I’ve spent nearly a decade working on criminal justice reform in a multitude of capacities. I’ve been a volunteer, a lobbyist, an organizer, a spokesperson, and now, a writer and content creator who works to inform the public on issues under this umbrella.
Since criminal justice reform is one of the most bipartisan topics out there, I’ve had the privilege of working with a diverse group of people to pass policy changes—pro-life conservatives, budget hawks, libertarians distrustful of the state in general, progressives, practically every faith community, victims and their families, mental health groups, and members of the media. All of these factions play an important part in getting the ball across the finish line, but in my experience, none looms quite so large as the media.
And here’s what may surprise many on the Right: the media are not always the best ally in the fight for criminal justice reform.
There’s a perception held by most Republicans and Libertarians that the Left has a death grip on the mainstream media. Therefore, most would assume that the media would be squarely in the camp of the Defund the Police movements or Black Lives Matter. In reality though, the situation is much more nuanced and complicated.
In fact, a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the language used in television news in the US from 2013 to 2019 around police killings and found that the media more often than not uses language that obfuscates the nature of these events.
According to the authors they, “begin by documenting that the media is significantly more likely to use several language structures – e.g., passive voice, nominalization, intransitive verbs – that obfuscate responsibility for police killings compared to civilian homicides. We next use an online experiment to test whether these language differences matter.”
And the report finds that, “Participants are less likely to hold a police officer morally responsible for a killing and to demand penalties after reading a story that uses obfuscatory language.”
Not only that, but the study actually found the media was more likely to use obfuscatory language when the stakes were high, aka, when the details were likely to make the police look bad. They state, “we find that news broadcasts are indeed especially likely to use obfuscatory language structures when the deceased was unarmed or when body camera video is available.”
So, in short, the media runs interference for police killings—especially when they look to have been in the wrong.
Why would this be?
I’ll have to speak anecdotally, but I do have some hypotheses.
First, while many in the media may lean left politically, the vast majority I’ve worked around believe that they genuinely try to overcome their own biases in their reporting. Journalistic standards dictate that the writer remove themselves from the story and report only the facts. Does that mean members of the media have no bias? Certainly not (we all have bias), though some do a far better job of guarding themselves against it than others.
But, a belief in left-wing values does inherently mean a more trusting view of the government and its actors, a faith in the system itself, if you will. That means, members of the media who lean left are more likely to unquestioningly take what they’re told by state actors (police, their unions, district attorneys, etc.) at face value. And if they are actively seeking to remove their politics from their reporting, they end up running water for those state actors by simply uncritically reporting the “facts” as they’re told them.
Take the case of George Floyd. In the immediate aftermath of his murder at the hands of former police officer, Derrick Chauvin, most of the media ran with the press release from the police department for their reporting. That report was titled, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” In it, police said Floyd resisted arrest and then died from “medical distress” after being cuffed.
Nowhere did it mention that medical distress was brought on by an officer KNEELING ON HIS NECK FOR 9 MINUTES.
This kind of shoddy reporting matters. Language matters. The general public needs the media to be its eyes and ears so it can adequately evaluate the actions of our public servants and leaders. That the media continues to soften the reality of what’s going on behind the scenes with policing in this country is a disservice to all of us.
Thankfully, cellphone video from private citizens and laws demanding police wear body cameras and keep them on at all times are beginning to do the job the media has neglected to do for some time.
Power left unchecked will always become corrupted. Police work for us—the American people—and it’s time we stop pretending this department is exempt from the same problems with corruption we find throughout every other government agency.