Another unarmed black teenager was shot and killed this weekend, this time by the police. Michael Brown was an 18-year-old who would have started college classes today, and who witnesses claim was surrendering to the police when he was killed. But so much of the coverage has been focused on images of black men looting stores or looking dangerous.
The problem with the media's coverage of Brown's shooting has been its awkward handling of race. Whether it's the racial bias of photos used to represent the victim, or the fact that his shooting isn't as newsworthy as the looting and riots that followed, major news outlets are playing into the stereotypes about young black men that will lead to the next death of an unarmed teenager.
The Criminalization of Black Teens
Studies have shown that the dominant stereotype of black males in the media is one of violence and crime, and recent media coverage has shown that those stereotypes apply even for victims. Coverage of Trayvon Martin's shooting focused on marijuana in his system, and the Associated Press was criticized last week for characterizing 19-year-old murder victim Renisha McBride as a "drunk woman." As NBC News demonstrated, photo choice also matters:
The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag started in response to media outlets using the "gang sign" photo above. Black Twitter users post two photos and ask which one the media would use:
Most teenagers have Facebook photos that would make them less sympathetic — pictures with red cups in the background, provocative photos, photos that make them look a little racist — but media outlets choose the photos that best represents the image they want to portray. That messaging matters — after the Martin shooting the conservative blogosphere repeatedly argued that a full overview of his Facebook photos proved he was a dangerous thug, instead of a 17-year-old kid.
A Focus on the Looting
Most major media outlets didn't cover the Michael Brown shooting until people started rioting and looting following the Sunday vigil, with the noticeable exception of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed covered the shooting the night it happened — the news was that an unarmed black teenager had been killed by the police:
But for most major news outlets, the Michael Brown shooting didn't become national news until the looting Sunday night, following a vigil. The Michael Brown shooting wasn't covered by The Wall Street Journal until it syndicated an Associated Press story.
The Associated Press first covered the story on Saturday and, despite using a photo of his grieving mother, led with crowds chanting "Kill the Police":
(That sparked a series of "Kill the Police" stories, including this one on The Blaze:)
But even if the media is more concerned with the protests than the shooting itself, there was a way to cover that without sensationalizing the story. Here's how The New York Times first covered the shooting: