Content warning: Some of the clips contain disturbing imagery of violence.
In covering the death of Jordan Neely on the New York subway, mainstream media framed some of their reporting around Neely’s past arrest record, mental health problems, and alleged “aggressive behavior” before another man put Neely in a fatal chokehold.
On May 1, Neely was killed after reportedly being held in a 15-minute chokehold by a former Marine on the New York City subway. Neely, who was unhoused, boarded a train and vocalized his frustrations with his lack of housing and adequate food and rest. “One witness said Neely had been panhandling and shouting on the train,” according to CBS News, “but the witness said, ‘It did not appear that this man, who seemed to be suffering from some kind of mental disturbance, was seeking to assault anyone.’” After being restrained and put into a chokehold by Daniel Penny and two other people, Neely died due to “compression of the neck,” according to New York’s chief medical examiner, who also ruled his death a homicide.
Currently, no one has been charged with a crime relating to Neely’s death, despite much outrage. Penny did release a statement blaming Neely for “aggressive behavior” while claiming that he “never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death.” Housing advocates have laid some blame on New York’s welfare infrastructure, saying that there’s a significant lack of housing and mental health services to be offered to unhoused populations. Elizabeth Bowen, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, also pointed out that racist stereotypes about Black men and cultural demonization of unhoused people can lead to fatal consequences.
Mainstream media’s reporting surrounding Neely’s death has at times overly relied on Neely’s mental health condition, arrest record, and behavior on the subway to frame the situation as opposed to focusing on the people whose physical actions led to his death. Similarly, right-wing media have also focused on Neely’s past, which fits into the larger pattern of fearmongering about unhoused populations. Adam Johnson of the Citations Needed podcast wrote that as right-wing media runs with their usual anti-homeless scare tactics, mainstream outlets have also encouraged “extrajudicial violence with propaganda headlines” and “obscured what happened” with Neely’s death.
- The New York Times’ coverage framed Neely’s death as an issue of whether “other passengers believed they had a reason to fear for their safety” in response to his supposed “hostile and erratic manner'' on the F train, focusing on Neely’s verbal outbursts that, according to a criminal defense lawyer, may have led those on the train to think that “something was happening” and “might have led other passengers to believe that Mr. Neely was going to do something violent.” The Times’ coverage has been subject to backlash due to the passive framing used to gloss over Neely’s killing and dubious claims of his alleged behavior on the subway train.
- On the May 4 edition of CNN News Central, reporter Omar Jimenez described the situation that led to Neely’s death as “passengers seemed to at least get uncomfortable” with Neely when another man “came up from behind and started putting this man, Jordan Neely, into a chokehold.” Jimenez did not mention that passengers on the subway train have not called Neely’s behavior violent, reporting that “the details of what exactly led up to this are still being confirmed … but many people feel that no matter what happened, he shouldn’t have lost his life.”
- A May 5 video by Forbes about Neely’s death quoted The New York Times and adopted similar framing, claiming that witnesses said Neely was “acting hostile toward passengers aboard the train” before he was “approached by another rider, who then restrained Neely.” The video also focused on Neely’s arrest record while describing his former Marine assailant only as “a decorated sergeant who left the service two years ago.”
- A Newsweek article published on May 4, titled “Jordan Neely's Criminal Record: Man Killed on Subway Had 42 Prior Arrests,” focused on Neely's arrest record, including “four for alleged assault, while others involved accusations of transit fraud and criminal trespass,” and “lower-level offenses such as having an open container of alcohol in public.”
- On MSNBC’s Ana Cabrera Reports airing on May 4, NBC correspondent Stephanie Gosk quoted a witness describing Neely as giving a “somewhat aggressive speech” about being hungry and thirsty. In her coverage, Gosk describes Neely’s killing as “three subway riders subduing the 30-year-old man, and one putting him in a chokehold; he later goes limp.”
- On the May 4 edition of MSNBC’s Way Too Early, host Jonathan Lemire quoted The New York Times that Neely was “screaming at passengers” until he got put in a chokehold. In his coverage, Lemire did not mention witnesses’ accounts that they did not consider Neely’s behavior as violent.
- On the May 5 edition of CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront, chief investigative correspondent Pamela Brown focused on Neely’s mental health struggles and criminal record and repeated witness accounts of Neely allegedly “acting erratically and yelling at passengers.”