The media is shifting to a more critical view of law enforcement behavior, according to a forthcoming analysis in the Police Quarterly of how three mainstream newspapers covered a series of police shootings.
Arguing that their findings suggest a broader shift in mainstream news reporting away from supportive attitudes towards the police, the study authors suggested the change was fueled by the occurrence of high-profile incidents within a short time span and the “growth of new technologies that the mainstream media can exploit.”
“The former makes it more difficult to dismiss an incident as an isolated event or attribute it to a single rogue officer, and the latter (video recording and social media discourse) can contribute both evidence and a counter narrative to the police account,” concluded authors Angela S. Lee, an independent researcher; Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University; and Daniel E. Martinez, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona.
“The news media typically relies on authority figures as primary definers of events and, in the past, structured news regarding police deviance around official claims,” the study added. “Our findings suggest that this paradigm may be breaking down.”
The study found that the coverage took a more skeptical view of police claims, with the reporting emphasizing police misbehavior that may have led to the incident more than twice as often as behavior of the victims (32.5 percent vs. 14.5 percent).
The researchers performed a content analysis review of newspaper coverage the deaths of Michael Brown, shot in Ferguson, MO on Aug. 9, 2014; Walter Scott, killed by Michael Slager, a white officer, in North Charleston, SC on April 4, 2015; and Freddie Gray, who was dragged into a police van in Baltimore, MD after his arrest on April 12, 2015, and died a week later.
In the wake of the debate fueled by the shift in media focus, all three cities have adapted policies requiring officers to wear body cameras, the authors said.
They selected the three incidents because each involved a highly publicized police killing of a citizen, occurred within a fairly narrow time span (eight months) and garnered substantial local and national news coverage.
The authors cited earlier studies suggesting that when similar police incidents are clustered together in a smaller time span, the public is more inclined to draw connections between them, in a kind of “contamination by association.”
They collected a total of 578 articles from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Post and Courier and The Baltimore Sun.
Approximately 37 percent of the articles contained content describing responsibility for the incident.
“This is an important theme, as it reveals whose side, if any, the newspapers’ accounts supported—the police officer’s or the victims,” the study said.
For example, as reported in the Post and Courier, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey delared, “Officer Slager made a bad decision and when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If you make a bad decision, I don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”
Slager was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison. The case against Slager is one of the few instances in which a police officer has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting.
Some 43 percent of the articles mentioned systemic racial issues in their coverage of the incidents. Other issues mentioned were poverty, inequality and the need for reform.
“The relatively high frequency of these mentions suggests that newspapers are beginning to draw connections to racial issues beyond the specific incident,” noted the authors. “Drawing connections conveys the message that such incidents are part of a larger problem.”
Also notably, 54.2 percent of the articles discussed general policing issues beyond the particular incident.
In Ferguson and North Charleston, newspapers routinely identified the victims as unarmed black males and the officers involved as white males. But in Baltimore, media reporting varied in whether it characterized Freddie Gray as being armed (with a knife in his pocket) and whether it mentioned the mixed racial makeup of the six officers.
There were also notable differences in the newspapers’ reports.
The Post and Courier articles paid more attention to reforms, which was largely due to its heavy coverage of police body cameras, which became salient because of the visceral power of the video of Scott’s shooting, the study found.
The Baltimore Sun devoted less attention to racial issues, possibly because its police department was much more racially integrated than the other two departments and due to the fact that three of the six officers involved in the Freddie Gray incidents were black, whereas a single white officer was involved in the other two incidents, the study said.
Significantly, the three incidents generated a discussion of reforms needed in each city to curb officer misconduct or improve police-community relations, according to the study.
“Because of these developments, news media coverage of incidents involving the police may be having a larger impact on public perceptions and official responses than reporting of similar events in the past,” the authors concluded.
The study is not available for downloading but readers can see the abstract here. Journalists can get a free copy by contacting TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie at Victoria@thecrimereport.org
This summary was prepared by TCR staffer Megan Hadley.