Journalists and Baltimore residents have suggested ways to improve coverage of protests and social movements, such as those that followed the arrest and death of Freddie Gray in the city three years ago.
Baltimore officers alleged Gray, a 25-year-old black man, had an illegal knife when they arrested him after a chase. His spinal cord was somehow severely injured while being transported in a police van, and he died a week later. Both rioting and peaceful protest marches followed Gray’s death. And coverage of both have been criticized.
The journalists and community members convened during a town hall organized by the Society of Professional Journalists and held in Baltimore in conjunction with the organization’s Excellence in Journalism conference this fall. Among their suggestions for journalists:
- Educate the public about how your news organization works and what potential sources can expect when granting interviews. William Murphy, an attorney who represented the Gray family, said people don’t understand such journalistic terms as “off the record,” “background” and “deep background.”
- Provide historical context. Residents want to know reporters understand the back stories associated with the news they’re covering, some attendees said. The context should not be oversimplified. A snippet out of context is worse than no coverage at all, said Lawrence Grandpre, a leader in the local activist group A Beautiful Struggle.
- Get to know the community and its residents before something major happens. Reporters who have built a rapport with the community are more likely to get to the heart of a story. “I have a raised eyebrow toward any media who comes into a city pretending to cover the news without understanding that there are real tensions behind what’s happening at that moment,” said professor and radio host Karsonya Whitehead, one of the panelists at the town hall.
- Include details that challenge stereotypes. Gray was more than a young black man living in poverty. People who knew him said he was cheerful and happy. Sources whose descriptive details are excluded from a story might feel misquoted, and that could affect their trust in the media, Grandpre said.
- Avoid sensationalizing. Significant events tend to seem larger than life. Be sure to keep them in perspective. The more emotion a story stirs, the greater the need for it to be reported with care and not sensationalized.
- Choose your words with sensitivity. Certain terms carry stigmas that perpetuate stereotypes. Some town hall attendees reminded the audience Gray never was charged, thus it would be inaccurate to call him a criminal. Panelist T.J. Smith, then spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, explained the difference between looting and stealing, words with slightly different meanings but that frequently were used to describe the same act. Looting is stealing that occurs during a riot, and it’s not accurate to use the term to describe an offense that happens when a riot is over, he said.
- Be mindful of false perceptions created by repeatedly airing powerful but old footage. Residents said some networks frequently ran footage of a building aflame in Baltimore well after rioting had ended. Some viewers assumed it was live footage or was filmed the day they saw it on TV, they said. “Hundreds and hundreds of business people went out of business because it was sensationalized instead of reported,” Murphy said.