At this point, the police killings of Black men in the US have tended to produce a sickening cycle of familiarity, from the infrequency with which officers are held accountable to the angry protests that follow. Journalism too often perpetuates different aspects of that cycle, which can extend from a detail like the kind of photo used in conjunction with a story (a mug shot, as opposed to a family photo) to putting negative details into the public record about the victims — who are no longer alive to respond to them.
Which is why The Associated Press profile/obituary published on Wednesday for Daunte Wright — the 20-year-old father and by all accounts devoted family man who was shot and killed by police over the weekend during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota — must be noted. Primarily for the way it does what obituaries are supposed to do, putting Wright’s humanity front and center, while handling other aspects of his life without interjecting the implicit and explicit character assassination that often follows tragedies like these.
What do we mean by that? A good example, in fact, came the same day the AP ran its obituary of Wright — during the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged in the death of George Floyd following a video that shocked the world, showing Chauvin holding his knee on a prostrate Floyd’s back for more than nine minutes.
On Wednesday, Chauvin’s defense team called Maryland’s former chief medical examiner Dr. David Fowler as a witness, and he testified that factors other than Chauvin’s knee (including drugs found in Floyd’s toxicology report) suggested a sudden cardiac event as the cause of death. Prosecutors, of course, pushed back hard and forced some concessions from Fowler, but the larger point stands — this was a key witness for the defense, in other words, who worked hard to suggest that Floyd contributed to his own death.
This same kind of thing can reveal itself in journalists’ coverage if they’re not careful, and especially if they continue a practice that the industry has long embraced over the years often without thinking twice about it — reporting policing accounts verbatim as the settled, established fact set that any consideration of an event should be judged against.
MORE FOR YOU
Which brings us back to the AP obituary for Wright.
So much is packed into its first two grafs: That he became a father young, for example, and took pride in being one. That much is clear from the photos accompanying the piece, including one showing Wright holding his son Daunte Jr. at his first birthday party. And another, with Wright holding his son who has a bib that reads “ALWAYS HUNGRY.”
In that latter photo, Wright can also be seen wearing a coronavirus face mask, which speaks to his conscientiousness as a father and stands in contrast to the people who resist wearing face masks in public, let alone at home with their family, like Wright was shown doing.
“Daunte Wright: Doting dad, ballplayer, slain by police,” reads the AP headline.
An aunt goes on to call Wright “a lovable young man” with “the most beautiful smile.” He’s described by the AP as gregarious and popular. He played freshman and junior varsity basketball. He had a solid left-hand shot. In response to Wright acknowledging his ambitions that included being a professional ball player, fashion designer, and business owner, a youth development specialist at the high school Wright attended told the AP that he instructed the young man thus: “You can be whatever you want to be.”
For reporters and editors, editorial decisions that range from the choice and placement of photos to the dissemination of certain facts can reveal as much about a journalistic subject as it can about the journalist doing the coverage. To wit, it’s not until the final grafs of the story that the AP writer refers to court records which show that Wright had a minor criminal record. Petty misdemeanor convictions for possession/sale of a small amount of marijuana, the story notes, as well as possessing a gun without a permit during a police encounter last year.
Those points are presented in a brief and just-the-facts style, again, toward the end of the piece. Contrast that, meanwhile, with coverage elsewhere which puts that framing front-and-center:
Fox News: Daunte Wright accused of choking and robbing woman at gunpoint, had arrest warrant.
The New York Post: Minnesota police union official blames Daunte Wright for his own death.
The worst part about coverage like this is that it ignores what the AP profile of Wright works so hard to present: That Wright was a young Black man — with a family, with a life, with his own unique humanity that his relatives herein memorialized — who should not have died on Sunday night. Which is to say, this was not a profile the AP should have had to write in the first place, respectful though it was. But journalism certainly has a role to play in addressing this crisis in the United States, and it should go without saying that treating victims as human beings in news coverage is part of that equation.