Media must tell the full story when reporting


"A teenage girl was fatally shot by the police in Columbus, Ohio, officials said, shortly before a jury reached a guilty verdict in the murder trial of the former police officer Derek Chauvin in last year’s killing of George Floyd," reads a headline from The New York Times after news broke of the fatal shooting of Ma'Khia Bryant.

"Ohio police fatally shoot Black teenage girl just before Chauvin verdict," reads a similar headline from the Washington Post. 

"Ohio cops shoot and kill 16-year-old Black girl Ma’khia Bryant, shortly before the Derek Chauvin verdict, reports say. Bryant’s aunt said the teen herself called 911 during a preceding incident. “[She] didn’t deserve to die like a dog in the street," explains the New York Daily News. 

If one were to teach a master class in media malfeasance and the sin of omission, put these headlines at the top of the lesson plan. Why? Because one crucial element was omitted: The attacker who was shot by a police officer, Ma'Khia Bryant, was about to stab another Black teen, who was unarmed, with a knife. But you would never know it seeing these and countless other headlines that dominated social media on the day of the shooting.  

No matter: The officer – who may have saved an unarmed young Black girl's life by preventing her from being stabbed – is immediately portrayed in these headlines as another Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who was found guilty this week on all three counts in the horrific killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.  

And headlines matter more than ever given the way we consume digital news in 2021: 

Scroll. 

Read a headline. 

See the photo.  

Read a short caption. 

Don't actually read the story.  

Move on to the next headline. 

Rinse. Lather. Repeat. 

Note: 86 percent of U.S. adults get their news from a smartphone, computer or tablet “often” or “sometimes,” including 6-in-10 who say they do so “often,” according to Pew Research. So more than ever, it is crucial for headlines to provide full and accurate information without being guilty of the sin of omission, as seen above.  

And remember: Social media news consumption has the kind of reach that publications used to only dream of. The New York Times, for example, has about 68 million Twitter and Facebook followers, which is almost equivalent to the combined populations of Texas, Florida and New York. It also boasts nearly 7 million digital subscribers. So, when the "paper of record" sends out a breaking headline on a huge news story like the Bryant shooting, it reaches a huge number of eyeballs quickly. 

And first impressions on a story mean everything these days. Want proof? Check out this hot mess from taxpayer-funded NPR: 

"Ma'Khia Bryant, a Black teenage girl, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio, after she called 911 for help when a group of "older kids" threatened her, according to her family." 

Again, no mention that Bryant was holding a knife. We also don't know if it was Bryant who called 911, as police were not able to confirm that as of Sunday morning. But check out the number of retweets and likes on the NPR tweet: More than 1,200 retweets. 1,800 likes. 

NPR would later send this subtweet in the dead-of-night at 3:05 am ET on Wednesday. 

"Police have released body camera footage of the officer who shot 16-year-old Khia Bryant. The video clip shows Bryant holding what appears to be a knife during an altercation with two other girls at the scene," the update reads. 

So why didn't NPR simply wait for those facts to come in? And why is the knife brandished by Bryant only being mentioned for the first time here, when so few are seeing it? How few? Well, this tweet received only 78 retweets and 250 likes compared to the original 1,200/1,800 split. 

This is yet another example of the allegation getting infinitely more attention than the potential exoneration.

Result: The steady drumbeat of media coverage constantly rushing to judgment and motive while portraying police as heavy-handed and racist before the facts come in appears to be having a profound effect on public perception. The most recent Gallup poll on police confidence shows the number at its lowest in the 30 years since it began tracking the issue, with less than half of respondents (48 percent) saying they had confidence in the police.

For context, in 2017 that number was 11 points higher, or 57 percent. And that was post Ferguson and post-Baltimore. In 2004, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents expressed confidence in the police, or 16 points higher than today.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a deep partisan divide on the issue. Eighty-two percent of Republicans have confidence in the police, while just 28 percent Democrats show confidence in law enforcement. Racial and political tensions in this country are as high as we've seen this century. 

The stakes have never been higher for journalism to get it right — to provide full context; to wait for the facts; to resist taking an activist role in such weighty matters as race and law enforcement. Because to do otherwise will create more unrest, more tension, and in the process put the lives of those serving to protect us in further danger. 

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