Policing 2020: Local news reporting during a year of racial justice protests
In 2020, racial justice took center stage in U.S. public discourse as massive numbers of people took to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism in policing and in American society more broadly.
Triggered by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the protests demanded accountability for Floyd’s death and for the many other Black people killed by police. In this context, many news organizations were confronted with their own history of institutionalized racism, including scrutiny around how newsrooms cover policing, race, and communities of color.
This study explores whether and how the heightened public discourse on racial justice potentially influenced reporting on policing in 2020. Based on a content analysis of a full year’s coverage of policing by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer – each of which witnessed a local high-profile case of police killing a Black person in 2020 – we assess how sourcing practices, portrayals of the police and civilians, and the presence of contextual information help shape readers’ understanding of policing.
Key Findings and Implications
- Sourcing practices that privilege police sources: Contrary to concerns that newsrooms frequently privilege police sources, we found a relatively small proportion of stories about policing in the three newspapers we studied used single-source reporting that relied exclusively on police sources.
- Relative presence of police sources compared to other sources: Even if it was relatively uncommon for the newspapers to rely exclusively on the police as a source or to cite them in the headline, the police still appeared in far more stories than community-based voices such as victims of local crime, civilians harmed by police, and community-focused organizations. This disproportionate use of police sources relative to other sources was particularly evident in local crime stories.
Portrayals of Civilians
- Dehumanizing language: Dehumanizing language used to describe civilians targeted by the police – such as suspect, juvenile, and offender – appeared in a relatively small proportion of stories in the three newspapers (19-26%).
- Criminalizing information: Portrayals of civilians who were seriously injured or harmed by police were more likely to include “criminalizing” information (for example, by mentioning a prior arrest record or describing the person’s threatening behavior) as opposed to “humanizing” information (for example, by describing the person’s relationships with loved ones and details about their life).
- Delegitimizing frames to portray protesters: Across the three newspapers, a substantial majority (66-82%) of stories about the protests portrayed protesters as posing a threat to property, to police officers, and to other civilians – far exceeding the proportion of stories that mentioned protesters harmed by police use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other forms of force (24-36%).
Portrayals of Police
- Distancing language: Using “distancing” language to euphemistically describe police use of force, such as “officer-involved shooting” or “discharged weapon” was rare in these three newspapers’ stories about policing (less than 10%), both before and after Floyd’s death.
- Information challenging the police: Coverage of policing frequently included sources or information that questioned or criticized police practices or police conduct, suggesting that portrayals of the police often incorporated a challenge to the police narrative. The clear exception to this pattern was in the subset of stories on local crime, which more rarely included such information. All three newspapers became more likely to include information challenging the police during the period following Floyd’s death.
- Information about police accountability: Coverage of policing became somewhat more likely to mention information about police accountability for their conduct over the course of 2020, reflecting the heightened public attention to police accountability for harming civilians prompted by the viral video of Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests. However, when we examined stories that specifically mentioned a civilian seriously injured or harmed by the police, we found that only about half these stories in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer included any information about police accountability (compared to 80% in the Louisville Courier-Journal), suggesting that this connection between police violence and police accountability was often missing in these two newspapers.
- References to issues of racial justice or injustice: Looking across the full year of coverage of policing, references to racial justice increased in all three newspapers during the period following Floyd’s death – both reflecting and contributing to heightened public attention to racism in policing and in society more broadly. In covering the protests specifically, the Louisville Courier-Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer usually included at least brief references to racial justice or injustice, helping to provide this context. This was less common in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s protest stories, which frequently omitted any reference to racial justice as context for protesters’ demands.
- Explanation of the policy implications of “defund the police”: In all three newspapers, there was relatively little substantive information about the policy implications of “defund the police” – one of the most salient rallying cries of the protests. Only a small minority of stories that mentioned reform explained what “defunding the police” could look like in policy or budgetary terms, suggesting that readers often lacked contextual details about what calls to “defund the police” might mean.
- Source diversity: Newsrooms have an opportunity to build on the more inclusive sourcing practices used in their coverage of police conduct, accountability, reforms, and protests, bringing this wider set of perspectives to their local crime reporting. Reporters need to be given space to prioritize diverse sourcing practices that construct a more complete narrative. This includes making community-based voices more of a norm rather than an exception in local crime reporting.
- Attributions of responsibility: Stories that involve police use of force convey a narrative about who is responsible for triggering that use of force and for any harm that occurs as a result. For example, information that portrays civilians as threatening helps shift responsibility away from the police, whereas information that questions police conduct helps shift responsibility towards the police. Contextual information can further deepen readers’ understanding of attributions of responsibility – for example by pointing to systemic factors like racism that may inform interactions between the police and civilians. Attributions of responsibility can be usefully nuanced by considering the balance of information that shifts responsibility towards the police vs. towards civilians.
- Legitimacy of the status quo versus demands for change: News coverage can serve to legitimize the status quo or legitimize demands for the status quo to change, depending on which sources and which pieces of information or context are included (or omitted) in a given story. For example, while long-established traditions in protest coverage may pressure news organizations to focus on property damage, this can help delegitimize protesters’ calls for police reforms. The status quo can also be upheld through omission of information about police accountability for killing or injuring civilians (including harming protesters), helping to legitimize current police practices. Conversely, calls for change can be legitimized through sources who explain the racial justice context for why police reforms are needed. This kind of contextual reference point also shifts the focus from the actions of a few individual police officers, orienting attention to institutional and cultural problems that require large-scale solutions.
- Protests as a causal mechanism for change: Information about the impact of protests emerged as a recurring theme in coverage of policing. We encourage further exploration of whether and how reporting contributes to a deeper understanding and amplification of the value and impact of public protests as a mechanism for social, political, and policy change.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation.