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How The Media Portrayed A White Woman Killed By A Minneapolis Cop

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Justine Damond

This undated photo provided by Stephen Govel shows Justine Damond, of Sydney, Australia, who was fatally shot by police in Minneapolis on Saturday, July 15, 2017. Authorities say that officers were responding to a 911 call about a possible assault when the woman was shot. (Stephen Govel/ via AP)

Last week, the media again focused on police shootings after a Minneapolis officer fatally shot Justine Damond, a white woman from Australia. 

But this time, some say the media portrayed the victim differently. NPR and WBEZ referred to Damond as a “yoga and meditation instructor.” Others, including the Chicago Tribune, referred to her as a “bride-to-be.” 

"I don’t remember any reporter, any headlines, any news stories announcing or identifying Philando Castile in terms of his marital status the way that they immediately have been identifying Justine Damond by her marital status," said Brentin Mock, a writer on racial equity issues for CityLab, Friday on Morning Shift. CityLab is an online division of The Atlantic.

Is this police shooting being covered differently than those of young black men like Philando Castile or Michael Brown? And does a shift in the media’s narrative influence the public response? 

To analyze the issue of media coverage, Morning Shift host Jenn White spoke with Mock and Alford Young, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan. Here are some highlights from their conversation. 

On coverage emphasizing the victim’s marital status

Brentin Mock: We have to remember with the police killing of Philando Castile, he was a groom-to-be. His girlfriend who was in the car with him was his fiance, and I don’t recall — and I actually looked this up — I don’t remember any reporter, any headlines, any news stories announcing or identifying Philando Castile in terms of his marital status the way that they immediately have been identifying Justine Damond by her marital status. It’s almost to suggest that, yes, there should be some extra sympathy — some extra empathy — for the killing of this white woman because she was about to get married. But there was no such sympathy extended to Mr. Castile, an African-American, despite that he was about to get married. 

On the relationship between gender and race in shooting coverage

Alford Young: I think it’s hard to disassociate gender from race in these dynamics. Ms. Damond, again, appears to be the most legitimate, the most proper, the most safe of victims that we’ve encountered over the past couple of years. Black men still register in the national conversation as threatening, as problematic. Following the discussion we’ve had so far it’s very clear that these men are often positioned as done something wrong or something illegitimate that put them in situations where they were then shot, or in some cases shot at, by police. So I think the gender component, coupled with race, already positions certain individuals, in this case black men, as having contributed to the circumstances that resulted in death. 

In the case of a white woman in this case, there’s nothing about a vision of her racial background, her gender status, that conjures up the notion of problem, a notion of threat.

Jenn White: Can you unpack a phrase you used there: “safe victim?”

Young: Meaning that in almost all of the cases about black men who have been shot by the police, there was some argument about what they did or how they appeared to be that threatened those police officers or that conjured up an image of them as threatening in society.

Mock: I think gender really plays a critical role in this, as does origin of country. The fact that this woman is Australian, and not American, for some reason that also seems to elicit this extra sympathy.

On coverage that qualifies the type of neighborhood in which a shooting occurred

Mock: When you look at Justine Damond, I see that they are saying that the place where she was shot was in an up-market neighborhood, or in a neighborhood where this kind of violence is not supposed to happen. And when you make those kind of identifications to the location, it’s almost to suggest that when an African-American is killed in their neighborhoods that that is the type of place where this is supposed to happen. 

I think the context and the setting is really irrelevant. When it comes to the reporting, it should really just be not about trying to contextualize who this person was in terms of race or class or the locational setting, but specifically, what was happening? Why did this police officer feel that he needed to discharge his weapon to resolve whatever encounter or situation that he was in? Really, the conversation should be about the lack of training, or the problem with training with police officers, and not just about who the victims were. 

On the public’s ability to self-select the coverage they want

White: We must say, different media outlets will cover these stories in different ways. We’re in a time where there’s a splintering in media. You have outlets that are considered conservative, that are considered liberal. And we’re at a time when people can really self-select what they want to hear. How does that drive the public response and the way we’re able to have substantive conversations around these issues?

Young: I think it poses an immense challenge. Because what makes us decide that certain news outlets are appealing is an affirmation of that which we are previously committed to. And just as we’ve heard in the commentary from Brentin [Mock] about this case, it opens up a wide range of new considerations, so that our feelings about the police, and how we peg the police — as threatening to black people, as threatening to people of color, as often being majority white people — ruptured in this case. Right? The victim, a white woman — not the standard black male victim of police brutality. Different portrait for this case. So it will cause us all to think very differently about how we respond to media and what we accept or even reject as appropriate media depictions of what’s going on. And I’m eager to see how this plays out over time. I think new possibilities are before us in how we think about police and how we think about victims. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click ‘Play’ above to listen to the entire segment.

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