Police violence has become a pandemic primarily affecting people of color. In 2019, 1098 people were killed by the police, according to mappingpoliceviolence.org. 24% of victims were black. Last year, there were only 27 days in the entire that was not marked by the murder of an individual by the police. Black folks are 3 times more likely to be killed by the police than white folks and the Latinx folks are 1.5 times more likely to be killed by the police. 99% of officers that have killed an individual have not been charged with a crime. The media’s past portrayal of police violence has shifted blame onto the victim, further encouraging that police officers not be held accountable.
The media’s portrayal of black men who have been murdered by the police is both racially biased and perpetuates racial stereotypes against black people in the U.S. Both left leaning and right leaning publications are guilty of portraying victims of police violence in racially biased ways. For example, after the murder of Michael Brown, the New York Times published an article describing Brown as “no angel…he lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol.” This description starkly contrasts the facts, that Brown was an unarmed 18-year old boy that did not deserve to die. Describing Brown as “no angel” is coded language that implies his murder was justifiable by demonizing the victim.
What’s more damaging is the reality that the media’s portrayal of an individual can largely dictate how the general public characterizes that individual. A study conducted by Kristin Dukes and Sara Gaither explore this phenomenon. Participants were given the details of example of police violence. Certain individuals were given details that applied negative black stereotypes to the victim and others were not. Participants that had received the description with negative black stereotypes were more likely to perceive the victim to be at fault and the murderer to be less at fault. This study demonstrates the role that the media can play in shaping public opinion.
In prioritizing the perspectives of police officers by describing murder victims in racially biased and coded language, they also silenced the voices of the black community that has long expressed abuse at the hands of the police. A study conducted by Rod Brunson, interviewed 40 black men to gain insight into their opinions on the police. The study showed that 82.5% of respondents see the police harass or mistreat people in the neighborhood either “often” or “sometimes.” In that same survey, 50% of responses said that police officers were almost never polite to individuals in the neighborhood.
With current protests against the murder of George Floyd and for the abolition of police departments across the country, the media has a responsibility in ensuring that their portrayals of victims of police violence are racially unbiased.