Media Analysis: The Death of George Floyd and a Week of American Protests.
Within the last week, all of America has experienced the consequences of police brutality and systemic racism as widespread protests erupted. It’s been heartening to see so many organizations express solidarity with the Black community. The language you need doesn’t seem too complicated at face value; racism is bad, and efforts to dismantle racism are good. But the nuances are tricky—no group is an easily described monolith and not every person affected by racism will agree with your word choice. Unlike most communicators, media outlets have long been tinkering with how to talk about racism and civil disobedience, especially as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in the latter half of the 2010s. They don’t get everything right. In the ten days after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, only 47% of 994 pieces of news coverage explicitly mentioned race, and just 3.4% touched on systemic discrimination. The media has since improved, but it’s still far from perfect. In a recent piece, University of Pennsylvania professor Sarah J. Jackson outlined the many ways the media shapes public opinion (e.g. turns people against peaceful protesters) through incomplete framing. Just take this New York Times tweet, which reports, “a photographer was shot in the eye,” but fails to mention that a police officer was responsible. Journalists have a tough job. Imagine being a reporter trying to frame a “neutral” lede, while on deadline, an hour after standing alongside demonstrators in Lafayette Square as tear gas canisters flew. But the hit-or-miss coverage of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent demonstrations should provide lessons for professional communicators. Here are just a few: Avoid euphemisms PR operatives usually view brevity as a good thing, but you can’t cut corners discussing race and police violence. One of the most commonly employed euphemisms—as The Atlantic’s Megan Garber recently wrote about—is “chaos,” a catch-all term with a negative connotation. People dislike chaos, just as they dislike “tensions,” “clashes,” and other negative words that fail to adequately describe reality, leaving the onus on the reader to give in to their biases—whether those biases are against the police, the protestors, or both—and assume the worst. If you mean “systemic racism,” say it and give some examples. Don’t rely on supposedly less controversial stand-ins like “prejudice” or “bias.” At best, euphemisms weaken your message. At worst, they cater to those who oppose equality and reform. Be detailed The antidote to vague language like “chaos” is detail. News articles that properly explain the events unfolding across the country give a factual account rather than focusing on tight, soundbite-driven framing. Take this passage from The Washington Post on Wednesday: “While demonstrators in many cities defied curfews, they did so peacefully. They sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. Outside Wrigley Field in Chicago, crowds chanted “Hands up” as they raised their arms to the sky. In Los Angeles, hundreds gathered outside the home of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who earlier in the day had joined the crowds and taken a knee as he listened to pleas. On a bridge in Portland, Ore., hundreds lay face down, hands behind their backs, for a ‘die-in’ intended to emulate the death of George Floyd.” The verbs here include “sang,” “chanted,” and “raised,” and the passage mentions George Floyd by name. What could’ve been “demonstrators defied curfews in order to continue protesting” was instead a detailed recounting of events and their cause. The lesson for communicators is simple: take what you see and explain it. Ask Black people for their input Full disclosure: a cis, straight, white man is writing this article. Sometimes, the staff member that needs to craft a statement or blog post isn’t Black—which begs broader questions about representation and diversity. But under no circumstances should they be the only person providing input. This piece will have been reviewed by my Black colleagues because, at the end of the day, neither I nor any of my white colleagues will ever fully understand the Black experience in America. Don’t rely on Black people to educate you—you can do that yourself—but seek out and listen to their opinions on whether your work is fairly framed and sensitively written.