The Media Today

New footage and old debates in the killing of Tyre Nichols

January 30, 2023

On January 8, the police department in Memphis posted a statement to Twitter claiming that officers had “attempted to make a traffic stop for reckless driving,” that two “confrontations” with the driver had “occurred,” and that “afterward, the suspect complained of having a shortness of breath” and was taken to the hospital in critical condition. The statement also said that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would look into the incident and that the officers involved would be “routinely relieved of duty” pending the findings. Initially, the statement did not attract much news coverage. Later the same day, a story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal led with the TBI probe and prominently noted the paucity of further details in the case; other early stories did likewise, while also echoing the police claim of a “confrontation.” On January 10, the driver, Tyre Nichols, a Black man, died. Two days later, the Commercial Appeal published an obituary, of sorts, having spoken with Nichols’s friends to find out who he really was. The incident had “confused” them, the paper reported, “because they never believed him to be confrontational.”

As the days passed, protests over Nichols’s death swelled, and his family asked the police department to release footage from security cameras and body cameras that the officers had been wearing. A week ago, the family viewed the footage in private; afterward, Ben Crump, their attorney, described it as “heinous” and said that it showed the officers treating Nichols like a “human piñata.” Meanwhile, local law enforcement said that the officers, all of whom were Black, would face “administrative actions,” then that they had been fired, then that they would face charges including second-degree murder. On Friday night, officials released the footage publicly. It showed the officers tasing, pepper-spraying, punching, and kicking Nichols with unrestrained brutality; it also, according to a New York Times analysis, showed them shouting at least seventy-one orders at Nichols, some of which—telling him to show his hands even as officers restrained his hands, for instance—were impossible to follow. The footage did not show why Nichols was pulled over in the first place. Officials have found no evidence to substantiate the claim that he was driving recklessly. His family says he was out photographing the sunset.

Related: ‘Officials Say…’

In giving the lie to the partial, passive, euphemistic language of the initial police statement, the footage, alongside its sickening specificities, pointed to an all-too-familiar pattern: of police departments wantonly mischaracterizing police violence, particularly against people of color. (My then–CJR colleague Alexandria Neason reported on this trend in detail in 2019.) In some ways, the Washington Post reports, the reaction of the Memphis Police Department to its officers’ attack on Nichols diverged from this pattern; Cerelyn Davis, the police chief, said that she found the initial police report in the case “strange” and went to the office to investigate, while the speed with which the officers were fired and charged has won praise in some quarters. Others, including Crump, have suggested that the wheels of justice may not have turned so quickly had the officers been white. And the department still did publicly release the misleading statement in the case—after Davis had already been sent the initial police report, per the Post’s timeline. Lauren Bonds, the executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, told the Post that the first narrative to emerge in a case often sticks, and that, on the whole, she wouldn’t characterize the department’s response in the Nichols case as “a model.”

Broadly speaking, similar conclusions could be said to apply to the media coverage of Nichols’s killing. Early stories about the case—that I saw, at any rate—didn’t uncritically parrot the initial police line, as has happened in similar cases in the past, and yet, in the absence of greater initial transparency, that line did undoubtedly influence the emerging narrative. Since then, other familiar tropes have recurred in coverage of the killing. Various stories have referred to Nichols as an “unarmed Black man,” language that, as Poynter’s Kelly McBride wrote in 2020, is often intended as exculpatory but actually carries troubling assumptions about Black criminality and the justifications for police violence. Even after the footage was released on Friday, some of the other language in stories about Nichols’s killing struck me as overly clinical, even euphemistic. And a slew of news stories used phrasing—braced; calls for calm—that, while reflecting real-world discourse about fears that the footage would spark public unrest, also played into a tired, not to mention speculative, framing of widespread protester violence that did not come to pass.

Various observers, meanwhile, were critical of how major outlets handled the immediate run-up to the release of the footage on Friday: Amanda Calhoun, a psychiatry resident at Yale, told Capital B that the widespread sense of a “countdown” in coverage was “very disturbing,” situating it within the long American history of making displays out of Black death; Tina Vasquez, an editor at large at Prism, described the countdown effect as “predatory,” while Wesley Lowery, a journalist who has long covered police brutality, called it “icky,” and said he’d been “thinking about where the line is between information and spectacle.” And similar questions were asked of the coverage of the footage itself, especially on TV, where major networks broadcast it in the name of newsworthiness; they often prefaced the footage with graphic-content warnings, but it was still hard to avoid, raising concerns, again painfully familiar, as to the psychological toll that viewing such footage takes on news consumers, especially those of color, and whether—not to mention why—we need to see footage of police violence to believe it and be outraged about it. The footage was certainly newsworthy. But newsworthiness must be a function of more than shocking visuals alone.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The release of the footage also revived broader media conversations around police brutality, its causes, and what might be done about it. A Times headline reported that Nichols’s killing had “opened” a “complex conversation” about race and policing since the officers who beat him were Black; this was true, though “reopened” may have been a more accurate characterization of the debate, since, as Lowery and others have reported, the involvement of officers of color in incidents of police brutality is not a new story line. We also heard about the reopening of debate in the context of federal police reforms that were proposed in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but later stalled out in Congress. Nichols’s killing presented, in many of its specifics, an urgent opportunity for the press to again take up the examination of policing as a system, and no few journalists took that opportunity. “Severely curtailing the power of cops and dismantling America’s policing infrastructure have been dismissed as political poison and ruinous to public safety,” Zak Cheney-Rice argued in an essay for New York magazine over the weekend. “But the alternative is a system where inevitable atrocities arise instead, forcing grieving moms and rattled officials to beg people not to burn down their cities.”

Much weekend coverage of police reform, however, lacked focus and imagination, not least on the agenda-setting Sunday shows. CNN’s State of the Union started to get into the topic with a panel discussion. “This is just the beginning of this conversation,” the host, Dana Bash, said, before pivoting to an interview with Chris Sununu, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, which featured two questions about that state’s policing policies and at least ten about the 2024 presidential election and the latest polling thereon. On NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd interviewed Jim Jordan, the new Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which would have oversight of any revived police-reform bill. They talked about policing for six minutes, then engaged for eleven minutes in pointless rhetorical mud-wrestling over unrelated GOP talking points.

These examples reflect a much broader problem: that too much of the American political press has a cripplingly short attention span when it comes to difficult policy questions that don’t result in quick legislative action, even if they never stop being urgent. The press, of course, has a lot of urgent challenges to cover; it’s easy to ask of every one of them, But why isn’t this still the top story? So much of what passes for political journalism, however, is focused not on such challenges but on, well, politics, of the optics-driven, horse-racey variety. It’s hard to interpret urgent policy debates slipping down the news cycles as an inevitable side effect of an abundance of policy challenges when political journalism has such a voracious, long-term attention span when it comes to elections that are still months—or years—away. And this sort of focus does stories like police reform a disservice when they do surge to the top of the news agenda, forcing them, at least in some prominent corners of the news cycle, through the reductive lens of political advantage. During the midterms, policing was only really a major narrative driver as part of a nebulous “crime” focus that was hopelessly blunt—when it wasn’t actively misleading.

At a news conference in Memphis last night, Gloria Sweet-Love, the president of the NAACP’s Tennessee State Conference, echoed a call to congressional action that the organization has repeated since Nichols’s killing: “By failing to craft and pass bills to stop police brutality,” Sweet-Love said, “you’re writing another Black man’s obituary.” The press can’t—and shouldn’t—write bills, and we can’t force lawmakers to act. But we can choose where to place our focus and scrutiny, and so we are at least complicit when, in the absence of those things, inaction thrives. In the end, it’s we who have to write the obituaries.

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Covering carnage

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.