Take special care with coverage of police violence and protests
About our process: In putting together this post, we pulled from resources we’ve published, added wisdom shared by journalists and addressed frustrations we’ve seen from news consumers. We also were mindful of the lack of racial diversity on our small team and are grateful to our partners at the American Press Institute for reviewing it and contributing suggestions.
Each time we’re faced with incidents of police brutality and resulting protests, journalists must make careful decisions about how to accurately and respectfully document events while also mitigating harm — harm to the staff, to the families and people directly involved, and to the community at large.
Those decisions are — and should feel — high stakes. They can have a big impact, and we should take them seriously. Making choices with thoughtfulness, integrity and transparency can help us show care for our communities. It can also help us set ourselves apart in a media landscape full of information outlets more focused on shock value than on the gravity of their responsibilities.
In the wake of the killing of Tyre Nichols, here are some recommendations:
Take care with your colleagues.
You cannot thoughtfully work to earn the trust of your community if you do not also work to earn the trust of your staff. A request of a colleague to watch a violent video or to be fully present with a grieving community should not be treated casually. And it should be accompanied by resources to help them process the potentially traumatic experience. The Dart Center and the International Women’s Media Foundation are a good place to start, as is this piece about care as a core tenet of journalism.
Help your community navigate the news.
Make sure you don’t surprise anyone with violent or graphic footage. If you run it, put it behind a content warning. Also, remind people that it’s okay NOT to watch the video, as Capital B did. And give them tips for how to filter it out of their feeds and searches, as the Memphis Commercial Appeal did before the video was released.
Accept and respect that you’re part of “the media.”
That’s a big umbrella, and you fall under it. You can’t fix it all, but you CAN work to demonstrate your own mission and process in a way that earns trust. Take time to do it, with potential sources and in your coverage.
If you face community criticism about your coverage, pay close attention.
Listen deeply to learn how you might be causing harm or missing part of the story. If you’re hearing feedback or pushback that is uncomfortable, try to lean into it. It might not all necessitate a change in your coverage, but at least it will help you understand perceptions of your work. Do what you can in the moment, and then circle back when you’re out of breaking news mode. (Related resource: Use this community listening guide to gain insight into mistrust.)
Example: In the summer of 2020, WCPO’s former news director Mike Canan took time to explain how his newsroom was working to cover racial justice protests. In the video at the top of the page, he also showed humility and responsiveness in the face of audience criticism, agreeing on air about what he wishes they’d done differently in their coverage.
Take extra care when seeking interviews.
In some cases, you might be asking people to relive trauma. And while it might not feel fair or warranted to you, it’s rational for people to see you as part of the problem and to be wary of whether it’s smart to open their lives up to you. If they’re mad because of how they see the video being played on cable news, for example, you have to earn the right to be seen as different from that.
Dive into complexity instead of ignoring or contributing to lazy narratives.
Complicate the story and reduce stereotypes and assumptions. In the case of Tyre Nichols, the officers involved were all Black. WABC in New York reported on race, police culture and training. And The Marshall Project published a Q&A with a reporter who comes from a family of Black police officers: How Black officers alone can’t stop brutal policing
Be cautious about who you treat as an independent authority and who is a participant in a story.
The Washington Post reported what Memphis police first said happened in their interaction with Nichols, and this case is a reminder of the caution journalists should use with initial press releases from law enforcement. Explain your fact-checking process when you can. And talk in the newsroom about whether you rely on police as the sole source of information. (Related resource: Reinvent your crime coverage to earn trust.)
Be clear and thoughtful with your language.
Research shows the words journalists use while covering a protest can alter the public’s perception of the event. Check your bias, and think about why you might use the word “riot” instead of “protest,” or why you might choose active or passive voice. Then include a note or sentence in the story explaining your word choice (we wrote more about how to do this here.) Here’s how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained their language choices during the Kenosha protests. This can be especially important in headlines and in social media chatter where stories or videos often appear with little context.
Explain what you don’t know rather than just avoiding it.
Our audiences are constantly making assumptions about our motives, and we know from research these assumptions are usually pretty unflattering. If you aren’t telling your audience that you’re seeking answers, it’s likely they’ll assume you’re not asking the important questions — or even worse, assume that you’re actively trying to suppress information. If you don’t know something, consider saying that. And then keep your audience updated on how you’re actively pursuing that information.
Explain how breaking news works.
The story might be changing every hour, and information — even from official sources — might be updated multiple times. So be upfront with your audience and acknowledge that information might change, but tell them you’re committed to pointing them to the most accurate information possible. And if you get something wrong, correct it quickly and transparently. (Related resource: Audit your corrections practices.)
Avoid the worst effects of parachuting in.
When covering a community that is not your own, rely on local journalists and residents to help you understand important context and history. Look to organizations like MLK50 in Memphis to deepen your perspective, and share their links with your own audiences.
Respect the impact of the role you play.
The higher the stakes, the more natural it is for your community to be wary of your motives. Remember that you have power as a news organization and that you are likely to be seen as part of the problem by people with less power. Talk as openly as you can in the newsroom and with your community about the goals of your coverage. And use your platform to contribute to the health of the community.
At Trusting News, we learn how people decide what news to trust and turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We train and empower journalists to take responsibility for demonstrating credibility and actively earning trust through transparency and engagement. We’re co-hosted by the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute. Subscribe to our Trust Tips newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Read more about our work at TrustingNews.org.