In the days after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last month, tens of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to protest systemic racism and police brutality.
Amid several large-scale demonstrations across the country last week, which quickly became the main focus of media coverage, there were also isolated incidents of looting and property destruction. Many have expressed frustration with media coverage and what they choose to highlight.
Several headlines and TV chyrons emphasized terms like “riots,” “violence,” and “looting”—language which experts said ends up minimizing people’s anguish and disillusionment. Destruction of property during some of the riots became the focus of conservative media and was condemned by President Trump, top Democrats and several local officials and community members.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who developed the 1619 Project at The New York Times Magazine tweeted, “The amount of coverage of looting on cable news right now—even as hosts say it is *not* representative of *most* of what is happening during the protests—is highly problematic. YOU are changing the narrative from police violence to property damage, not the looters.”
In response to a Twitter user who asked if it was possible that both the media and individual looters were responsible for changing the predominant narrative, She said, “To be clear, I am not arguing that news should not be covering looting. It is news. But I am talking about the proportion of coverage. That is a *created* narrative.”
Rioting, of course, is not new to the American socio-political landscape. According to Sherry Hamby, the founding editor of the APA journal Psychology of Violence, “Riots are not great solutions, but riots are usually caused by real injustices…Riots are often the desperate response of people who feel they have no other recourse.”
And scholars James Hertog and Douglas McLeod hold the opinion that media narratives tend to emphasize the drama, inconvenience and disruption of protests rather than the demands, grievances and agendas of protestors. According to Hertog and McLeod, protests about anti-black racism and indigenous people’s rights received the least legitimizing coverage and were more often depicted as being threatening and violent.
Jason Johnson, an MSNBC contributor, tweeted, “If press coverage is going to keep making the distinction between ‘peaceful’ protesters and ‘violent’ protesters perhaps we should also be distinguishing between ‘Peaceful’ police and ‘violent’ policing.”
Rebecca Traister, a writer at New York Magazine, criticized NBC News anchor Brian Williams for glossing over recent instances of police brutality against protestors and reporters and failing to show viewers videos that had been widely circulated on social media. “Those are videos, sir. You could play them on television if you found them interesting or relevant to a broadcast on which you just described “six nights of violence” in dolorous tones,” she tweeted.
On Thursday, a graphic video showing two police officers pushing a 75-year-old-man down to the ground during a protest in Buffalo, N.Y. was shared on Twitter by WBFO, the local NPR affiliate. The footage garnered more than 81 million views and led to the immediate suspension of the officers, who were subsequently charged with felony assault.
Another video from a few days earlier showed an elderly man being pushed over by a police officer dressed in riot gear in Salt Lake City, Utah. The officer responsible for the incident was later removed from patrol duties amid a pending Internal Affairs investigation.
As tensions have risen between protestors and the police, many journalists have also been put in dangerous situations and have been attacked with tear gas, stun grenades and even rubber bullets. Linda Tirado, a freelance photographer, was hit by rubber bullets last Friday while covering the protests in Minneapolis and is now permanently blind in her left eye.
And a few days earlier, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his cameraman and producer were all arrested by Minneapolis police officers on live television. In Cleveland, the Cleveland Police allegedly restricted media from going downtown unless inside a place of business, according to news reporter Jim Nelson of Cleveland 19 News.
As of now, there have been more than 300 documented attacks on press freedom by law enforcement and police during the unrelenting nationwide protests. Reflecting on the unprecedented violence journalists have faced while covering stories at home, CNN anchor Jim Sciutto tweeted, “As a reporter, I’ve been detained in Iran, spied on in China, and followed and harassed in Russia. I’ve never had colleagues arrested and handcuffed while doing their job here in the US.”
Many have criticized these cases as attacks on a free press. David Sirota, the editor-at-large of Jacobin Magazine and a columnist for The Guardian tweeted, “The First Amendment of the United States Constitution literally prohibits the government from ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’” in response to this announcement.