Augustine: On a journalist’s role in protests against racism and police brutality

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Kathryn Augustine, Opinion Editor

“By night, mayhem broke out, with smashed store windows, vandalized cars, stolen merchandise, burning trash barrels and the acrid smell of tear gas wafting over the area,” Jeremy C. Fox and John Hilliard wrote for the Boston Globe on May 31.

Fox and Hilliard characterize the Boston protests as “mayhem” and describe the property damage graphically. And yet, when they give context to an impetus of these protests, the killing of George Floyd, they minimize the extent of the violence.

“A 46-year-old Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck,” Fox and Hilliard write. Descriptions of other black victims of police brutality in the piece read similarly.

Police officer Derek Chauvin did not press his knee against Floyd’s neck. “Press” implies a firm touch, lasting for seconds. In reality, Chauvin kneeled forcefully on Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes — until Floyd became unresponsive, and for nearly three minutes after. Chauvin killed George Floyd.

As a young, white woman, I’m confident that if I were to be a victim of physical violence, those critical details about force and timing would be capitalized on in a journalistic piece, not erased. And I’m personally ashamed that I’m only now addressing that privilege when police-sanctioned violence against black people is not a new phenomenon.

But journalistic coverage isn’t the overarching issue — systematic racism is. That being said, when white journalists write pieces that frame protests as “mayhem” and do not offer that same label to the repeated killing of black people, they’re contributing to the narrative that these protests are more harmful than police brutality.

Coverage focusing solely on the violence of the protests may be enticing for reporters. However, instead of fixating on the fires and broken windows, the press attention should relentlessly remain on the root of the anger embedded in these protests — racism that all non-black people benefit from. This is the type of violence that should not be minimized and is of the greatest concern.

Individuals who rely on a news outlet, such as the Boston Globe, to comprehend local events are fed a carefully crafted image of these protests. They are presented with a scene where the black community and allies of the black community respond to an officer innocently pressing on a man’s neck with protests of an unwarranted degree of violence. This depiction is strikingly flawed.

Wording is important. Replacing “died” with “killed,” substituting “pressed” for “kneeled for nine minutes” — word choice changes the image conveyed enormously. Wording, and accurately portraying the situation, is absolutely a factor in mobilizing non-black readers to actively condemn racism and to enact change, though journalists should not need to carry that burden.

From a strictly legal standpoint, Chauvin has not been convicted of murder — I understand that journalists may not be able to outright label Floyd’s death as a murder. At the minimum, though, journalists can opt for “killed.” Even for those who want to argue Floyd’s death was not intentional, he inarguably died at the hands of someone, not of natural causes, and that justifies using the word “killed.” An independent autopsy confirms that.

Journalists should also acknowledge who that someone is — Derek Chauvin — and the fact that he has been charged with third-degree murder. While I understand the intention of the Globe’s piece is to detail Boston’s protests, information about the officer is pertinent and ensures that readers do not erase Chauvin’s responsibility and role in the violence. His name was absent from the piece.

Regardless of your position on whether increasingly violent protests are infuriating or absolutely necessary, that does not change the fact that Floyd’s death is described and thus may be understood as relatively nonviolent when corroborating video footage demonstrates otherwise. Written pieces need to reflect that.

As a journalist, if you describe “violence” differently depending on who is propagating that violence, then you are implicitly telling your audience what type of violence is more acceptable. And the type of violence that is communicated as more acceptable here is violence committed against black bodies by white people.

By actively antagonizing protests by emphasizing violence, journalists are suggesting that black people are only worth listening to when they’re respectable, when they’re quiet, when they obey. But as proven by the constant decision by our nation to undermine peaceful protest by black people, violence is occuring because black people continue to be unheard and disrespected.

I suppose that it’s easier for us to critique someone’s means of protesting than to address long standing racial violence that continues to benefit us. It’s easier for us to look down on protestors stealing merchandise than to look in the mirror and acknowledge, “I am white. I am part of the problem.”

And a large part of the problem that we ache to ignore is that we’ve collectively remained silent on violence against black people — as white journalists and as people — and when we do speak or write about this violence, we too often minimize it.

Kathryn Augustine is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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