Just before the holidays, on December 23, a man in a windbreaker and sneakers got into a verbal altercation with an on-duty, uniformed female transit employee that escalated into a physical assault. According to police, the man put the 28-year-old woman into a bear hug and slammed her to the ground where he began choking her. Thankfully, another employee rushed to her aid and the assailant fled.
The next day, the police released images of the attacker and asked the public for help identifying him. The New York Daily News ran the story in their typically sensationalist way. They described the man as a “brute” and a “thug” and described the incident in lurid detail and begged for readers to help ID the coward who attacked the woman and “ran away smiling.”
The problem? The man turned out to be an off-duty NYPD police officer and the New York Daily News, like almost every other media outlet in the country — liberal or conservative — has a completely different set of rules for covering police officers accused of committing a crime. By the next day, the story had been cleaned up.
Shrill, an eagle-eyed writer for Wonkette, noticed the blatant change in tone from one day to the next after the paper learned that this attacker was no random guy, but actually a police officer. The change in title and opening paragraph say it all:
Shrill aptly sums up the differences:
“Notice anything? Gone is the evocative “thug” in the headline and the “hulking brute” of the lede, and the sensationalism of the label of an “unprovoked” attack, replaced by plainspoken and bare nouns. Gone, too, is the directness of the active voice, replaced by a circumspect passive voice, accompanied by the (necessary) lawyerly “allegedly.” The callousness of him smiling has been dropped, too, demoted to the second paragraph. This is no surprise — it’s just an example of the subtle way in which our media defers to and genuflects before law enforcement, shaping and coloring the narrative in their favor.”
To say that the media insulates officers from criticism is not an an exaggeration. What’s more, the way the media absolves officers of wrongdoing gets more troubling than that. And infinitely subtler.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has often noted, for example, how the phraseology of stories about police leans in the favor of the officers. Rather than give the cops agency, the media typically describes their actions in the passive voice: “There was an officer-involved shooting” rather than the more specific, “an officer shot a person.” Likewise, an officer “discharged his weapon,” which is a pretty generous way of writing “fired his gun at someone.”
When a New York officer accidentally shot an unarmed black man in a darkened stairwell, the New York Times had this to say about the incident (emphasis added):
At the same time, a man and his girlfriend, frustrated by a long wait for an elevator, entered the seventh-floor stairwell, 14 steps below. In the darkness, a shot rang out from the officer’s gun, and the 28-year-old man below was struck in the chest and, soon after, fell dead.
“A shot rang out from the officer’s gun.” Who is the actor there? The gun? So much for the old NRA adage “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Apparently officers’ guns do.
The pro-cop lean isn’t always obvious, and to the credit of the New York Times, the article does get around to mentioning that the officer killed a kid essentially due to incompetence and stupidity, but the framing still exists and it has very real implications.
As our nation reflects on how several high-profile cases of “officer-involved killings” not only didn’t lead to charges, but weren’t even fully investigated, it’s worth remembering that the same people who read the newspaper day-after-day also sit on a grand jury. The bias, subtle as it is, permeates our culture and leads even the most “objective” person to want to give officers the benefit of the doubt.
How that manifests itself is complex and not fully studied. What we do know is that cops are almost never held accountable for wrongdoing and even when they are caught on tape doing a despicable crime, they aren’t usually called “thugs” or “brutes” — even if that’s what they are. Not after the reporter notices their badge, at least.