On the afternoon of Aug. 9, a police officer fatally shot an unarmed, black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. Details remain in dispute. Eyewitnesses have said that Brown was compliant with police and was shot while he had his hands up. Police maintain that the 18-year-old had assaulted an officer and was reaching for the officer’s gun. One thing clear, however, is that Brown’s death follows a disturbingly common trend of black men being killed, often while unarmed and at the hands of police officers, security guards and vigilantes.
After news of Brown’s death broke, media-watchers carefully followed the narratives that news outlets began crafting about the teenager and the incident that claimed his life. Wary of the controversy surrounding the media’s depiction of Trayvon Martin — the Florida teen killed in a high-profile case that led to the acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman — people on Twitter wondered, “If they gunned me down, which picture would they use?” Using the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, users posted side-by-side photos, demonstrating the power that news outlets wield in portraying victims based on images they select.
On Monday, Twitter user LordSWVP tweeted out a photo driving home another point: Media treatment of black victims is often harsher than it is of whites suspected of crimes, including murder.
This is by no means standard media protocol, but it happens frequently, deliberately or not. News reports often headline claims from police or other officials that appear unsympathetic or dismissive of black victims. Other times, the headlines seem to suggest that black victims are to blame for their own deaths, engaging in what critics sometimes allege is a form of character assassination. When contrasted with media portrayal of white suspects and accused murderers, the differences are more striking. News outlets often choose to run headlines that exhibit an air of disbelief at an alleged white killer’s supposed actions. Sometimes, they appear to go out of their way to boost the suspect’s character, carrying quotes from relatives or acquaintances that often paint even alleged murderers in a positive light.