George Floyd Protest Coverage is Violating Basic Rules of Journalism

AN OPEN LETTER TO AMERICAN NEWS MEDIA BY A FORMER JOURNALIST

Dear Journalists,

The protests you are covering are protests against actions by law enforcement. According to one of the fundamental rules of journalism, news stories must cover both sides.

On one side, you have masses of people demanding an end to a system that allows the police to harass, assault, and murder Black Americans with impunity. On another side, you have the police, who are simultaneously the target of these protests, and also the only ones with legal authority to use force against people who are protesting them.

Such an obvious conflict of interest should immediately trigger caution and skepticism in any halfway-decent reporter, yet instead you are treating police as a neutral third party. Time and time again, you uncritically report statements from law enforcement without even getting protesters’ side of the story.

Let’s examine this piece from Minnesota Public Radio. (“Floyd protests: Protesters march, block traffic; Walz extends curfew,” May 31, last updated 6:52pm)

On the law enforcement side, this article quotes or attributes information to law enforcement eleven different times. One of these sources is the Minneapolis Police Department itself; others include “public safety leaders,” Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington, the St. Paul Police Department, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, the National Guard, and Paul Schnell, “the state corrections commissioner and part of the leadership team overseeing the response.”

In contrast, not a single protester is given any voice in this story. The closest the article comes is to provide comments from Floyd’s family attorney Ben Crump, but he discusses only the murder charges, not the protests.

On three occasions, the story summarizes some immediate goals of the protesters, but never with a specific source. The groups referenced are, in order, “speakers and crowd members,” “Floyd’s family and many protesters,” and “many.”

This unequal weighting of perspective is likely why we are bombarded with references to “violent protesters” but almost never hear about “violent police.” The narrative you offer us over and over is that police allow peaceful protests but step in with teargas and rubber bullets when the crowds start to get violent.

This narrative is at odds with what I’ve heard from protesters not just in Minneapolis but across the country. They say that police routinely fire on peaceful protesters before any property has been destroyed, intentionally escalating the situation, often while making threatening comments.

If you were trying to tell both sides of the story, you would include this perspective — not as the truth, unless you can prove it, but as a counterclaim; e.g. “Police say X but protesters say Y.” Right now you are just stating “X” as fact. That is not good journalism; in fact, I would argue it’s not journalism at all.

This tendency is made even more perplexing when you consider that law-abiding journalists themselves have been teargassed, blinded by rubber bullets, and arrested on air. One would think this might tip journalists off to the idea that maybe they should not implicitly trust law enforcement — a tip that should be redundant given that journalists are not supposed to implicitly trust anyone.

But no. The only time police violence against peaceful protesters got any meaningful coverage was when it was done at the behest of President Donald Trump — and the next day, the old narratives seem unaffected. This morning, The Associated Press reported a calm night in which “protests were largely peaceful.” Were the police also largely peaceful? The question is not asked.

Finally, in another violation of the basic rules of journalism, protesters are never offered any right of reply. Numerous online videos depict white people smashing store windows, looting, and tagging walls while Black activists scream at them to stop, yet all property damage is attributed to “protesters.” Protesters are not even given the ability to deny accusations against them in the press, much less invited to explain or justify their actions.

In contrast, police are always granted this right. The MPR piece cited earlier included one paragraph about law enforcement arresting journalists and assaulting people on their porches with paint canisters, followed by two paragraphs in which an official got to explain why it happened.

Even as a member of a CNN camera crew was being arrested on live television, he said to police, “Why are you arresting us? We’re just passing along the message — your message.”

This statement feels accurate. That is exactly what most of your news reports are doing.

Please do your job instead.