The Media Today

Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and the arbitrariness of the police-shooting news cycle

August 26, 2020

On Sunday, police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, seven times. Blake had been climbing into a car with three of his sons in the back seat; the eldest was celebrating his eighth birthday. Today, Blake is alive and conscious, though the bullets severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him. Members of Blake’s family and Benjamin Crump, their attorney, held a press conference in Kenosha that was carried live on cable news. A reporter asked Jacob Blake, Sr., Blake’s father, how the children were coping. “The whole picture plays over and over in front of their little faces,” Blake, Sr. said. Then he turned the question on the reporter: “How would you feel if your white son walked up to you as a mother and said, ‘Mommy, why did the police shoot my daddy in the back?’ You have no clue.” At protests in Kenosha, police used tear gas to disperse the crowds. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections building in Kenosha was burned to the ground. On a wall amid the rubble, someone daubed the words, “ARE YOU LISTENING YET?”

The precise circumstances surrounding the police shooting of Blake remain murky—in large part because local law enforcement officials haven’t yet released basic details to the press. We still don’t know the identity of the officer who shot Blake, though we do know that the officer has been placed on leave. At the press conference, Crump accused local police of keeping Blake’s family in the dark, even though the family has cooperated with police inquiries. “It’s kinda ironic how that always happens,” Crump said. “What we are demanding is transparency.” The lack of honest information is, of course, a classic police tactic; as CJR’s Alexandria Neason wrote last year, police departments are commonly more concerned with image management than with the timely airing of truth. Officials often spin a preferred narrative around shootings at which police are at fault; reporters have tended to accept police statements as fact. As news of Blake broke, some outlets took that approach, echoing the phrase “officer-involved shooting” from a Kenosha Police Department press release. As Mya Frazier wrote recently for CJR, many journalists still reflexively use those words—a moral failure always, and an especially obvious one since May, when a white officer named Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Yesterday, the AP reminded newsrooms following its stylebook that they should use words that communicate who did the shooting.

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These elements of the Blake story feel despairingly repetitive. So does the fact that his name came to widespread media attention via a graphic cellphone video that showed police shooting him. The footage circulated on social media, then on cable news, along with the customary warning that This Is Hard To Watch. In May, Neason critiqued the role that such videos have played in bringing police brutality and white supremacy to national attention. “The videos draw focus to cases—and clicks to websites—but they are also used as a way to spark apathetic white and other non-Black people to action, at the expense of subjecting Black people to the trauma of witnessing violence against their communities,” she argued. “Black people have never needed video footage to be convinced of a problem.”

As Neason wrote in May, the killing of Breonna Taylor—a twenty-six-year-old emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, whom police shot in March during a home raid—was not captured on tape, and subsequently took a long time to break into the national consciousness. Since the killing of Floyd, Taylor’s case has received more attention. Ongoing protests in Louisville have dipped in and out of the major news cycle; images of Taylor have appeared on the covers of O, The Oprah Magazine and, as of this week, Vanity Fair. (The former cover was the first not to feature Oprah in that magazine’s history; the latter was painted by Amy Sherald, an artist who, among other things, made Michelle Obama’s official portrait.) Taylor’s belated recognition from national publications is a legacy, in no small part, of tireless activism and persistent local coverage—though some have argued that the meme-filled memorialization of Taylor has veered too far away from the story of her life.

Although the police shootings of Floyd, Taylor, and (for now) Blake have become big national stories, the same cannot be said of many other recent victims of racist violence. When Garrett Rolfe, a white officer in Atlanta, killed Rayshard Brooks, a twenty-seven-year-old Black man, in June, at the height of the protests that followed Floyd’s death, one might have thought it would become an enduring national story, but it faded from view. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least five Black trans women were killed in July—Shaki Peters, in Amite City, Louisiana; Bree Black, in Pompano Beach, Florida; Dior H. Ova, in the Bronx; Queasha D Hardy, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Aja Raquell Rhone-Spears, in Portland, Oregon—yet none of their names has become familiar in news reports. Two days before Blake was shot, police in Lafayette, Louisiana, shot and killed a Black man named Trayford Pellerin. Pellerin’s name was repeatedly mentioned at the Blake family’s press conference—and that may have been the first time many people had heard it.

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The reasons some of these cases get more coverage than others—stereotypes around what makes a “sympathetic” victim, whether there’s a video, what else is going on in the news that day—are numerous and well-known, and the resulting disparities are, ultimately, arbitrary. Still, it’s striking that even sustained national attention to police brutality against Black people isn’t enough to ensure sweeping change in American policy or practice. A functioning government and media should be able to juggle numerous urgent priorities at once—after all, that’s the reality we’re in. The longer our institutions fumble, the more Black people will die. It’s a miracle that Blake is alive.

Below, more on race and journalism in America:

  • Breaking news: Early this morning, police in Kenosha said that two people were killed and another was injured during the protests last night, possibly by a white gunman brandishing a rifle. Self-styled armed militia members have been known to crash the anti-racism demonstrations; it’s not yet clear if the gunman was affiliated with such a group, though the New York Times reports that the shootings followed a confrontation between protesters and a group of armed men who said they were defending a gas station. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the latest.
  • Jacob Blake: Julie Bosman and Richard A. Oppel, Jr. report, for the New York Times, that the Kenosha Police Department was already under scrutiny prior to the shooting of Blake. The police chief “has a reputation for focusing on administrative matters rather than personal interactions with Kenosha residents,” Bosman and Oppel write. “Critics of the department say it has been slow to adopt changes and build trust among residents, even after a national wave of calls for overhauling police departments in recent years.”
  • Ahmaud Arbery: For the New Yorker Radio Hour, Caroline Lester investigated the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was killed in February by three white men in Brunswick, Georgia. Even though one of the men filmed the killing, no arrests were made in the case for seventy-four days. Lester observed “a fundamental problem for criminal-justice reform: we may change the laws that govern policing, but those laws have to be vigorously enforced. And district attorneys may have little incentive to do so.”
  • Breonna Taylor: Yesterday morning, the Louisville Courier-Journal published an article, based on a Louisville police report that had not otherwise been made public, alleging close ties between Taylor and an ex-partner who has been accused of dealing drugs. The Courier-Journal quickly removed the article from its website; shortly afterward, Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, released a statement calling the article “reckless,” since the official investigation into Taylor’s killing has not yet concluded. Later, the Courier-Journal published an amended version of the article along with an editor’s note explaining that the original text had been published “before final edits were made.”
  • Movement journalism: For Nieman Reports, Tina Vasquez, a senior reporter at Prism, explores the concept of “movement journalism,” which requires “unlearning transactional and extractive practices and doing away with the myth of objectivity.” Now more than ever, Vasquez writes, the media industry needs “community-focused, solutions-based reporting—and this reporting is at the core of movement journalism.”
  • Meanwhile, in the UK: For Each Other, Anne Alexander, a senior producer with Britain’s ITV, writes about her experience being the only Black female journalist in the Lobby (basically the British equivalent of the White House press corps). “During the many months of the daily coronavirus press conferences, that the questioners were almost exclusively white,” Alexander writes. “It should not be a big deal to see a black or brown person asking a politician a question at a UK press conference. But it still is.”

Other notable stories:

  • Maria Bustillos, a journalist who is, among other things, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, is launching the Brick House, which she calls a “wolf-proof” media cooperative. The Brick House will pool subscribers, revenues, and expenses among nine member outlets, including OlongoAfrica, a pan-African opinion site run by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún; FAQ NYC, a podcast about New York from Harry Siegel and Alex Brook Lynn; and Popula, Bustillos’s own news and culture site. “Journalism isn’t a zero-sum game to be won; it’s a public trust,” Bustillos writes for CJR. “Solidarity is not what we were taught, but it is what we need.”
  • As many universities bring students back to campus amid the pandemic, administrators’ differing attitudes to privacy and transparency are creating “a patchwork of reporting standards” nationwide, the Wall Street Journal’s David Uberti reports. Schools are grappling with “how to collect and share data about the virus, raising questions among some students and faculty of where legal compliance ends and public relations begins.”
  • Facebook’s news tab is available only in the US, and the company is hurrying to change that, with plans to open the news tab in countries such as the UK, India, and Brazil. As in the US, Facebook will pay outlets for the privilege of showing users their news stories. As Axios notes, however, the news tab will not be launching in Australia, where officials intend to force Facebook to pay publishers on the government’s terms. Facebook opposes that policy.
  • For the Washington Post, Sarah Ellison and Jonathan O’Connell assess the uncertain future of the National Enquirer, whose parent company, American Media Inc., will soon be taken over by a logistics and marketing firm. The Enquirer, Ellison and O’Connell write, may have become “too hot to handle.” (ICYMI, Simon van Zuylen-Wood profiled the Enquirer for CJR’s Fall 2019 magazine on disinformation.)
  • For CJR, Bill Grueskin asks why the Post plastered its homepage with dishonest ads for the Trump campaign, even though the Post editorial board has castigated Facebook for running similar ads. “No doubt, the advertising department isn’t dictating what runs on the editorial page. But that’s not really the point,” he writes. “Democracy dies in darkness, the Post’s slogan declares. But it can suffocate in hypocrisy, too.”
  • Last month, China imposed a draconian new security law in Hong Kong; since then, Paul Mozur reports for the Times, officials have used increasingly devious tactics to surveil and hack the digital accounts of prominent activists and journalists. Recently, after police arrested Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon, a person claiming to be from tech support tried to coax Lai’s Twitter password from one of his employees.
  • For Rest of World, Tamara Evdokimova profiles Stepan Putilo, a Belarusian journalist based in Poland who runs NEXTA_live, a popular channel on the secure app Telegram. Recently, as demonstrations rocked Belarus in protest of a disputed election, independent news sites were taken down, part of a broader internet outage. “NEXTA was one of the only news sources sharing live footage from Belarus that remained accessible,” Evdokimova writes.
  • Over the weekend, unidentified arsonists petrol-bombed the offices of Canal de Mozambique and CanalMoz, two independent newspapers in Mozambique. Local observers suggested that the attack may have been linked to the papers’ recent reporting on corruption in the fuel-retail business. The Associated Press has more.
  • And Jerry Falwell, Jr., resigned as president of Liberty University following a report in Reuters alleging his involvement (which he denies) in a three-way affair. Falwell told the Post that he’s quitting to spare Liberty the embarrassment, but also said he had become “bored” at the school. (For more on Falwell and the press, read Bob Norman in CJR.)

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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.