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Context is king in news coverage of protests — here’s how California journalists provide it


PUBLISHED JUN 4, 2020 12:00 A.M.
Demonstrators in Oakland march to protest the police killing of George Floyd.

Demonstrators in Oakland march to protest the police killing of George Floyd.

Photo By Daniel Arauz / Wikimedia Commons   CC-BY-2.0

Late in the evening on June 1, just a few hours after Donald Trump declared himself “your president of law and order” and declared that he would deploy “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers” into America’s streets, New York Times Print Editor Tom Jolly posted the next day’s front page on his Twitter account, with a screaming headline stretching across all seven columns. 

"As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to 'End It Now'"

At that point, the nationwide protests over the horrifying death of George Floyd—a 48-year-old African American man whose brutal killing at the hands of Minneapolis police was captured in a shocking viral video—had raged for nearly a week. And Trump earlier that same evening unleashed National Guard troops and military police on a peaceful crowd of protesters in Lafayette Park across from the White House.

The reason for the unprovoked attack, according to a report by the same New York Times — to clear a path for Trump to stroll unmolested to nearby St. John’s Church, where he posed for photos while awkwardly wielding a Bible, then departed.

Jolly’s early reveal of The Times’ first-edition headline was not received well. 

“The New York Times headline writers are going to ‘Both Sides’ the country to death,” wroite Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz on Twitter, while New York House rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote simply, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Those replies were typical.

By subsequent editions, and online, the venerated Grey Lady had come up with a new headline, as its local competitor The New York Post noted. On its website, The Times headlined the piece, “Police Clear Protesters With Tear Gas So Trump Can Pose by Church.”

And in the paper’s late edition, the story was headlined, “Trump Threatens to Send Troops into States.” 

Putting the Protests in Context

 

The racial justice protests that have hit at least 140 United States cities, according to a Times tally, have seen newspapers struggle to strike the correct tone in their coverage — a struggle that seems nowhere more evident than in the New York Times headline-writing department.  

Of course, what counts as the “correct” tone remains subjective, because a factual accounting of events at any protest is uninformative without providing some context in which those events took place. 

To The Times, at least to their headline writers, the protests were no more than “chaos,” which Trump “vows” to end. 

But the supposed “chaos,” and for that matter, Floyd’s death, take place within the broad history of police brutality against African-Americans. 

How are news organizations reporting not only what happened at the protests, but why? In California, there have been some commendable examples of context journalism, as well as some stumbles into both-sidesism. Here are several of the most notable to appear just this week.

The Los Angeles Times sent no fewer than five reporters — Julia Wick, Jaclyn Cosgrove, Maria L. La Ganga, Sonali Kohli, and Andrea Castillo —  into a crowd at Sunset and Laurel Canyon Boulevards in L.A. on Monday, for a piece titled, “Voices from the protests: ‘People of all races out risking their lives to march.’”

The story, as the headline implied, centered around quotes from protesters, whose words were presented largely without reportorial comment. 

But the reporters also balanced factual reporting with the protesters’ sentiments, checking the claim quoted in the headline — that the protests included “people of all races” — with the L.A. Police Department, which according to a spokesperson, “was still learning about the protesters, and could not immediately comment on the makeup of the crowds.”

In San Jose, Metro Silicon Valley and its site San Jose Inside published an insightful piece on Wednesday by news editor Jennifer Wadsworth detailing how the city’s police department, generally seen as “progressive,” nonetheless spiralled out of control during the protests — even after Mayor Sam Liccardo’s promise that the SJPD would “take a measured approach”  to ensure that protests remained peaceful.

But it didn’t work out that way, according to Wadsworth’s reporting. 

“Police detained National Lawyers Guild–certified legal observers, a state Assembly candidate and two journalists,” she wrote in her description of a just a few of the violent police incidents. “They knocked down a San Jose planning commissioner and pelted his thigh within 20 minutes of him stepping out to observe the first day of demonstrations. With truncheons held horizontally, they shoved a woman trying to navigate her bike through a throng of marchers.”

Wadsworth also quotes Liccardo defending the San Jose officers. The mayor said he “thought they behaved with considerable restraint” despite being placed in “an incredibly intense, adverse environment.” 

“The displays of force are a kind of Rorschach test, with Liccardo and Garcia seeing a measured response and virtually everyone else seeing the kind of violent suppression Americans roundly condemn when it happens in other countries,” Wadsworth concluded. 

Reporting in the Face of Police Assaults

 

Luke Johnson, a freelance reporter for the nonprofit San Jose Spotlight, published a first-person essay on Tuesday, titled, “I’m a journalist who was detained by San Jose police for doing my job.”

 In the story, Johnson describes being ordered to “get on the ground, face down and hands out,” alongside Mercury News reporter Maggie Angst, by San Jose police officers. He describes one officer demanding, “What are you doing here?” while wielding “a baton cocked back over his shoulder.” 

After Johnson identified himself as a reporter, the officers left him and Angst on the ground without releasing them or permitting them off the ground, and departed. The journalists later received an apology from the city’s police chief, Eddie Garcia, according to Johnson’s piece.

While Johnson’s essay focused only on what had happened to him and his colleague from the Merc, reporters have found themselves targeted by law enforcement at protests throughout the country, in the course of doing their jobs. 

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a project of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, compiled a Google spreadsheet which as of Tuesday evening, June 2, documented 211 incidents of attacks on reporters over the six nights of protests to that point. The spreadsheet chronicled arrests, detentions, pepper spray assaults, shootings with rubber bullets, tear gassings, and similar, frightening episodes of police violence directed at news media personnel.

The law enforcement crackdown on the press, however, does not appear to have deterred at least the local media outlets surveyed by California Local from covering the protests fairly, and with essential context.  

Highlighting Underreported Angles

 

Mercury News journalists Julia Prodis Sulek and David Debolt, reporting with an Oakland dateline, published a lengthy examination of the question, “George Floyd Bay Area protests are sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent. Which is right?”

The even-handed piece, which perhaps appropriately never actually answers the question posed in the headline, was a rare one in its willingness to explore the question of whether violence at protests against violence can ever have legitimacy. 

“America wrote a check it’s not cashing, especially for blacks,” said Wanda Johnson, mother of Oakland police shooting victim Oscar Grant, quoted by Sulek and Debolt. “Some people feel that the only way they’re going to get paid is by this looting.”

Grant’s slaying in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer also set off protests, though confined to Oakland, and became the subject of the 2013 film Fruitvale

National Public Radio reporter Bill Chappell also investigated a topic that has received surprisingly little attention during the week of protests — the link between the mass gatherings and what appears to be the inevitable coming rise in coronavirus cases. In Washington D.C., for example, Chappell notes that public gatherings have been limited to 10 people. But the George Floyd protests have drawn thousands. 

But Chappell also cites an open letter signed by hundreds of health professionals and experts, encouraging the protests despite the risks of coronavirus transmission, because “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19."

 A piece reported by Emily Deruy of Walnut Creek’s East Bay Times, however, noted that public health experts have called on police to cease their use of tear gas against protesters. The gas could “increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing,” Deroy quoted University of Washington health experts as saying, in an online petition.

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