Expert Commentary

America uprising: Scholars reflect on the death of George Floyd. Plus, 10 tips for journalists covering protests against police violence.

Scholars on policing, inequality and media reflect on the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Plus, 10 tips for journalists covering the protests.

(Clay Banks / Unsplash)

On May 25, Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, was videoed pressing his knee to George Floyd’s neck during an arrest over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd, a black man, was declared dead at Hennepin County Medical Center less than an hour later.

Official and independent autopsies on Floyd determined his death was a homicide. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder. Three other officers at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. All four officers have been fired.

A week after Floyd’s death, tens of thousands of people have gathered to hold peaceful protests and vigils in Minneapolis and dozens of other American cities like Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Louisville, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — and internationally. Violence in some cities has risen come nightfall, with fighting between security forces and protesters, police cars and departments set ablaze, and small and large businesses destroyed.

In Louisville, the police chief was fired on June 1 after officers who hadn’t activated their body cameras shot and killed David McAtee, the black owner of a popular barbecue restaurant, during a nighttime confrontation with a large crowd. Black men are about 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police in the U.S., according to research estimates published last August.

In a few other cities, officers have shown support by kneeling in solidarity with protesters. Elsewhere still, police have used violence against protesters and journalists. CNN reporter Omar Jimenez and his crew were arrested — live on air — on May 29. Numerous other journalists have been arrested covering unrest in hundreds of American cities. Some police and protestors have openly targeted journalists with physical violence. One photojournalist, freelancer Linda Tirado, lost an eye after being hit with a rubber bullet in Minneapolis.

Journalist’s Resource reached out to nearly a dozen scholars who study policing, economic and health inequality, and media ethics and narratives for their thoughts on the past week of uprisings in America.

We wanted to know how they were interpreting and experiencing the protests on a personal level and through their specific research lenses — and how newsrooms can improve coverage of protests against police violence.

A collage of their thoughts follows, pieced together from their separate email responses. Keep reading for 10 tips journalists and newsrooms can use to prepare for future protests against police violence.

‘I think we’ve hit the tipping point’

Jerry Watson, assistant professor of social work at the University of Memphis: The research is clear on police brutality and black men. What we have learned is that we have a new militarized police force. The new law enforcement officer is either a veteran of the wars that have been going on for the last 30 years, has been trained by a military veteran or is a partner of a large number of military personnel. Law enforcement training and tactics are closely aligned with military training and tactics.

Watson is co-author of “A Trilogy of Trepidation: Diverse Perspectives on Police Violence Targeting African American Males,” published in October 2015 in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment.

Rachel Hardeman, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota: It’s important for journalists to understand first and foremost that George Floyd is not an anomaly but rather the everyday lived reality of black people in the U.S.

Hardeman is co-author of “Police Brutality and Black Health: Setting the Agenda for Public Health Scholars,” published in April 2017 in the American Journal of Public Health.

Ellora Derenoncourt, incoming assistant professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley: In my analysis of northern backlash against the Great Migration, I find that riots in the late 1960s were more intense in major destination cities, likely related to intensifying segregation from white flight and a worsening of economic opportunity in the urban core. We are again living in a time when inequality is at a breaking point, at rock bottom or stagnating on many dimensions: health and mortality differences, the wealth gap, the income gap, the incarceration gap, among others.

Derenoncourt studies the historical drivers of economic and racial inequality. 

Shonda Lawrence, associate professor at the Whitney M. Young Jr. School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University: Undoubtedly, the interaction between black men and police has been shaped by racism. This affiliation bears witness to the adversarial and strained interactions between black men and police seen today. The resultant polarization of black men in American society corresponds with the militarization of law enforcement and the ensuing brutality and violence that black men experience. 

Lawrence has written about her childhood memories of policing on the west side of Chicago after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Jacob Faber, associate professor of sociology and public service at New York University: Our research finds dramatic racial disparities in the adjudication of citizen complaints against the Chicago Police Department. Allegations made by black and Latino citizens are far less likely to result in a recommendation of officer sanction than those made by white citizens. Black officers are also more likely to be punished when the complaining citizen is white.

Faber is co-author of “Complaining While Black: Racial Disparities in the Adjudication of Complaints Against the Police,” published in May 2019 in City & Community.

Thema Bryant-Davis, associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University: Focusing on fire and looting, which are symptoms, ignores the cause. It reinforces the idea that the only thing that gets the media’s attention is extreme behavior. Describe all the ‘sanctioned’ ways black people have tried to protest that have not only been ignored but been demonized or blocked — such as kneeling, marching and voting.

Bryant-Davis is director of the Culture and Trauma Research Lab at Pepperdine and is co-author of “The Trauma Lens of Police Violence against Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” published in December 2017 in the Journal of Social Issues.

Peter Moskos, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: The protests and the unrest surprise me for two reasons. First, honestly, is just how many white people are involved. Maybe it’s good more white people finally care about black lives — the protesters I’m talking about, not the looters. But I wish the focus for racial justice was against something other than police officers. How about housing, jobs, schools, violence or health care? I don’t think white people should be telling black people how black people should be policed. An anti-policing narrative has convinced a lot of well-meaning white people that police are the problem. That’s dangerous. Second, what was different this time was the quick condemnation of the cop by pretty much everybody — even on the police side. So many police officers, police chiefs and even police unions. The cop was vilified, arrested and charged. In the past, protests were about accountability. Here, accountability happened. What’s the end game here?

Moskos researches police culture and crime prevention and is a former Baltimore city police officer.

Derenoncourt: There has never been ‘quiet’ progress to racial economic equality in U.S. history. Pivotal episodes have been Reconstruction, World War II and the Civil Rights Era.

Hardeman: I think we’ve hit the tipping point.

Tip #1: Study the history of economic and racial inequality in America.

‘Language is important’

Danielle Kilgo, assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University Bloomington: There is some vague language that is routinely used, and sometimes used incorrectly, in protest coverage. Like, ‘peaceful-turned-violent’ and ‘clashes’ and ‘riots.’ Carefully consider the specific language you use and if it is reflective of the reality or just a norm. ‘Clashes’ is a word that is just a norm. Norms can change.

Kilgo is co-author of “Martin to Brown: How Time and Platform Impact Coverage of the Black Lives Matter Movement,” published in August 2018 in Journalism Practice.

Bryant-Davis: Language is important. Consider the term ‘uprising’ over ‘riot,’ ‘shared leadership’ over ‘disorder.’

Kilgo: Active voice. Active voice. Active voice.

Tip #2: Avoid generalizing and using vague terms. ‘Peaceful-turned-violent,’ ‘clashes’ and ‘riots,’ may not be reflective of the whole reality of protests.


‘In this world there are heroes and villains’

Hardeman: Minneapolis is my home. I was born and raised here. It has always been apparent to me that, hidden beneath the progressive façade, we are a tale of two cities — one black and one white.

Jane Kirtley, media ethics and law professor and director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota: Lake Street is the ‘Main Street’ of an extremely diverse community and contains many small businesses, many of them family- or minority-owned, or both. The very first restaurant I dined in my new neighborhood when I moved to Minneapolis was a Mexican restaurant owned and operated by three sisters who are naturalized U.S. citizens. For me, watching the destruction of these businesses, even while recognizing the emotions that prompted it, is so very sad.

Kirtley was executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press from 1984 to 1999.

Moskos: As a police officer 20 years ago, I feel for cops right now. I don’t want to be in their shoes. But neither do they. Imagine having a job where somebody ‘like you’ does something bad in another state and people start throwing Molotov cocktails at you? And in a place like New York City, which is always somewhat unique, you’ve got a lot of privileged young white people calling a lot of black and brown cops racists. In the name of racial justice.

Tip #3: Recognize and report that police officers are human beings facing challenging, stressful situations during protests.

James Nolan, sociology professor at West Virginia University: I watched some of the riots unfold in Wilmington, Delaware. It was horrible to watch. I was afraid for the police who stood by as looters smashed windows and stole items. They appeared helpless as the crowd of protestors erupted in anger. With a few exceptions, these were not peaceful rallies.

Nolan was a police officer in Wilmington for 13 years and graduated from the FBI National Academy. He researches neighborhood dynamics and police procedures. His academic work has appeared in American Sociologist, Policing & Society, Justice, Research & Policy and other journals.

Watson: Journalists should look for the real stories. What I mean by that is that whatever has sparked the protest is not a standalone event. There has always been a progression of events or a multitude of events that have been happening over a long period of time.

Kilgo: Treat the historical context behind a protest as a valued news feature. Grievances of this particular protest are much more than just one man’s death. Yes, George Floyd’s death is enough to take people to the streets. However, these protests are nationwide because it is George Floyd plus the many, many unarmed black men, women and children who died before him due to deadly police use-of-force.

Lawrence: See more than you see with your eyes. Approach the story from a values framework. Some things in life are people-driven — not necessarily data-driven.

Bryant-Davis: Write about predominantly white sports fans setting fires and destroying property at the end of games, and this behavior not being viewed as problematic.

Moskos: A lot of people I know honestly believe that police don’t shoot white people. We need to understand that police are part of the same America, the same racist America, that are our neighborhoods, schools, jobs, health care and housing.

Kirtley: I want to reiterate that what happened here on Memorial Day to George Floyd was a manifestation of a seemingly intractable pattern and practice of police brutality often, but not exclusively, directed before people of color. The police shootings of Jamar Clark and Justine Damond underscore that race is not the sole factor. But, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in 2018: ‘About 63 percent of those killed by police in Minneapolis — 19 people — were black, while only 17 percent — or 5 people — were white. Yet the city is about 60 percent white and 19 percent black.’

Hardeman: It’s layers and layers of structural racism, making it really hard to breathe. Just like Mr. Floyd.

Moskos: Who wasn’t horrified to watch that video? As a human being, it’s painful to watch. As a former police officer, it simply does not compute. What the hell was that cop doing?

Lawrence: Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Derrick Jones, Trayvon Martin, Dontre Hamilton, Jordan Baker, John Crawford III, Philando Castile, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Eric Harris, Phillip White, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Khaled Saeed, Rodney King, Michael Brown, George Floyd and so many other men whose names are not mentioned here are the unfortunate victims of gross police misconduct and horrific police brutality.

Bryant-Davis: As a psychologist, a black woman, a mother and a minister, I see the protests as a cry, a scream, a demand and a lament of generations of continued harassment, degradation and oppression. I see it as a response to the systematic violation of the human rights of black people, through governmental, educational, financial, health and criminal justice systems.

Kilgo: I’ve dedicated the last six years to studying these patterns in coverage of the protests that followed the death of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, to name a few. The patterns usually illustrate that our traditional news media will cover the actions of protesters using narratives about violence disruption, confrontation, clashes and drama more often than they will present narratives of the grievances, goals and agendas.

Bryant-Davis: My clinical work and research shows that trauma — including racially-motivated police violence — can create fear, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, distrust, isolation, panic and anger. Healing and peace are not just a matter of racial and ethnic minorities learning coping skills. There is a need for safety and justice. So, in fact, resisting injustice and internalized oppression are important parts of mental health and well-being.

Christopher Smith Ochoa, researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany: These very same patterns were seen in urban riots we analyzed in Paris, London and Baltimore. The riots begin with a young minority male, usually black, being killed by police, unleashing protests and normally escalating into clashes between citizens and the state. In these situations of moral ambiguity, actors on both sides legitimize their actions by unconsciously crafting coherent, compelling stories to appeal to the governed — to effect change or confirm the established order.

Smith Ochoa is co-author of “Resistance or Thuggery? Political Narratives of Urban Riots,” published spring 2019 in Narrative Culture.

Faber: The justice system takes white grievance much more seriously. Which many, including myself, interpret as the justice system organized to protect white Americans from people of color. The current protests are, in part, driven by this dynamic — and the fact that no solutions to police violence are currently on the table.

Kirtley: I think law enforcement personnel are particularly susceptible to the message of Donald Trump, who calls the news media ‘the enemy of the American people.’ I’m not saying that law enforcement anywhere ‘love’ the press, but there’s usually at least some mutual respect. I don’t see that here, at least in Minneapolis, and at least among the rank and file.

Smith Ochoa: There seems to be an active attempt to further escalate conflict into a form of showdown between the upright, virtuous state and the savage, criminal protesters.

Lawrence: There needs to be a deep dive into the characteristics of those attracted to the police force. Who are they? What is the screening process? What is the training process? What are requirements? Has this changed over the years? Have there been any adjustments made to requirements to attract applicants? The Blue Code is not black and white. You also see African American and other minority officers participating in or initiating mistreatment of African American men and women.  

Tip #4: Investigate the types of people who enter law enforcement. Who are they, how are they trained and how have the demographics of policing agencies changed over time?

Nolan: In this world there are heroes and villains, good people and the enemy of good people — the dangerous and despicable ‘other.’ The police bureaucracy is set up to do this. As warriors, the police don’t worry about creating peace. Awards and commendations are not given to those who actually improve conditions in neighborhoods, but only for heroics and law enforcement activities. This is how police violence is structured and will likely continue in spite of the criminal justice response to this offense or the civil protests nationwide. Police reform is necessary.

Lawrence: Why are black people expected to teach white people how to respect black people, while at the same time being careful not to offend? Why are we not talking about how to treat another human being? Could it be that our society does not see black men as human?


‘Perpetrators don’t just happen’

Kirtley: It is worth noting the arrests of the CNN reporting crew were made by Minnesota State Patrol troopers. The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul should have learned from the lawsuit, and 2011 $90,000 settlement, arising from the arrest of journalist Amy Goodman while she was covering protests connected to the Republican National Convention in 2008. Arresting journalists who are doing their jobs is a stupid, not to mention unconstitutional, thing to do. But of course, the cities were effectively indemnified by the RNC’s insurance. Some of the law enforcement officials at the RNC convention, and probably most if not all of the Minnesota State Patrol troopers, don’t live in the Twin Cities. This is not their community. You may not know that most Minneapolis and St. Paul police officers don’t live in the city either.

Tip #5: Read this advisory from the Committee to Protect Journalists and be aware that police are targeting journalists with rubber bullets and other projectiles.

Hardeman: It’s time to rethink and reimagine public and community safety, and what it truly means to protect and serve.

Nolan: The protests emerge from extreme frustration caused by routine violence by the police against African Americans. Even though the officers involved were fired and arrested, protestors recognize this is not enough. They know that firing the Minneapolis police officers will do nothing to prevent this from happening again — and again.

Moskos: Of course there’s racial disparity in policing. There’s disparity in everything. Let’s say we ‘fixed’ policing, whatever that means. Let’s say somehow police never kill an unarmed man again. That saves maybe 45 lives a year, 20 black. That’s it? In a country of 330 million? There simply isn’t a lot of juice in that squeeze.

Watson: The angles and stories that are missed are the humanizing stories of the victims and perpetrators. Perpetrators don’t just happen. They typically have a history of misbehavior leading up to the big event. Likewise, victims have human stories as sons, husbands, brothers, lovers, fathers, athletes, students, workers, business people and so on. It is important to capture those stories.

Tip #6: Tell well-rounded stories of both victims and perpetrators of police violence.

Derenoncourt: Articles in the media tend to disproportionately focus on the actions of a minority of protesters damaging property. But standard police crowd-control practice is to physically injure human beings. Social media has stepped up in terms of covering many instances of police violence. But if journalists treated every instance of this violence as a news story, perhaps this would help to de-naturalize and de-legitimize this routine form of violence.

Kilgo: Make police responsible for their actions. Include in coverage the actions of police and the actions of protesters.

Tip #7: When covering protests, don’t solely focus on people destroying property. Shine equal light on police violence against protestors and the press.

Moskos: At some point — we’re seeing it now — policing is about the use of force. Don’t forget that. And force is rarely pretty. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. There are too many stories criticizing cops who don’t misbehave, just because there’s a video of a cop using force. That’s lazy journalism. And it’s not fair. In the end, I just want stories that recognize police officers as human beings placed in an untenable situation.

Faber: I don’t have much to add more than what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote here and Louis Hyman wrote here.


‘Their concerns are not heard’

Kilgo: My research has shown that there are many ethnic, digital native, non-traditional and alternative news organizations that produce dramatically different coverage patterns. That’s where we get narrative differences, like we saw with the heavily circulated article by Matthew Dessem of Slate, titled ‘Police erupt in violence nationwide.’ I’d never seen anything like this before, though police-provoked violence is a truth that many protesters have discussed for decades.

Kirtley: The media in Minneapolis — especially print, but the local TV news outlets, too — mostly do a pretty good job of covering these stories, although of course they could do better. I think they’re skeptical of what law enforcement says and does. Although they’ve tried hard to add greater diversity to their staffs, the fact remains that most of the faces we see covering these protests — and for that matter, doing the ongoing reporting about minority communities — are white. I’ve heard so many minorities — not just African Americans, but Asian and Somali immigrants, as well — say again and again that their concerns are not heard, that their issues are not taken seriously.

Tip #8: Diversify newsrooms by race, social class and ethnicity. This is especially important for reporting on typically under-covered communities.

Kilgo: I have seen more attention to police behavior during protests and repression efforts by the state than I have in the past. In previous coverage, police behavior is generally reduced to ‘clashes’ and arrests, without much attention to police aggression or tactics, so the noticeable uptick in this attention seems quite progressive. In defense of the press, this outcome has a lot to do with the norms and routines that define the industry and the quest for ‘objectivity’ or ‘fairness.’ This includes, for example, seeking out officials and authorities as sources, which can give them more power over the overall narratives.

Nolan: Journalists should look for the sociological underpinnings of violence. This generally stands in contrast to the ‘rogue’ cop or bad person explanation. In other words, avoid the trap of thinking that the behavior is illogical or the result of some inherent characteristic of the offender. It is most likely logical and so the work is to understand the logic.

Hardeman: Policing and policing practices are part of a larger system and structure that has been built to uphold and maintain white supremacy. So removing one or two ‘bad apples’ is not going to solve the problem. Nor will implicit bias training and body cams.

Moskos: Why not look at what ‘reform’ actually means? There is a cottage industry for reform. What are the demonstrable results, if any? Implicit bias training isn’t the answer.

Lawrence: In my lifetime I have witnessed many great and extraordinary things. I have also witnessed many horrific, heart-wrenching events. In 1975, my 12-year-old self wrote: ‘When will justice take its stand? When will there be equality for every man? When will people come to bring joy, happiness and wonderful things? When will people learn to feel that it is prejudice that will kill? I tend to ask this question time and time again. But when will this injustice end?’ Today, in 2020, the poem written as a child is still just as relevant today as it was 45 years ago.

Derenoncourt: In my paper on historical U.S. minimum wage policy with Claire Montialoux, we find that the 1967 extension of the minimum wage to industries with an over-representation of black workers, and which were formerly excluded, explains one-fifth of the massive racial earnings convergence that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Simple universal policies aimed at improving the economic standing of poor people or low-wage workers could have massive ameliorative effects on racial inequality.


‘Protective garments may be prudent’

Kirtley: Angry protestors who will strike at anyone that they see as unsympathetic to their concerns — and I want to make clear that this would include the protestors railing against COVID-19 lockdown orders — are also a true and growing threat to journalists.

Hardeman: I am also deeply concerned about the ripple effects of the protests on COVID-19 exposure. What we expect to see in two weeks is an uptick in the number of COVID cases in our communities where black people were already disproportionately exposed. My research shows that black people who report having any sort of encounter with police, negative or not, have higher levels of distrust in the health care system and medical institutions. So the same folks who have been terrorized by police are going to be less likely to seek help and care when they contract COVID symptoms. And those that do may end up in hospitals and health care systems that are inherently racist.

Kirtley: Prominently display your news organization’s logo so that it’s clear you’re a journalist, not a looter. Stay behind police lines unless granted permission to cross. Don’t argue with the police. Leave the area if ordered to disperse. But even following those rules won’t guarantee that you will be safe from arrest. Even if you are eventually released, you’ve still been removed as an eyewitness to events, which may be the intention. I’m not a huge fan of journalists donning combat-type gear, but the reality is that protective garments may be prudent.

Tip #9: Prominently display your media credentials, but be prepared: You may still be arrested.


‘There are so many stories that need to be covered’

Watson: Journalists covering these protests and police-violence related protests in the future should first educate themselves on the history of oppression against black men in particular and African Americans in general. I would advise journalists to contact, interact and collect information from a variety of different participants from the oppressed group — community, local and national leaders, as well as law enforcement at a variety of levels.

Kilgo: Consider reporting on protests and criminal activity in separate articles, especially if there is evidence that there are other entities that are engaging or instigating criminal activity.

Bryant-Davis: Write about the ‘looting’ of government policies, and corporations that systematically take money from working class people to accumulate wealth for themselves.

Kilgo: Many of the front pages of metropolitan newspapers included pictures of protesters on top of police cars, or protesters near destruction, instead of scenes from the peaceful protests that occur before curfews are enforced. Journalists are caught in a bit of a Catch-22 when it comes to reporting protests — while the pictures of protesters standing in the forefront of a fiery background seem the most visually captivating and draw audiences in, they are doing so at the expense of other protesters. They can also demonize protesters. Peaceful protest takes a second seat. Because we know audiences process visuals much more quickly, remember them more vividly and recall their features more accurately than words, the analysis of this alone suggest the media are likely telling a story of destruction and conflict and rage that undercuts the legitimate grievances that are behind the protest and social movement for black equality.

Tip #10: Consider how images of destruction can undermine grievances and peaceful protest.

Smith Ochoa: More reporting on the effect of social inequality on citizens’ ability to meet their basic needs and prosper in society through the prism of the ordinary. I oftentimes have the impression that these stories are not the focus in reporting because there’s simply no monetary incentive to dig deeper on how inequality embeds itself into the experiences of ordinary people.

Moskos: There are so many stories that need to be covered. If disparity is your thing, why not look at regional disparity? It’s greater than racial disparity. Why do some states have rates of police-involved shootings at rates 10 times other states? A black man in New York City is far less likely to be shot than a white man in Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, Bakersfield, or Tulsa — much less a black man in those cities.

Nolan: Even if the officers are convicted of murder, this violence will continue to occur because it is exactly what the police intend to do. It is logical violence within the police bureaucracy. It is organized, scripted, protected, sanctioned, rewarded and it appears necessary in the same way violence in war appears necessary. The only way to stop it is to end the war.

Originally published June 2, 2020. Updated June 3, 2020 to reflect new charges against the Minneapolis police officers.

About The Author