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Tear Gas Doesn’t Deploy Itself

Mainstream press coverage of state violence tends to frame it as if it happened by magic.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Save for the rare clip of someone like Cornel West speaking God’s honest truth on CNN, mainstream media coverage of the nationwide protests against racist policing largely follows the same rules: mealy-mouthed language when describing police violence; clear, active language when describing confrontation initiated by protesters; and a both-sides approach to escalation that frames militarized police and protesters with lighters and water bottles as equally positioned. Responding over the weekend to a particularly egregious example of this kind of reporting, Vox writer Katelyn Burns observed: “Dang where did the pepper spray come from?”

Coverage tends to look like this because the media focuses on looting and property destruction to entice viewership and fulfill the outrage cycle, but also because mainstream news outlets are institutions that often have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo when it comes to policing, racist violence, and other systems that are disproportionately deadly for Black people and people of color. They don’t want to lose their imagined sense of objectivity or piss off their older white viewers, and so they do everything they can to talk around the elephant in the room: Police are, and have always been, violent as hell. As 60 Minutes correspondent and former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery put it, because so few people in America fully understand how its history of racism is ongoing and not locked in the past, “it’s impossible to say objectively true, historically neutral things grounded in research, reporting & expertise without a large swath of [people] (including journalists) interpreting them as ‘political opinions.’”

While this kind of behavior is expected from the likes of Fox News and similarly conservative outlets, it’s maybe more useful to point out the failures in institutions relied on and looked to by liberals, since ostensibly they care about these issues. The most egregious offender to date is The New York Times, which is leaning on a tried-and-true favorite: passive voice. Passive voice removes a subject from the focus of a sentence, instead choosing to look at the action or reaction caused by the subject. Effectively, when describing something like the protests, it’s a way to evasively describe who, exactly, is causing the violence.

Take this example, from Saturday:

The Times only used the active voice when describing the actions of the protesters. For acts of violence enacted by police—“A photographer was shot in the eye,” and “a reporter was hit by a pepper ball on live television by an officer who appeared to be aiming at her”—the Times took the chickenshit route, removing the police from focus and instead muddying the violence they caused.

Going back to last week, look at how the Times described the murder of George Floyd:

“A man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee.” Will the officer’s knee be brought to justice?

In an article published last Wednesday headlined, “What We Know About the Death of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” the Times used passive voice in the deck to describe the police killing:

George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man in Minneapolis, died on May 25 after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer

There are plenty of other offenders aside from the national paper of record. WUSA9 caught hell for a since-deleted post in which it failed to point out that pepper spray can’t deploy itself:

And Vox was rightfully hounded for failing to point out that clashes do not magically start themselves:

(Vox has since updated the caption to read, “Columbus police use pepper spray on a crowd of protesters.”)

As both social media and the evening news are staple sources for people looking for real-time updates, it is necessary to ensure that when people turn to these sources, the framing is not just fair but correct. Equating militarized police units armed with tanks, lethal and nonlethal guns, and riot gear with protesters standing against the violence doled out by them is not just cowardice but an intentional distortion of reality. “Protests turn violent,” read the chyron of a local Salt Lake City news channel as the station aired video of police officers using their riot shields to shove an elderly man with a cane to the ground.

There has never been a more pressing time to be direct. Examples like Slate’s recent “Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide” headline are too few and far between. And much of the accurate coverage around the nation’s violent police forces—who could also be described as counterprotesters, given that the protests are focused on the same law enforcement—has been concerned with police teargassing, pepper-spraying, shooting, and detaining journalists. It’s always useful to have this particular truth blared; it’s just a shame that it’s required police being directly violent against journalists to awaken the media to the reality Black people have been living with for centuries.

It is not difficult to accurately describe what the entire nation is watching unfold without couching it in passive voice or both-sides language. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” More broadly, police officers are killing Black citizens in open daylight without fear of retribution. Prosecutors are hesitant or even resistant to charge these police officers for their lethal actions. People are protesting racist policing in dozens of cities and towns across the country, and police officers themselves remain the largest source of violence in these protests.