Trigger Warnings Are Necessary, But Insufficient

Media Outlets Must Be More Intentional About Ensuring Balanced Coverage of Communities of Color

By Jennifer R. Farmer

I fully appreciate the incredible role of the media. Journalists and the media outlets that employ them must be precise and accurate, while ensuring timely information. In a 24-hour news cycle, they bear a tremendous responsibility. As we cope with police shootings of Black men and violence against police officers, I’m mindful that despite reporters’ best intentions, journalistic coverage can fall short. Among improvements needed, members of the media must be more intentional about ensuring balanced coverage of communities of color. It’s not enough to increase coverage of our communities. The coverage must be holistic, balanced and fair.

Often, media coverage of communities of color is problematic. When African Americans are covered, especially in times of crisis and during instances of police or anti-Black violence, media coverage is often laced with weak language, problematic imagery, insensitive scrutiny and inappropriate characterizations.

In describing the shooting death of Alton Sterling, who was shot at close range by a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, MSNBC host Tamron Hall referred to the killing as an “incident.” Hall was not the only one to use timid language. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards too called it an “incident.” Let’s be clear. An “incident” is a wardrobe malfunction. Perhaps it can describe a small disagreement. But the term is woefully inadequate to describe a police officer mercilessly shooting a civilian at point-blank range.

Separately, the continual broadcasting of videos and pictures of deceased or dying African Americans who are victims of police violence is something short of perverse. While imagery is important, I’m not sure it’s helpful to our emotional well-being to be bombarded with horrific images of human beings in their final moments. Moreover, such imagery is prevalent only when the victims are African American or Latino. When was the last time you turned on the television or scanned the front page of a newspaper and saw white bodies riddled with bullets?

This week alone, media outlets from CNN to the New York Daily News aired or displayed videos and photos of the bodies of African American men who were fatally shot by police. The New York Daily News published pictures of Philando Castile, an African American man with a large pool of blood splattered across an otherwise white t-shirt after he had been shot by police, on the front page of their July 7 paper. The searing image captures Castile as he sits dying in the driver’s seat of a vehicle. The same New York Daily News cover also shows an image of Alton Sterling laying on concrete, again with a large blood stain on his chest, after being fatally shot by Baton Rouge police. The New York Daily News is not alone. CNN has repeatedly broadcast the videos of these and other victims of police violence.

Publishing or broadcasting such imagery appears to be casual fare. A trigger warning, while appropriate, is insufficient.

Even when we aren’t bombarded by harmful imagery, there are other issues with media coverage of communities of color. In the same articles highlighting police brutality and violence, the media often tends to highlight the victims’ mistakes or falls from grace. Increasingly, for African Americans, being a victim of police violence or supposed vigilante violence isn’t a shield from having one’s past highlighted post-mortem. After Ashaunti Butler and Laniya Miller, both 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, drowned in a pond in Pinellas County, police officials held a press conference and displayed the girls’ mugshots. The car the girls’ were in dove into a retention pond as they were being pursued by police. Some speculate police didn’t do enough to save the girls as their car went into the water at 3:00 am and the police dive squad didn’t arrive until after 5:00 am.

The media is often listening to police blotters and may be reporting some of what they are hearing. However, media outlets should be more conscious in the language, imagery and context in which they cover all people, especially during times of national crisis.

In an article on the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, CNN included his arrest record and prior convictions. They also went digging for and displayed Sterling’s mugshot. Such a maneuver subtly suggests the victim isn’t worthy of sympathy or perhaps somehow contributed to their own demise. This is unacceptable.

We should challenge harmful, if unintentional, language and coverage when and where we see it. Even as we challenge dehumanizing language and problematic coverage, let’s be clear in our own use of language. Here are a few a tips:

  1. Avoid the Passive Voice. Use Active Voice Instead. When crafting commentary about police violence be sure to use the active voice. Saying a person was shot, leaves no one responsible. Saying “the police shot an innocent civilian…” is more accurate and more powerful.
  2. Utilize Strong, Descriptive Language. Accurate details make your case. For example, “the officer shot him at close range” is more accurate and more forceful than “the officer shot him.”
  3. Humanize the Victim. When writing about police brutality, victims of crime, take care to humanize the victim. You do this by placing them in the context of their family. For instance, in thinking about the killing of Alton Sterling, it’s important that media coverage note he was the father of five. That’s an essential fact about who he was and should be highlighted.
  4. Insist the Media Outlets Call Children “Children” When They are 18 Years of Age or Younger. Too often the media picks up on police language and calls our children young men and women, even when societal standards do not confer that classification. For example, Laniya, Ashaunti and Dominique were sometimes referred to as young women, even though they were in high school. They were girls, not women.

I’ve shared my tips. What are yours?

While I know these tips, and this article, won’t bring back the lives we’ve lost, this is my attempt to cope with the breathtaking violence that occurred this week in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. Admittedly, thoughts and well wishes aren’t enough. Even in times of crisis, we must continue to demand informed and balanced media coverage.