It’s been a year since the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody. Gray’s death sparked major protests from local residents and activists, but it wasn’t until some of those protests turned violent that Baltimore captured the attention of national news networks.
In the days that followed, media images of the events in Baltimore fixated on scenes of violence, looting, and property damage, drawing criticism from local residents who rejected what they saw as sensationalized and misleading media coverage.
One of those residents is Lawrence Grandpre, the Assistant Director of Research and Public Policy at Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle -- a grassroots think tank that advances the public policy interests of Black people in Baltimore. Talking to Media Matters, Grandpre criticized corporate media’s tendency to highlight the most sensational images during events like the Baltimore protests.
“You have a kind of race-to-the-bottom in terms of corporate media looking for the most spectacular incidences of violence, the biggest names, and what they think will drive the media cycle forward in their favor,” Grandpre explains. “In a corporate media environment, the spectacle drives views, drives retweets, and thus drives profits.”
That focus on sensationalized images comes at a cost. Images of violence and property damage distracted viewers from understanding the long-term problems in Baltimore that fueled the outrage over Gray’s death, making it difficult for audiences to fully grasp what was motivating protesters.
“The reality is the frustration you saw in April of 2015 wasn’t just about Freddie Gray,” says Grandpre. “It was about a system that had left a large chunk of Baltimore politically abandoned in terms of people who genuinely represent their interests and structurally in the line-of-fire for systemic poverty, hyper policing, and structural racism.”
Without understanding the history of inequality and disenfranchisement in Baltimore, news viewers were more likely to see images of violence and property damage and conclude that protesters were acting irrationally. And that made it easier for commentators on major news networks to dismiss the protesters as “thugs” and “criminals.”
“An audience that doesn’t know Baltimore will just assume these are irrational young people all over the city who are taking out their anger on the streets,” says Grandpre. “When you see black folk as an irrational threat, or responding in ways that are irrational, all you need to do to assuage your fear is put them down, either by quelling the riot or taking violence against those people. And that prevents you from actually interrogating the structural conditions which produced that rage.”
That depiction of black protesters as irrational, dangerous, and out-of-control helped turn public opinion against protesters, making it less likely that audiences would hear protesters’ grievances as legitimate or credible. And Grandpre argues those kinds of images play on deeply ingrained fears about black rage.
“In this country, there are certain psychological tropes that relate to blackness that the media is going to exploit in these incidences. In reality, there are fears in Baltimore not just of urban revolts going back to the 60s, but really honestly slave revolts going all the way back to Nat Turner in the 19th century. So the idea of black people having these types of uprising produces this deep fear within the collective psyche of many in America, in terms of ‘there’s this black rage that threatens to consume this country that folks have built up, could that black rage be turned on to me and my family?’”
The media’s focus on sensationalized depictions of violence shaped how audiences imaged a resolution to the crisis in Baltimore. Just as images of violent protests came to define the “problem” in Baltimore, ending that violence became the “solution,” so news networks fixated on whether protesters would disperse rather than asking if the conditions that had brought the protesters onto the streets in the first place had changed.
“We have this discourse and representations that are strategically designed to make it so that the discussions about changing conditions in society that could actually hurt the material interests of many of the folks who are in power, are not centered in political discourse,” Grandpre explains. “Instead what’s centered is the threat, the spectacle, and can we have a bonding moment with the reestablishing of security. But that reestablishing of security is really just reestablishing the status quo which was never secure when you’re talking about black people in places like Baltimore.”