Inadvertent Media Demonization?

Several weeks ago, a police officer in Salt Lake City went to investigate a report of a man with a snow shovel behaving erratically. When the officer found the man, he asked for his name. Within moments, the man attacked to officer with the shovel. The officer shot and killed the man – but only after that officer had received significant injuries, including a broken arm and foot. The officer was wearing a body cam, and the footage of that camera shows unequivocally that the officer in no way threatened the man and that the man attacked the officer with no provocation.

In late January, in Denver, Denver police stopped a stolen car containing five teenagers. Police testimony stated that the officers fired at the car when the driver aimed the car at the officers and struck one, breaking his leg. The driver died from the gunshots. The teenagers insist that the police stopped the car, then were stepping away when the officers shot the driver, who lost control of the car, which then struck the officer. The teen testimony tends to overlook one critical fact. If the car was stopped and not in gear, it couldn’t have moved when the driver was shot, and everyone agrees that it did. Moreover, the driver had been stopped by the Colorado Highway Patrol several weeks before and cited for driving 25 miles per hour over the speed limit and attempting to elude the highway patrol officer.

Then there is the Michael Brown case. No matter what anyone says, Brown had committed two crimes and attacked a policeman.

I’m not saying that law enforcement is always right or sacrosanct. Law enforcement is like any other profession. Most of the police are basically good people, but every large law enforcement agency has its bad apples, just as the medical, legal, software, and any other profession have their bad apples. And the media is right to run stories that call attention to possible wrong-doing, provided that the reports are accurate and as objective as possible.

What angers me is that those people close to the shovel wielder, the Latino teenager, or Michael Brown immediately come up with stories about how good those individuals were… and how awful the police were… and the media immediately broadcasts them. I’m sure each of those individuals did in fact do some good deeds, but so have some of the worse criminals on record. That doesn’t excuse the fact that in these cases, the police officers had reason to fear for their lives – and that their attackers were not the innocents portrayed by the media… and that all the demonstrations and the publicity given them represent misplaced media hype.

Yes… we could stand improved police training in using lethal force and in dealing with underprivileged citizenry angry with years of discrimination, but trumping up media coverage in dubious cases such as these is counterproductive. Maybe I’ve missed it, but where was the national coverage of the black man shot in a Walmart while inspecting a BB gun? Where are the news stories about true minority innocents actually victimized by shoddy or prejudiced law enforcement? I’m sure there are some, and probably a lot, but discovering and covering those takes work. Covering the sensational instances doesn’t. Just load up your instacam or whatever and listen to those with an ax to grind. Quick work and high ratings, just like that.

But the result of quick and easy coverage is, in effect, a sensationalist demonization of law enforcement, rather than a thoughtful examination of both sides. What I’ve been seeing doesn’t represent anything close to impartial news reporting. It’s simply ratings gathering that contributes to societal polarization. It’s also making it harder and harder for many law enforcement agencies to attract top quality recruits.

But then, who really wants objectivity? It’s all too clear that, no matter what people say, most just want news that confirms their beliefs… and too much of the media, at least right now, appears to be too profit-driven to be anywhere close to objective in dealing with hot-button issues. And that means we all lose.

11 thoughts on “Inadvertent Media Demonization?”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    I’ve also found part of it comes from this deluded idea of how well trained officers are or how much effort it takes to do something without harm.

    I’m reminded of a while back a story I read. Police were called because a parent claimed their daughter was threatening suicide. Officers arrived on the scene to find daughter had a knife and had so far cut herself and was bleeding, though apparently non-lethally. The officer approached trying to defuse the situation. The girl pointed the knife at the officer. The officer stopped moving. The girl moved as if to turn the knife on herself and the officer tazed her, causing her to freeze up, be unable to cause more harm to herself or others.

    No other force was used. But the officer was demonized because he “Should have been able to just disarm her, he’s big and she’s a small untrained girl, it’d be easy.” To make it more bizarre I had people insist on how simple it was despite lack of real knowledge on the subject. To the point that when I commented that I had over a decade of weapons and combat training and that in sparring and sport I make it a point to be very good at disarming (it looks cool) And despite all that training and practice my success rate is something like 10% or so at best. Not something I would ever rely on in a real situation.

    The response I got, universally, was that police are far better trained than I am and should have just been able to handle it without using a taser…

    Makes me wonder if some level of martial training would be beneficial for people, if just to let them learn practical limitations in terms of applying force.

  2. Nathaniel says:

    The media reporting on cases where police officers were clearly in the wrong is out there, it just doesn’t make the national news- most people aren’t as interested in those stories. To pick a non-lethal example, an officer in my city (Seattle) came across a black man in his 60s this past Summer using a golf club as a cane as he walked around town, as he had for over two decades. She stopped to talk to him, then arrested him for swinging the golf club at her… except her dash cam footage showed he didn’t move at all or pick up the golf club before she started screaming that he was acting aggressively towards her. Even the police union isn’t backing her, and in this town they’ll back anyone with a badge. A few years prior, in a more lethal example, a Native American man was jogging across the street holding a whittling knife (as he was a wood carver) when a police officer shot him, feeling that (without any interaction with him) that a man jogging with a knife was an imminent threat.

    There’s no point demonizing police officers- they have a tough job, and every day is full of stressful situations. But there’s no reason to canonize them either- it’s the only profession where we allow them to kill citizens on their own recognizance, so we have to hold them to a high standard.

    Furthermore, while media muckrackers may show sensationalist reports of complex issues, that’s nothing new- that’s all they have done as long as newspapers/television has been around. True unbiased journalism has been a minority viewpoint as long as journalism has been around, and as much as it’s a shame lets not pretend that we are in a fallen age following in the footsteps of a golden era of real journalism.

  3. Bob Vowell says:

    Police are people too. They are just as good or bad as the people they serve, some have personal demons just like civilians and there are few nationwide who are criminals. Most cops are good people out to help. They naturally tend to get cynical about human nature. At the end of the day though almost every cop does not want to kill anyone. Focusing on hyped up and spun stories makes police departments close ranks and not look at incidents critically. Maybe the cop did 99 things right and 1 minor unrelated thing wrong or that could have been done better. That 1 thing will be ignored because of the media storm.

  4. Tony says:

    The dominant narrative is that people of color and, in particular, black men, are threats to law and order and, in particular, the safety and security of white, middle class people. Thus, the usual local crime report will typically present only the most negative stereotypes and allegations regarding persons of color, while failing to present and/or minimizing any favorable information. There has always been an effort within minority communities to provide a more balanced portrayal of minority victims of police violence, but these efforts have generally failed as a result of the dominant narrative.

    In recent years, there has been an emerging story of police brutality and, in particular, the excessive use of both non-lethal and lethal force by members of law enforcement. The brutality originated as a mechanism to maintain American racial segregation and class exploitation, but the awareness of the brutality is spreading as a result of smart phones and youtube. With the development of social media, cheap video, and police body cams, the white American mainstream has had to confront the reality of the disparate impact of heavy-handed law enforcement on poor communities and on communities of color. Thus, in some rare cases, such as that of Michael Brown, the counter-narrative that “black lives matter” has begun to gain some traction.

    Nevertheless, there is no perfect victim. There is no perfect symbol. All humans are flawed. This is true of both the recipients of police violence, as well as of the uniformed perpetuators of that violence. And it is to be expected that a person’s friends and family—whether it be the associates of police officers who kill or the associates of the officers’ victims—will speak charitably of the person involved. Every murderer has a mother who, presumably, loved him. Yet, Mr. Modesitt writes,

    “What angers me is that those people close to the shovel wielder, the Latino teenager, or Michael Brown immediately come up with stories about how good those individuals were… and how awful the police were… and the media immediately broadcasts them. . . .That doesn’t excuse the fact that in these cases, the police officers had reason to fear for their lives – and that their attackers were not the innocents portrayed by the media… and that all the demonstrations and the publicity given them represent misplaced media hype.”

    It is a good thing that the media has finally started to broadcast these stories. It is beneficial that the media has finally started to report some of the favorable characteristics of the victims of police violence, like Michael Brown. It is about that there is at least some small amount of information to counter the dominant narrative that people of color are threats to whites.

    White officers will always fear a person of color. Thus, “[y]oung black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.” (see http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white).

    Nevertheless, local news crews are trying to shoe horn incidents – particularly involving non-blacks – into the emerging story of police brutality, whether fitting or not. This is one of the key problems with the example of James Dudley Baker, a white man shot to death by Salt Lake City police officers on January 9. The police body cam video shows an unnamed officer being respectful and courteous to a bearded white man with a baseball cap (Baker). On the video, the officer’s voice is calm and placating; yet Baker begins yelling at the officer and appears highly agitated, with eyes flaring and teeth flashing. It is clear from the body cam video that Baker’s striking the officer with the shovel was unprovoked.

    What is noteworthy is the high degree of deference, patience, and respect that the unnamed officer demonstrated toward the erratically acting white man. In similar circumstances involving a person of color, the officer would have shot long before the person actually assaulted the officer. The bottom line here is that because Dudley was white, the unnamed officer didn’t “fear for his life” until after Dudley had repeated struck him with the shovel and bodily injured him. In contrast, when a police officer sees a person of color, the officer is in “fear for his life” whether or not the person of color actually does anything. Merely being black or latino, and not any particular behavior, is provocative. Thus, the example of law enforcement’s killing of Dudley seems more an example of white privilege than much else.

    With regard to the January 27 police killing of 16-year-old Jessica Hernandez in Denver, there is no body cam video and, as Mr. Modesitt notes, conflicting eye witness reports and circumstantial evidence. Based purely upon the eyewitness reports (reports which Mr. Modesitt does not find credible), there is at least a minimal basis to doubt the police officer’s story.

    With regard to the August 9 murder of Michael Brown (another teenager) by Darren Wilson (a white police officer), this case has already been extensively debated in the media. People within the black community have highlighted a number of concerns and issues with respect to the shooting; people within the white community have generally found the killing justified.

    Ultimately, it is inaccurate to say that “all the demonstrations and the publicity given them [Dudley, Hernandez, and Brown] represent misplaced media hype” because (1) the media hype and demonstrations surrounding Michael Brown are properly placed and (2) for Ms. Hernandez’s killing by officers, it is too early to decide. Off these three, only the media hype and demonstrations surrounding Dudley is clearly misplaced.

  5. Jim Kress says:

    Thank you for your well reasoned, rational response to a set of sad situations that some are, unfortunately, using for their own political and financial gain.

  6. Coastal says:

    Cheap, ubiquitous video is changing the world (rather like Brin predicted in _Earth_, years ago.)

    The Washington Post linked to this story in an opinion piece by R. Balko: http://www.wwltv.com/story/news/local/investigations/mike-perlstein/2015/02/26/charges-crumble-after-cell-phone-video-uncovered/24039559/.

    These police officers and prosecutors were willing to send an innocent man to prison. They conspired to do so. For nothing. Nothing. The only thing which might have contributed to it was that the officer being served was charged with brutality. What chance would the accused process server have had to refute the testimony of seven, without the video?

    There may be more such stories–but news reporters depend on the good will of the police and prosecutors.

    The _Guardian_ printed a story of an off-the-books facility run by the Chicago police department. Homan Square. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/26/police-black-site-chicago-washington-politicians-human-rights

    Our local media is not reporting this. This does not mean it isn’t happening.

  7. alecia says:

    You stated that Michael Brown committed two crimes: neither the store owner nor none of his employees reported any crime being committed, and didn’t press charges. Further, the police did not have the video of what happened at the store until after Michael Brown was dead. If the store owner didn’t feel a crime had been committed, is it a crime? Further, the most recent report from the Justice Dept. on the Ferguson Police showed a long-standing pattern of racism and revealed constitutional violations and excessive and dangerous use of force disproportionately targeted against African-Americans. In fact, two people are on leave & one was fired just today for racist emails. I lived in the deep South during the Jim Crow era & I saw racism at its ugliest, and the police were frequently the ring leaders. The fact that young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than any other demographic is a statistic that should anger all Americans, but the anger is more likely generated against people who cite these facts. I will never understand this.

    1. You’re splitting hairs. There’s an old saying about two wrongs not making a right. It’s especially applicable here. The store owner — or someone — did report a crime because the officer who stopped Brown realized that Brown fit the description of the person who stole the cigars. Now… no charges were filed because there was no point in doing so, not when the suspected perpetrator was dead. Likewise, attacking a police officer is a crime. Period. That’s one side, and they’re both wrongs. The other side is, as has been widely reported and confirmed by the Justice Department study, is that the Ferguson police department was bigoted, biased, often viciously discriminatory, and an all too accurate example of police racism at its worst. But the police had nothing to do with Michael Brown’s decision to steal the cigars. It’s highly likely that the officer who stopped Brown was verbally abusive as well, but members of my family have experienced some verbal abuse from the police in years past, and attacking a police officer is still a crime. Young black males, like it or not, commit a higher rate of crimes than other demographics. While a significant percentage of those non-fatal crimes are the result of, in many cases, excessive law enforcement against blacks, there remain an extraordinary number of killings of young black males by other young black males — and those killings are not crimes trumped up by the police. There are two sides to these situations, and neither is pleasant. Blaming it all on one side or the other won’t solve the problem, which is what I keep trying to point out… and yet I keep getting responses saying, in effect, it’s all society’s or the police’s fault. Nope. We have an economic and racial problem that society as a whole isn’t facing. We have a law enforcement problem in all too many cities where racial discrimination still exists. But we also have a dysfunctional young black male social pattern in too many economically depressed areas that is also a contributing factor. All three have to be addressed, not just the politically attractive or “politically correct” problems.

      1. Malcolm Haynes says:

        Mr. Modesitt, your argument is self contradictory. You claim young, black males commit more crime than any other demographic, but in the same paragraph acknowledge that a significant portion of those crimes are the result of excessive law enforcement (aka racism). So, if the police are charging black males for crimes that they wouldn’t charge white males for, then the statistics you cite are skewed and meaningless. In that same vein, if police are racist, then wouldn’t you expect black males to view police officers as illegitimate, thus leading to more confrontations and more arrests? The idea that police are “basically good” is laughable to an African American male. Statistically, 52% of homicides are committed by blacks and 45% by whites. Therefore, a police officer should logically treat either as equally dangerous. Yet, as mentioned in another comment, blacks are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than whites. That statistic alone shows the problem goes way beyond Ferguson. While there may be two wrongs in a given situation, surely we can agree that all wrongs are not equal. Our justice system certainly agrees with this principle – a petty thief and a murder get very different sentences. Allegedly stealing a cigarillo shouldn’t result in your death and, if Mr. Brown had been white, it’s 21 times more likely that it wouldn’t have. This is the source of the outrage when the black community witnesses the death of a young man for trivial reasons (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, etc). In America, black lives just don’t matter as much as white lives. This is why the black community celebrated when OJ (obviously guilty) got away with murder. For once, it felt like the tables had been turned and white America got to feel what black America experiences every single day.

        All that being said, race is actually not the best predictor of crime. Poverty is. When you add racism to the fact that only 8% of all Americans born poor reach the top quintile of wealth, you have the underlying cause of black crime. Yet, rather than address this difficult problem, many blacks feels like they are too often dismissed with condescending platitudes and quotes like “Young black males, like it or not, commit a higher rate of crimes than other demographics”. The focus is always on the tip of the iceberg rather than addressing the huge mass that lies underneath.

        1. My point is not self-contradictory. The excessive policing is generally for petty crimes, and the rates very widely from city to city. More serious crimes are another matter, and I’ve already said — time and time again — that poverty is one of the principal causes of crime. But one set of crimes, the most serious, is murder, and that is not the result of excessive policing. Over 25% of all murders in the U.S. are committed by young black males, who compose less than one percent of the U.S. population,and over ninety percent of the victims are black, and those deaths cannot be laid at the feet or guns of the police. While economically disenfranchised whites also have higher crime rates, the disparity is stunning, especially in terms of murder. Young white males comprise 6% of the population and commit 16% of the murders, meaning that the percentage of murders is six times higher for young black males than for whites. I’m sorry, but neither police excesses nor poverty are the sole causes of the high murder rate… which was my basic point, and which too many people seem to want to overlook.

  8. David says:

    I’m afraid that we never actually had un-biased news reporting, ever. We certainly do not have it now. Any network that is a ‘for-profit’ company will cater to what brings in the money. Non-profits will always slant the news in the direction of their convictions.
    Is it possible to form a news or data reporting organization that simple present the facts and allows us to make our own applications?

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