Choosing Our Words Carefully

Two recent events—the shootout in Waco, Texas, and the protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray—highlight how the media’s language choices differ based on race.

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Waco Police Sgt. Patrick Swanton addresses the media as law enforcement continues to investigate the motorcycle gang related shooting on May 18, 2015, at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas. (AP/Jerry Larson)
Waco Police Sgt. Patrick Swanton addresses the media as law enforcement continues to investigate the motorcycle gang related shooting on May 18, 2015, at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas. (AP/Jerry Larson)

Not long after Sunday’s violent shootout at a Twin Peaks Restaurant in Waco, Texas, my Twitter newsfeed lit up with comments that linked what many media outlets termed a “brawl” to the public protests and disturbances last month in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. The comparison was largely unfavorable, as many noted a race-tinged discrepancy in the language used to describe two separate acts of lawlessness.

In Baltimore, the activity involved black people and the language was less than subtle, typically describing the looters as “thugs” and their behavior as a “riot.”

In Waco, the reportorial language leaned more toward moderation: The Washington Post referred to the shooting deaths of nine biker gang members and the wounding of 18 others as “a brawl” between the Bandidos and the Cossacks motorcycle clubs. Few early media reports, as Nick Wing of The Huffington Post noted, even mentioned that nearly all involved in the reckless behavior were white men.

Among the first to draw attention to the relatively gentle treatment of the “individuals who could be potential suspects for mass murder” was my ThinkProgress colleague Judd Legum, who posted a photo of the crime scene that featured biker gang members with cell phones in hand and police officers calmly looking in the other direction. That photo prompted someone to comment on Twitter that “Mass murder and suspects look like they’re chillin and waiting for a Kenny Chesney concert.”

To be fair, the initial reports—and the early on-scene images—don’t provide the definitive story of what happened in Waco any more than the rushed news accounts told the complexity of the Baltimore situation. Still, the narratives of the respective incidents are outlined by the first-draft language and demonstrate how racial imagery goes a long way toward shaping public impressions of all involved in dramatic and unfolding news events.

This point came up repeatedly at an event held on Monday at the Center for American Progress when progressive and conservative bloggers engaged in an intense conversation about the way the media covers criminal justice issues. The day-long meeting came about as part of the early ground work for the Coalition for Public Safety, a bipartisan group seeking to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. As a Progress Report blog post by the CAP Action War Room observed, “the conversation was extremely successful, [as] participants from the left and the right found more common ground than they expected going in.”

Indeed, consensus and cooperation is more likely when people—even those who don’t think they’re going to agree—are willing to talk respectfully with one another. The inability to do so often stems from fear, false expectations, and faulty thinking about those with whom we have little contact.

Increasingly, social scientists are decoding the ways in which our all-too human brains make sense of what we see and hear. An entire field of study is making visible the implicit bias that often goes unseen and unremarked upon in our daily interactions. But our words have a way of giving us away.

Sally Kohn, a CNN political commentator, argued in a blog post following the Waco shootings that reporters employ “a double standard on race” when writing about bad behavior. She notes that crime stories in the media tend to overemphasize race when the alleged perpetrator is black and ignore race when the purported criminal is white. “[S]tudies show that white people greatly overestimate the share of crimes committed by black people,” Kohn writes. “Is it any wonder, given the racialized nature with which we cover crime?”

She makes this crystal clear by asking: “When was the last time you saw an incident of a white guy going on a shooting rampage produce calls for soul searching and recrimination on the part of the white male community?”

Language matters. Our understanding—accurate or not—is shaped by the words and images we use to describe the people and events around us. It is of vital importance that we find and use them with precision and care.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)