Early media coverage of Breonna Taylor’s killing branded her a “suspect” and sanitized police violence

Breonna Taylor
Molly Butler / Media Matters

On March 13, 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, was shot and killed in Louisville, Kentucky, by police officers who had mistakenly broken into her home during a narcotics investigation that did not involve Taylor. While Taylor’s name has now become a rallying cry for demands to end police brutality, early local media reports described Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, as “suspects” at the center of an investigation, focusing the narrative on an injured police officer and uncritically accepting the police version of events. 

The initial reporting is indicative of the media's broader problem with sanitizing reporting on police brutality in a way that effectively covers for police officers who harm civilians. Recent reporting from NPR has also noted the detrimental effects these stories had on Taylor’s grieving family.

On March 13, shortly after midnight, police officers carrying a “no-knock” search warrant used a battering ram to break into Taylor’s apartment, and they fired several shots hitting Taylor at least eight times. The police claimed that they identified themselves multiple times and only opened fire after Walker shot first. Walker and several neighbors have denied that the police identified themselves before shooting Taylor, and he says he fired in self-defense, believing the unidentified officers were actually burglars. (During his call to 911 for help, Walker told the operator that “somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.”) Walker was initially arrested and charged with assault and attempted murder of a police officer; the charges against him were dismissed on May 26.

As summed up by New York magazine’s The Cut, “No drugs were found; the warrant in question targeted another person, who lived miles away and had already been detained by the time police entered Taylor’s home.” 

While many are now pointing to the injustices in the case, initial local reporting uncritically repeated the police version of events, crafting a narrative that Taylor and Walker were “suspects” in the narcotics investigation and had knowingly attempted to harm a police officer. Local media outlets also used passive voice to discuss Taylor’s killing, obscuring who was responsible, and avoided attributing blame to the police officers, who in their telling simply “returned fire.”

On March 13, WDRB, a local Louisville station, initially prioritized the injury to a police officer in a headline, stating that a woman was “found dead following narcotics investigation.”

WDRB headline covering Breonna Taylor

The WDRB report described the events as “a narcotics investigation that ended with one suspect dead and another in custody,” uncritically parroting the police claim that Taylor and Walker were suspects. The rest of the story echoed the police version of events that have since been challenged and focused on the recovery of the police officer who had been shot in the leg, quoting only the chief of police and a police spokesperson.

The Courier-Journal, the highest circulation newspaper in Kentucky, also wrote in a headline that an officer was “shot” while passively claiming that a woman was “killed during drug investigation.”

Courier-Journal headline on Breonna Taylor

Similar to WDRB, the Courier-Journal referred to Taylor and Walker as “suspects,” repeated the police version of events, and focused on the officer’s injury and his recovery.

Among national outlets, The Associated Press also prioritized the officer’s injury in a headline about the case, saying that a woman was “killed” without noting who was responsible for Taylor’s death. 

AP headline on Breonna Taylor

The AP story began with an update on the recovery of the police officer who was shot in the leg, before uncritically echoing the police version of events and describing Walker as “a suspect.” The AP also quoted a police spokesperson about Taylor, claiming that the department was “still investigating ‘what her involvement was.’” 

NPR recently reported that these sorts of early media reports about Taylor’s death had a great impact on her family. According to NPR, “Taylor's family said they felt anger when reading those early stories,” and they were particularly stunned by the characterization of Taylor and Walker as “suspects.” Taylor’s aunt revealed that she believes that this “early narrative” describing Taylor as a suspect made it more difficult for her family to find funeral service providers. 

Reporting that covers for the police officers who harm or kill civilians can have more widespread impacts as well. Local and national media’s tendency to use the passive voice when discussing incidents of police violence and to uncritically repeat the police version of events -- despite the proven lack of credibility from police when it comes to holding themselves accountable -- only serves to sanitize state violence against civilians and obscure the reality of police brutality in the United States.