The Atlantic looks at how journalism needs to change its language and structure to properly report on police violence. Back when I was 22, I worked in a group home as a social worker caring for dual-diagnosed adults (no DSW was needed back then, and I was basically hired for my size and martial arts experience to work with violent residents in a farmwork day program) I saw an act of blatant abuse by a staff member and wrote an incident report on it. I was sat down by the administration and “taught” how to recode the language so no one got in trouble. “Shoved to the ground and kicked” became “physically assisted the client to the ground” and “threatened an aquaphobic resident with a garden hose” became “the client was encouraged to return to his room”. I was 22, and protested too weakly against the changes. Then I quit shortly thereafter, probably out of guilt as much as disgust. But this shit has been going on forever, in all facets of life where those in power are free to choke the life out of those without because they know the language will minimize their crimes.
In light of the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, journalists are faced, once again, with the task of making sense of black protest for the American public. It bears asking what media professionals have learned, not just in the six years since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spurred national outrage, but also in the decades, and centuries, of black American resistance.
How the news covers activism matters profoundly to a democracy because the media can influence public support or rejection of policies that might solve social ills such as racism and police brutality. Following the dozens of uprisings that swept U.S. cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, reported on the cause and possible future prevention of such unrest. The commission asserted that, in addition to generational poverty, housing and employment discrimination, and over-policing, the media was partially responsible for the neglect felt by black communities.