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Why Some Police Shootings Get Media Attention While Others Don't


We've come to know the names of two African-American men, Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, because all of America saw their deaths at the hands of police on a video. Yet the same week that they died, another black man, Delrawn Small, died from police gunshots, yet he barely made the local news. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team looks into why some of these deaths get national coverage while others do not.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: So all people might be created equal, but all victims aren't, at least in the eyes of the media. After an encounter with the police that goes sideways - or worse - who decides who's worthy?

WILLIAM DRUMMOND: The ones that editors and reporters immediately react to are the cases in which somebody gets harmed or shot or killed who did not deserve it.

BATES: William Drummond teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He says that victims like Charles Kinsey are likely to get media attention. A behavioral therapist in North Miami, Kinsey became national news when he was shot while trying to coax an unarmed autistic adult patient out of the street. The police instructed both men to put their hands up. Kinsey did, and described what happened next from his hospital bed.

CHARLES KINSEY: I'm like - I still got my hands in the air - I said, you know, I just got shot. And I'm standing there, so I'm like, sir, why did you shoot me? And his words to me, he said, I don't know.

BATES: Jody David Armour is a law professor at the University of Southern California. And one of his areas of expertise is race and the law. He says that African-Americans who were hurt by police better be above reproach to get fair treatment in the media.

JODY ARMOUR: If you are morally immaculate, if you're Dudley damn Do-Right, then I will give you the benefit of the doubt...

BATES: And maybe better coverage. Public sympathy, if you have a bad experience with the police, Armour says, depends on how you're perceived.

ARMOUR: If you're a respectable Negro, that is, you're a law abider, you're doing everything by the book, then you've earned some empathy, sympathy, care and concern.

BATES: But it's harder, says Bill Drummond, with a case like Delrawn Small. He's the African-American man who was shot dead in New York after an apparent road rage confrontation in early July. Small's killer was an off-duty policeman in plain clothes and an unmarked car. Early reports noted Small had prior convictions and had been drinking before he was killed. Drummond says that does not justify Small's death. But...

DRUMMOND: You can't put that in a headline. There are too many howevers (ph) when you have to qualify something.

BATES: How victims are portrayed in the media is also a factor of who journalists talk to. Khalil Gibran Muhammad teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School.

KHALIL MUHAMMAD: Should the media report what the police are saying as a way to send a signal to the audience that this was a bad person, and maybe they got what they deserved?

BATES: Muhammad says, in general, the media has a bad habit of relaying the police version of confrontations immediately after an incident when sometimes those versions turn out to be imperfect or just wrong. Cell phone videos have helped sort things out, says USC's Jody Armour.

ARMOUR: That powerful combination of audio-visual impact of police encounters with citizens I think hits people at a visceral level in a way that merely a verbal recitation won't.

BATES: Even without video, Khalil Gibran Muhammad says, these stories should be given the same scrutiny no matter who the victim is.

MUHAMMAD: If we only support worthy victims, then we are perpetuating the long-standing second-class citizenship, particularly of African-Americans.

BATES: And, he says, the same is true if we only report on worthy victims. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.