Floyd’s killing, was acquitted; in DC, the House passed a policing bill named for Floyd, spurring some coverage of where federal and local reform bills sit nine or so months after they were proposed. Jamiles Lartey, of the Marshall Project, told The Takeaway last week that the House bill, while significant, seems unlikely to gain traction in the Senate; local bills, meanwhile, have proven hard to cleanly track since different states started at different points and proposed different measures. (Of late, some bills have moved to give police more power, not less.) The Black press has continued to cover policing stories, as have many local outlets (as any glance at “Local Matters,” a weekly newsletter that spotlights local watchdog reporting, will attest).

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There have been new policing outrages to report, too, not least those stemming from the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6—yesterday, the New York Times’s top story online related how, in the runup, federal and local police failed to take action to stop, and sometimes appeared to side with, senior members of the far-right Proud Boys. (Law enforcement perceived them as “guys-that-drink-too much-after-the-football-game-and-tend-to-get-into-bar-fights type of people,” one official said.) And a major policing story out of the UK has started to make headlines in the US. Earlier this month, Sarah Everard, a thirty-three-year-old white woman, disappeared while walking home in London; her body was later found in woodland and a police officer from an armed unit responsible for Parliamentary and diplomatic protection was charged with her kidnap and murder. Over the weekend, police refused to condone a vigil for Everard near the site of her abduction, citing coronavirus restrictions; when protesters turned up anyway, officers forcibly arrested some of them, and there were further reports of police violence.

Domestically, the response to the vigil sparked widespread outrage, including in right-wing newspapers: a photo of officers pinning a woman to the floor has been ubiquitous; this morning, the Daily Mail splashed the headline “SHAMING OF THE MET,” using shorthand for the London police. Claims of a mediawide reckoning with aggressive policing, however, fall short: some commentators have coopted the outrage to score anti-lockdown points; others have explicitly contrasted the Everard vigil, which they saw as righteous, with Britain’s own George Floyd protests last summer, which they did not, and which did not inspire the same degree of coverage or skeptical sentiment. (“Witnessing many white people only just now realising police are bad when black people marched for our lives not even a year ago is quite a bitter pill to swallow,” Jason Okundaye, a writer and columnist, tweeted.) Even coverage of the vigil policing was not uniformly clear enough: while it was ongoing, the BBC described a “confrontation with police at ‘unsafe’ vigil.” (It later updated this wording to: “clashes break out.”)

This type of language serves as a universal reminder that the routine frames news outlets use to talk about policing are still in need of reform. Last week, HuffPost UK’s Sarah Turnnidge reported that police communications staffers in London have disproportionately focused their PR outreach on cases involving Black defendants; Turnnidge’s colleague Ramzy Alwakeel wrote afterward that journalists have been complicit in turning such talking points into racist coverage. This dynamic is deeply familiar in the US, where, as Alexandria Neason has written in depth for CJR, police departments routinely plant misinformation in news reports, using it to soften scrutiny of their officers. Floyd’s killing and the events of last summer sparked an industry discussion about pro-police stenography, and the soft, impersonal language that often facilitates it. A quick Google search for phrases like “officer-involved shooting” and police “officials say” (the headline of Neason’s piece) shows that many news organizations still have plenty of work to do. (Some topline coverage of the policing of the weekend’s Taylor protests, for instance, was opaque.)

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More broadly, even the many good policing stories we’re seeing at the moment are just that: stories, plural, about things, plural, happening in different cities, or states, or countries. They have, by and large, not been connected by a collective focus on policing—as an institution and universal mode of power—of the type that started, at least, to be applied last summer. The inability of national news agenda-setters to train attention on problems for as long as it takes to effect change is a familiar one; so are the political news-judgment rhythms that see the poor Senate prospects of the House policing bill as making it a less urgent story to tell, rather than a more urgent one. The presence of a broader narrative doesn’t make an individual policing story any better or worse, in terms of journalistic quality—but it is critical in deciding whose stories the broader public should care about, and how much. If this weekend’s Taylor coverage marked a year since police killed her, it marked many fewer months, as USA Today’s Affo noted, since the national press really picked up her story. As Neason wrote last May, “all too often, Black people’s lives become pawns in a war of attention and scarce resources. In recent years, coverage has come and gone.” Twitter, she added, “is not an adequate assignment editor.”

Below, more on the police, law enforcement, and the press:

  • Journalists and the police, I: On Friday, police in Portland, Oregon, “kettled” protesters by confining them to a downtown block, and forced various members of the media who were observing the scene to leave the area. “Despite a court order prohibiting officers from dispersing members of the media and legal observers, multiple journalists were prevented from staying with the group and documenting the officers,” Jonathan Levinson, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, writes. “Video posted online shows one photojournalist, Maranie Rae, who has freelanced for the Washington Post and the New York Times among others, being forcibly removed from the kettle by police despite identifying herself as a member of the media.” (Despite this evidence, police officials denied that they “removed” reporters.)
  • Journalists and the police, II: Sahouri, of the Des Moines Register, may have been acquitted, but other journalists who were arrested at protests last year still face charges or other legal consequences, as I reported recently in this newsletter; many of those affected are freelancers who lack the institutional support of a major news organization. “It’s just like this weird, uneasy, uncertain dark cloud that has been following me around for a whole year,” Richard Cummings, a freelance photojournalist who was arrested in Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 1 told me.
  • Journalists and the justice system: Last year, Andrea Gallo, a reporter at the Advocate and Times-Picayune, requested records related to sexual-harassment complaints against Pat Magee, a top aide to Jeff Landry, Louisiana’s attorney general; in a highly-unusual, and much-criticized, response, Landry countersued Gallo, but a judge sided with the reporter. Last week, Magee resigned as a second complaint came to light.
  • Journalists and framing the police: AdWeek’s Scott Nover spoke with Gabe Schneider about the founding of The Objective, a Substack-based collective that came together last year, and aims to cover the shortcomings of American journalism and media criticism. Asked about the collective’s origins, Schneider referred to Medium posts he wrote criticizing the media response to Floyd’s killing. “At times of intense unrest and in times when Black folks are killed, there’s always a certain knee-jerk angry reaction,” Schneider said. “That’s justified.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.