Lets talk about race and the news media.
On Wednesday afternoon, a man went on a shooting spree in a Seattle neighborhood, killing two people and seriously injuring several others, including a Metro bus driver.
Initial news stories identified him ONLY as a man.
No name. No description. No photos.
That’s a pretty good clue that the perp is white because if the accused is a person of color, that’s almost always in the story. In “White Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” researchers William Mingus and Bradley Zopf (2010) explain:
White males who kill multiple people in schools, movie theaters, malls, and other places are typically seen as pathological, abnormal, aberrations; they are never seen as representatives of the race… A suspect is described in the media as “black” or “African American,” but rarely does a “white” or “Caucasian” suspect get such a label. In our ideological construction of race, whiteness is not seen as a race; it is instead the norm, invisible and universal.
Another clue that he’s white: he’s alive.
The gunman then carjacked a red Prius, shooting and killing the 50-year-old driver, police said. When officers arrived, they tried to talk to the gunman, Green said. But the gunman closed the car door and took off in the Prius, with officers pursuing him for about a block and a half “at a high rate of speed,” according to police. [CNN]
Compare this incident with the US Park Police murder of a POC in DC in 2017. I don’t think the difference in police response is simply because Seattle police are more racially aware.
After all, the Seattle Chief of Police Marc Garth Green told news media Wednesday night:
This is a random, senseless act… that some type of issue surrounding him, maybe mental health, or substance abuse, or something along those lines may have triggered this (emphasis added).
Nope. Not more aware. Research illustrates how news media treat criminals differently based on the color of their skin.
… holding all aspects of the crime equal — white shooters were nearly 95 percent more likely to have their crimes attributed to mental illness than black shooters.
Perhaps news media report in this manner because that’s how the cops frame the shooting, even if it’s inaccurate. A 2018 FBI report revealed that although most mass shooters are white men who obtained their weapons legally, only one-in-four were diagnosed as mentally ill.
It was clear to the cops that the shooter was white, not just because they’d talked to him after he murdered a man in order to steal his car. KIRO7 ran this photo in a slideshow on Thursday (not the lead image) on his ultimate arrest:
Friday, the Seattle Times posted a photo from the scene (remember, the shooting was Wednesday afternoon) with a clear view of the 33-year-old. A self-professed ‘recovering’ alcoholic, he told police that he bought booze on Wednesday, then played Xbox games. He remembers nothing. Convenient black out, but with an active gun in hand. Grand Theft Auto, anyone?
King County prosecutors rush-filed criminal charges Friday against 33-year-old Tad-Michael Norman, accusing him of two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, each with a firearm enhancement.
Does it matter that reporters ignored his skin color? A textual analysis (Master’s thesis) of news from 2015 found that that “black” was used three times more in news reporting than “white.”
The over usage of the word “black” becomes a racial micro- aggression because it can condition the mind to associate the word with negative connotation.
Yes, how we describe those accused of crimes matters. As long as every person of color who is charged with a crime is identified by skin color or ethnicity in a news story ... then white people should also be identified as such. Media must break this “white is the default setting” tone.
Is the color of a man’s skin “relevant” when describing someone who has gone on a murder spree?
Probably not if the person has been arrested. But yes if the person is at large.
On Friday, the Associated Press announced updates to its stylebook. From Poynter:
AP has long given journalists latitude to use news judgment in determining how pertinent it is to include race in news coverage. But this year’s updates note that race is often “an irrelevant factor” and cautions journalists to be clear about the role of race before they include racial identifiers.
Historically that has not been how media have treated suspects or criminals. So much so that we can guess, with a high degree of accuracy, if a gunman is white. Perhaps the coverage of the Seattle shooting is a first step. We’ll see.
What do you think? Should the Times have run Friday’s photo on Wednesday? Should news media have described the shooter as white, not just male? Why or why not?