In a time when media coverage of rising racial tensions in the United States paints the story in black-and-white, journalists hold power to help neutralize the situation

I hated that stare I used to get back in grade school when I told people my dad was a cop.

I hated it then, and even now that he’s retired I despise it. There truly aren’t strong enough words to answer the kind of judgmental glares I’ve received for being a cop’s daughter. Over the years I have been continuously thrown under the same umbrella of idiocy as “oppressor garbage” based solely on proximity.

 In the midst of the chaos brought about by recent police shootings and in-custody deaths of black men in the United States, I have even been told that people like me, and people who still believe in the police force are part of the problem.

When my dad goes to his post-force security job up north, and reports illegal activities to his supervisors (as is his purpose), he gets told by those he turns in that it’s “imbeciles like him that are the reason cops get killed.”

I really hate that ignorance.

The recent turmoil began with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss. last August, and since then there has appeared no end to the public protests and responding police violence portrayed in media coming from the south.

The riots that took place in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray came to an end just at the beginning of this month. The 25-year-old black man fell into a coma due to a spinal cord injury sustained while in police custody, after several eyewitnesses reported police as using excessive force to detain him.

In early April of this year, yet another black man was gunned down by a white police officer in South Carolina. Walter Scott was shot eight times as he fled from an alleged confrontation between himself and officer Michael T. Slager.

Effects of Eyewitness Evidence

This particular slaying might have been excused or covered up like seemingly all others before it. There has been a total of 54 officers charged in response to thousands of fatal shootings in America since 2005, as the Washington Post reports. However, one crucial element made all the difference in the case of Walter Scott: video evidence of the Scott shooting as filmed by a civilian bystander.

Officer Slager was charged with first-degree murder just three days after the shooting. Contradicting his recounting of events, the video, which depicted Slager using a questionable amount of force, I’d say, to restrain his suspect, in addition to planting evidence, lead to fast indictment and prosecution.

It may be gleaned from the unfolding of these events that the media’s portrayal of both black men and white cops have had a direct effect on public opinion and action surrounding current inequality issues. Though sparse evidence has surfaced to shed light on the Freddie Gray case, visual documentation proved invaluable in bringing Walter Scott’s case to justice. The video gave a more accurate recounting of events than official police reports, providing the court with an eyewitness perspective.My father never talked about his work with us growing up, but his pride in his career was always evident. Dancing with my sister on his wedding day, Aug. 22, 1992, he was adamant on wearing his uniform for the occasion.

Photo courtesy of Michaela Ritchie

The video was presented to the public via the New York Times within a timeframe that warranted its newsworthiness against fears of the footage being gratuitous or sensationalized; the Scott family, although disturbed by the event itself, was glad to have the truth revealed behind the murder of their son, husband, and father.

I feel their pain. I can’t begin to imagine the anguish the families of the fallen must go through in the aftermath of these events. Indeed, whenever I hear of such police incidents, I feel grateful that my own father was not slain.

I think of all the times he could have been in his 30 years in the RCMP, had he not applied the necessary measures to keep himself alive in dangerous situations. My father has been in street fights with muggers, been rear-ended by intoxicated fugitives, and has both taken and given his fair share of beatings. But although he never pulled the trigger of his issued firearm during his career, many of his coworkers were not so fortunate.

My dad always told me that lethal force was only ever excusable in defense of his own life, and that as an officer who willingly stepped up to the plate, he had to be prepared to give that life for the cause at all times.

So I think about the damnation that videos like the one of Walter Scott’s murder wreak on proud and honourable police forces, and I am ashamed.

Not of the shooter, oddly enough, and not of Scott for running – nor the civilians brave enough to film such incidents.

I am ashamed of myself, because those people who accuse me of being part of the problem are completely right.

I am guilty. My crime? Defamation. Two counts.

Fanning the Flames

As much as any ‘suspect’ or ‘oppressive cops’ and their supporters are part of the problem when it comes to racial inequality in today’s media, so are journalists everywhere, and we really don’t seem to take notice.

Just as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray all deserve decency and justice, so do the men and women in uniform who go to work every day knowing they too might come home in a body bag.My father was not always a serious man, pictured here in 1997 allowing my clumsy toddler self to spoon-feed him. However, a lifetime of public service and devotion to the police force changed him, leaving him with debilitating injuries and severe PTSD. This is why I get so defensive when people demean the sacrifices made by officers like him.

Photo courtesy of Michaela Ritchie

These officers took an oath to protect and serve their communities and all who reside within them. For the majority, their hearts beat with a desire to enforce justice.

Yes, they signed up for this. But doesn’t their willing sacrifice warrant at least a little gratitude on our part?

I am not denying that Canada’s police forces have flaws that desperately need to be addressed – racial profiling and power-tripping hierarchies among them. All occupations leave something to be desired in one way or another.

The real caveat lays in the fact that, simply, police are held to a higher occupational standard than the taxi driver who hits a pedestrian, or the doctor who is unable to save a life. More is demanded of our police force because we can see their modus operandi, and there’s lots of room to criticize when we don’t like it.

Cops aren’t allowed to make mistakes with the public watching – and thanks to news media, the public always are. Police forces operate under media watchdogs, which turn them into Public Enemy No. 1 when they inevitably screw up. Find egg on your face under our scrutiny, and you better believe us journalists will wring you through 20 different kinds of headlines and follow-up stories. It’s what we do.

However, sometimes this means our reporting leads us to rely on stereotypes, on our sole observation, on partial truths as we would spin them to polish any given narrative. It’s called reporter’s bias, and no matter how we try to avoid it, it always persists in subtle omnipotence.

Sometimes how journalists work the story contributes more to the frustration of justice than its unveiling. In the case of Eric Garner, video proof merely incited the public to hysterics. Although completely justified, that resulting resentment towards all officers, not just the perpetrators of the injustice, made the issue harder for police to resolve, likewise lending fuel to the fire during the Baltimore riots and others.

However, in the case of Walter Scott, and now Freddie Gray, recordings, eyewitness testimony, and transparent media coverage have brought guilty parties closer to their rightful chopping block. Think of the violence incited in Ferguson, and the change it has demanded.

So where do we draw the line when our coverage has the power to help avenge and pay homage to lives lost, but can also negatively impact those still struggling through the conflict – be they activists, families of the deceased, or cops that simply want to help?

The answer is we don’t.

Justice in the Media

True journalism is justified, considerate, and transparent. We can critique and call attention to issues and processes without demeaning parties on either side of the conflict.

To be clear, I do not agree with the oppression of minorities in America or any nation, and as the daughter of a proud, upstanding officer, I certainly do not condone the excessive measures utilized by cowards such as Slager.My father has dedicated his life to protecting others and building a better future for his family. Following the rise in police violence in the United States, he has had to watch his life’s work be dragged through the mud by corruption, protests, and tabloid sensationalism.

Photo courtesy of Michaela Ritchie

But when media begin to sensationalize or jump to conclusions based on half-truths, we can stop calling ourselves journalists right then and there. Ours is not to speculate. Journalists reveal meaning; we don’t create it. But that hasn’t stopped us from creatively shining light on specific fragments of the story.

In cases where video evidence is uncovered to corroborate events, we have little room to sway readers towards a preferred conclusion. But in the absence of video, when we think back to the Michael Brown case, how many different media outlets do you remember covering the story? How many spun Brown and Wilson as either martyr or villain, respectively, and vice versa, in an ongoing investigation with too many unresolved elements for anyone to play judge?

Our words are weapons. Sometimes we wield them mindless of the consequences. Sometimes that means my dad getting flak for a crime he didn’t commit, because some poor reader has gained the funnelled opinion that “Corruption of the Many = Corruption of the Whole.”

I’m not saying we should automatically give our authoritative respect to a force that won’t respect us as human beings – equality is a two-way street. I am simply here to suggest that the only way forward is to quell the hatred, and the fear, on both sides. Sensationalist tabloid journalism isn’t going to further that movement.

In today’s media landscape, the only way journalists can contribute to the betterment of our nation is to keep our eyes open and our cameras ready. Let your words be as clear and uncompromising as visual proof.

It is not our job to choose sides or comment, no matter how we want to play the moral guide or be a sympathetic comfort to our audience. In doing so, we taint mass opinion. We may be providing citizens with the facts, but it is not our jurisdiction to hold the reader’s hand.

Sometimes in order to report in the public interest, our job means leaving the final judgment to the public.

mritchie@cjournal.ca 

To contact the editor responsible for this story; Ali Hardstaff at ahardstaff-gajda@cjournal.ca