News networks reporting on the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by a police officer in Baton Rouge highlighted Sterling’s prior criminal record and displayed his mugshot from a former arrest, reinforcing tropes about black criminality that have long tainted media coverage of instances of police violence.
On July 5, Alton Sterling was fatally shot by Baton Rouge, LA, police outside of a convenience store. Video of the incident shows Sterling pinned to the ground by two officers, seemingly unable to move. After one officer yells “he’s got a gun,” an officer aims his gun at Sterling’s chest and shoots him several times at near point-blank range.
The shooting has prompted the opening of a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice and has generated widespread media coverage. But in their reporting on the shooting, many news networks chose to highlight Sterling’s criminal history -- including displaying his mugshot from a prior arrest -- without explaining why that information was relevant to Sterling’s death.
Sterling’s criminal record is not evidence that police were justified in shooting him -- having a criminal record is not grounds for being shot by police. Nor is it evidence that Sterling, who was pinned down when he was killed, posed a threat to police. That information is irrelevant to the police officer’s decision to shoot Sterling.
But the media practice of depicting black victims of police violence as criminals is well documented. News outlets regularly use mugshots to depict black victims and highlight black victims’ criminal histories, even when those histories have nothing at all to do with the stories they’re reporting.
This kind of coverage reinforces dangerous and racist tropes about black criminality, and it makes audiences naturally hostile toward black victims. If you depict a black victim as a criminal or “thug” with an arrest record, it’s easier to believe that police were justified in killing them. If your first impression of Sterling is that he’s a sex offender with a criminal history, you’re less likely to view him as a victim, regardless of the details surrounding his death.
Conservative media are far less subtle when they call upon these tropes -- right-wing news outlets have a long history of demonizing and blaming black victims of police violence, even when facing clear evidence of police wrongdoing.
In a news conference hours after the shooting, Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s oldest son, told reporters that Sterling “is not what the mass media is making him out to be.” Unfortunately, many viewers who watched initial coverage of the shooting won’t be able to forget the dehumanizing and misleading image of Sterling that news outlets created.