As the media moves from one Trump administration controversy to the other, we seem to have forgotten one that really matters. I am not talking about the manufactured controversy centering on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Instead, I am talking about the reason they started kneeling in the first place: disproportionate levels of police violence that are still happening to black Americans yet have been forgone by the media at large.
Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Walter Scott; these are names you know. Dewboy Lister, Anthony Antonio Ford, Charles David Robinson, Brian Easley, Dejuan Guillory; these are names you probably don’t know. Unarmed black Americans are shot by police, the media reacts, another shooting happens, we move on. Rinse and repeat.
In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers started kneeling during the national anthem to bring to light this exact issue. In his own words: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The argument here is that unarmed black men were and are being shot by police at the same alarming rate, but the journalists are no longer focusing on the issue. But is this true?
The first place we should look would be the national police-involved shooting database–raw data collected by local police departments then sent to the FBI to be tabulated and analyzed just like we do for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, a process that began in 1930 for tracking crimes and crime rates. However, the fact is we don’t even have the system despite the framework already in place through the UCR reporting system. A dereliction former FBI director James Comey called “unacceptable”.
So we must rely on crowdsourced data from websites like mappingtheviolence.org and fatalencounters.org or trust the databases that have been created by news outlets like the Washington Post. Collectively, the data these sources have found is conclusive.
Blacks make up only about 13 percent of the U.S population; however, each year since 2014, the proportion of unarmed victims of police killings that were black was between 30 and 40 percent.
And this trend has continued since 2013. According to Mapping Police Violence, there has been slight upward trend in the amount of blacks killed by police since 2013.
So the reason we must insert BLM (Black Lives Matter) and police shooting information into cultural and everyday activities is because the media is failing at its job of sustaining coverage of these shootings.
When looking at the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR’s All Things Considered, and USA Today, a data analysis of their coverage over the years shows an apparent trend. We can see that coverage of police shootings has dropped off significantly since 2015, especially between last year and this year. This can, most likely, be attributed to the journalism vacuum that is President Donald Trump. Still, the lack in this kind of coverage is concerning.
The discrepancy in what we care about can also be seen in Google search data. Searches for “Black Lives Matter” and “Police Shooting” both hit an all time high, dramatically higher numbers than at any other time during the past 5 years, in July of 2016. These weeks directly correspond to the targeted shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. However, what message does this send to the families of unarmed black men shot by police that are often forgotten? Do we really only care when police are the ones being shot?
This data shows that the reporters has stopped covering this vital issue even though it is happening at the same rate it was at the peak of media attention. Not only does this allow for less accountability, it also stymies a vital national discussion.
We need news organizations to be the place where difficult conversations can be started so that the public can digest these issues and influence politicians into action. Instead of focusing on how we demonstrate about issue or about our fearless cultural crusader in the White House thinks, we need to have a conversation about what is causing these incidents and what potential solutions could look like.
Why not cover conducive community police dialogue or BLM’s policy wing and their suggestions for systemic police reform?
Police brutality is an issue, one that requires a stern response and a thoughtful debate about causes and solutions. Which is why we need active and responsible news that plays the role of a facilitator rather than a reactionary device to keep up a cheap, superficial news cycle.
It’s very easy to take our eyes off important issues when all we seem to focus on is the onslaught of news and controversy that is the Trump white house. But journalists must be able to diffuse the spotlight and be the vehicle for national discussion and change that we so desperately need.