Media coverage of police violence across the US sanitizes the state-sanctioned violence

By using passive voice and avoiding attributing actions, media outlets blunt the reality of police brutality toward civilians

Protests against police brutality spurred by the killing of George Floyd continue to unfold across the United States. While the police tactics at these protests are blatantly violent and clearly represent a systemic problem with excessive force -- the very issue that is being protested in the first place -- national media outlets are struggling to clearly say so. 

As the protests move into their second week, it is clear through videos and images that militarized police are escalating violence through intimidation and physical assault, including tear-gassing and firing rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, journalists, residents who are filming, and, in some cases, bystanders who were not protesting.

The police continued to escalate the violence on June 1, when police and National Guard members dressed in riot gear fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters who were gathered peacefully -- before a 7 p.m. curfew -- in order to provide a photo opportunity for President Donald Trump to stand in front of a church near the White House. Right before the incident, Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military against American civilians if protests continued.

In covering the protests and resulting police brutality, many outlets have offered vague, watered-down descriptions of police actions, crafting a narrative that implies “both sides” are responsible for the escalation and making it unclear who is responsible. Outlets are using the passive voice when talking about police violence, obscuring who is responsible, or omitting the actor in reporting such incidents, avoiding spotlighting the police behavior. 

As a result, the reporting effectively sanitizes state violence against civilians, leaving a muddled picture that doesn’t make it clear that police officers are abusing their power. Here are examples of such reporting:

Vague descriptions of police brutality that suggest “both sides” are to blame for escalating the violence

Multiple news outlets published vague or watered-down descriptions of police brutality, creating a narrative that implies “both sides” are responsible for escalating violence:

  • Wash. Post: “Live updates: Violent clashes between police and public escalate” [6/2/20]
  • NPR: “Violence Erupts As Outrage Over George Floyd’s Death Spills Into A New Week” [6/1/20]
  • AP: “Protests peaceful in Boston by day turn violent at nightfall” [6/1/20]

Passive coverage that avoids mentioning police

Headlines and tweets describing incidents of police brutality often use the passive voice or otherwise skip mentioning the perpetrator, effectively shifting blame away from the police:

  • Reuters: “Open season on the free press: Journalists targeted in attacks as U.S. protests rage” [5/31/20]
  • Miami Herald: “Day of peaceful Florida protests ends in barrage of water bottles, rubber bullets, tear gas” [5/31/20]
  • CBS: “Violence against journalists covering George Floyd protests draws scrutiny from U.S. allies” [6/2/20]
CBS headline "violence against journalists"
  • NPR: “Peaceful Protesters Tear-Gassed To Clear Way For Trump Church Photo-Op” [6/1/20]

When discussing police violence, some outlets focused on inanimate objects rather than officers: 

  • Reuters: “Protesters cleared by tear gas and rubber bullets for Trump photo op” [6/2/20]
  • Reuters: “Tear gas fired on protesters near White House as Trump speaks” [6/1/20]
  • AP: “Pepper spray, tear gas used to stop Dallas, Houston protests” [5/30/20]
AP passive headline on pepper spray, tear gas
  • Independent: “George Floyd protests: NYPD vehicle rams crowd of demonstrators in Brooklyn” [5/31/20]
  • NBC: “NYPD commissioner 'troubled' by video of cop cars driving into protesters” [6/1/20]
  • CBS: “Video shows NYPD vehicles driving into protesters in Brooklyn” [5/31/20]
CBS passive headline on NYPD videos

Other outlets used timid language when reporting claims of police violence despite the availability of concrete video and photo evidence showing instances of brutality:

  • Wash. Post: “Police appear to target journalists as they cover George Floyd protests” [5/31/20]
  • CNN: “Video appears to show NYPD truck plowing through crowd during protest” [5/31/20]