Within the last three weeks, there have been two high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men. On March 18, Sacramento Police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard as a police helicopter hovered above the scene. Video from both the police helicopter and the responding officers’ body cameras show the scene in explicit detail: Suspecting that Clark, 22, had a gun, officers shot him eight times, hitting him in the back or from behind seven times. When police inspected the body, they found he only had a cell phone with him.
On April 4, New York police shot Saheed Vassell to death in Brooklyn. Statements from the police, corroborated by security camera footage and witness accounts, have established that Vassell held a bent silver pipe with a knob attached to it in the minutes leading up to his death. Vassell, 34, who had a history of mental illness, brandished the pipe as if it were a gun, approaching passersby and prompting a local laundromat owner to call the police. Four officers then arrived on the scene and shot Vassell 10 times.
While these two cases are separate, and should be subject to their own scrutiny, they display a striking similarity that we as an editorial board condemn. Moreover, the press coverage of both incidents shows an all-too-familiar pattern. Coverage from multiple major news organizations, such as the New York Times and USA Today, as well as local news organizations, including the Sacramento Bee and AM New York, consistently depicts these killings as occurrences without actors, failing to mention in their headlines the role that police took in the deaths of these men. “Stephon Clark shot 8 times” begins a headline from USA Today; the New York Times’ headline reads “Stephon Clark was Shot 8 Times Primarily in His Back, Family-Ordered Autopsy Finds.” In framing these headlines in the passive voice, with Clark as the subject, these papers have removed the agency from the ones who actually committed the killing: the police. Without their active choice to shoot to kill in both of these situations, both Stephon Clark and Saheed Vassell would still be alive. Without their immediate resolution to use violence even though they weren’t sure either man was armed, Stephon Clark and Saheed Vassell would still be alive. The determining role of the police in the deaths of these men cannot, and should not, be understated.
Covering tragedies such as this can be done right, as the Guardian did, and as Vox displayed in their coverage of Vassell’s case. Media outlets must be aware of the impact of their reporting, especially in contentious cases like these. The Washington Post has kept a database of killings by police officers in the line of duty in the United States since 2015. Thus far in 2018, the police have shot and killed 313 people; throughout 2017, that number was 987. We do not believe that changing media coverage will end police shootings, specifically shootings of unarmed black men, in this country. To do this, fundamental shifts in public policy and national attitudes are necessary. Still, media outlets must be aware of the role they play in covering these incidents, and they must ensure that this coverage is fair and accurate. To do anything less is to do a disservice to their readers, and to obscures the urgent need for social change.