When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims

By Nick Wing

Editor’s note: We’re repub­lish­ing this sto­ry, which first ran in August 2014, in light of a New York Post head­line ear­li­er this week that described a white mur­der sus­pect as a “clean-cut American kid.” Police have iden­ti­fied 23-year-old Kenneth Gleason as a per­son of inter­est in the September slay­ings of two black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which author­i­ties believe may have been racial­ly moti­vat­ed.

On the after­noon of Aug. 9, 2014, a police offi­cer fatal­ly shot an unarmed black teenag­er, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. Eyewitnesses said Brown was com­pli­ant with police and was shot while he was run­ning away. Police main­tained that the 18-year-old had assault­ed an offi­cer and was reach­ing for the officer’s gun. One clear thing, how­ev­er, is that Brown’s death fol­lowed 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.

Days lat­er, a Twitter user 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 makes the hash­tag  so pow­er­ful. It’s sad that some peo­ple have tak­en it to anoth­er lev­el.

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 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.

WHITE SUSPECT

That’s how the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal chose to present the sto­ry of Amy Bishop, a for­mer col­lege pro­fes­sor who even­tu­al­ly plead­ed guilty to killing three col­leagues and wound­ing three oth­ers at a fac­ul­ty meet­ing in 2010.

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 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.

Here are a few exam­ples: 

WHITE SUSPECT

suspect 1

That’s how the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal chose to present the sto­ry of Amy Bishop, a for­mer col­lege pro­fes­sor who even­tu­al­ly plead­ed guilty to killing three col­leagues and wound­ing three oth­ers at a fac­ul­ty meet­ing in 2010.

BLACK VICTIM

victim 7

And that’s the head­line AL​.com ran about the shoot­ing death of a 25-year-old black man in Alabama in 2014.

WHITE SUSPECT

suspect 2

This is how the Staten Island Advance cov­ered the case of Eric Bellucci, a men­tal­ly ill New York man who alleged­ly killed his par­ents.

BLACK VICTIM

trayvon

Meanwhile, NBC News ran this head­line dur­ing ongo­ing cov­er­age of the Trayvon Martin killing in 2013.

WHITE SUSPECT

suspect 3

This Fox News head­line quot­ed friends shocked that 15-year-old Jared Michael Padgett had entered his high school in 2014 heav­i­ly armed and killed a class­mate, injured a teacher and tak­en his own life.

BLACK VICTIM

victim 6

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But in Florida, this head­line in the Ledger focused on a police account that made the death of a black 19-year-old seem some­how expect­ed, or at least unsur­pris­ing.

WHITE SUSPECT

suspect 5

In the wake of the mass shoot­ing in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014, the Whittier Daily News offered a head­line show­ing one man’s dis­be­lief that Elliot Rodger could have com­mit­ted such a crime.

BLACK VICTIM

victim 1

In August 2014, the New York Daily News ran this head­line, car­ry­ing com­ments by the Ohio attor­ney gen­er­al that appeared to defend police after killing a black man at a Walmart.

WHITE SUSPECT

suspect 4

This was the head­line giv­en to an Associated Press sto­ry at Mlive​.com about an Ohio teen who lat­er plead­ed guilty to a school shoot­ing in which three stu­dents were killed and two were wound­ed.

BLACK VICTIM

victim 4

But when an unarmed father of two was killed by a police offi­cer while enter­ing a vehi­cle that con­tained his own chil­dren, the Los Angeles Times served up this claim from offi­cials.

WHITE SUSPECT

suspect 7

In 2008, 18-year-old Ryan Schallenberger was accused of plot­ting to bomb his South Carolina high school. Ohio’s Chronicle Telegram want­ed read­ers to know that he was a straight‑A stu­dent, run­ning an AP sto­ry with this head­line.

BLACK VICTIM

victim 3

And accord­ing to the Omaha World-Herald, this is what you need­ed to know about Julius B. Vaughn, a 19-year-old gunned down in Omaha in 2013.

WHITE SUSPECT

suspect 6

Kerri Ann Heffernan was charged in 2012 in a string of bank rob­beries and stores. This head­line at Wicked Local won­ders how she’d come so far from her days as a smart high school stu­dent.

BLACK VICTIM

victim 2