press & talk

The Power of “Death” - News Coverage of Anti-Black Police Brutality

Written By: Julia Gaiser

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After the Death of George Floyd is the headline that took over the news on May 25, after a Black man had been murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. That day, a storekeeper had called the police on George Floyd, who supposedly used a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. We all know what happened then. One of the four police officers who arrived at the scene, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on the unarmed man’s throat for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while the other officers stood there and witnessed the Death of George Floyd happening right in front of their eyes.

After the Death of George Floyd. This is what the New York Times, the Guardian, NBC, Tagesschau, the BBC, the Washington Post, Die Zeit, FAZ, Tagesspiegel, the Berliner Morgenpost, and so many other news outlets deemed an appropriate title for yet another murder of a Black man at the hands of police. So did my employer at a press agency in Germany. After the Death of George Floyd was the title I was supposed to type on the keyboard.

I do not know why I expected this particular news agency to be an exception. When I started my shift, after a week of posting about the harm of white people’s silence about anti-Black police brutality and sharing resources on how to unlearn internalized biases, I was now supposed to use the same rhetoric I was criticizing. I saw myself confronted to make a decision. I could either stay silent, yet again, or I could use my privileged position as a white employee to speak up.

Too many times before, I have looked the other way. I am guilty of the perpetuation of racism. Growing up as a white cis-gender female in a society that normalizes the exclusion of marginalized communities through white-supremacist, patriarchal, and colonialist hierarchies, I am conditioned to remain ignorant of the existence of these interconnected systems of oppression. After all, silence is complicity and ignorance is what keeps them intact.

The email I received from the superior in response to my complaint was disappointing, to say the least. He, a white male, replied that even if the incident was racially motivated, we, as a news agency, would have to restrain ourselves from making any assumptions. Evidently, calling the Death of George Floyd what it actually was - murder - would violate the news agency’s journalistic guidelines.

The way news is selected, written about, and disseminated has always served those who govern the output of subjective world views under the guise of so-called ‘objectivity’. But where is the objectivity in mentioning George Floyd’s full name, while protecting the anonymity of the white police officer, Derek Chauvin? Why do we write After the Death of George Floyd, when it was so obviously murder? Would we have used the same wording, if a Black police officer had kneeled on the neck of a white man? Why do we use the passive voice “the Afro-American died during a police operation” instead of the active voice “a white police officer killed a Black man”, when reporting about this incident? Why do we use stigmatized words that paint pictures of justified police brutality? Why do most reports about the ensuing protests focus on violence, “looting”, and stores being set on fire? Why do we not center the underlying cause for these outcries of anger and frustration? Why do we act in compliance with outdated journalistic codes of illusory objectivity instead of humanity? Why can’t we ground journalism in the principles of justice and equality?

Words matter, and how we use them impacts our world. Language that frames Black people, People of Color, and people marginalized by discrimination as passive participants in their own oppression reinforces the acceptance of institutional racism as an unalterable norm. Any opposition against these norms is met with resistance and lazy excuses. In my case, the opposition resulted in me quitting my job.

Not only was this the right thing to do, but it is part of my responsibility as a white person to demand change within the institutions that grant me privilege on account of my whiteness. I knew that I would not and could not participate in a system that frames this murder as death. I would not and could not reinforce a rhetoric that upholds racist power hierarchies behind the violence so many Black men and women have been enduring for centuries. I would not and could not be part of a biased machinery, that informs the language and opinions of an entire nation, with no willingness for self-reflection and change.

I realize there are hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people out there, who operate in oppressive systems that perpetuate intersectional forms of discrimination and who are not afforded the privilege to stop working at a place that violates their personal beliefs and convictions. When the only other option is unemployment, many are forced to put on a collegial smile and carry their anger and pain with them. When we dissect the details of the Death of George Floyd here in Germany, we, white people, need to stop viewing this incident as a foreign horror story, disconnected from the historical, political, and social realities right in front of us.

There is no time left to hold back or restrain from reporting the truth. It is time for a radical evaluation of the systems maintaining unequal power hierarchies. Intersectional justice is beyond overdue. And we need to finally ask ourselves, why are we not outraged?

*During the writing process of this article, a major news agency, AP news, has announced a significant change to their journalism style by capitalizing the “b” in Black to identify Black people, as well as the ‘i’ in Indigenous to describe the first inhabitants of a place. (Find out more here). In the meantime, my former employer has decided my official complaint against their racist news coverage to be unfounded. They came to the conclusion that no changes would have to be made.