...meets a second, large disproportion: As a matter of theory, news orgs should try to avoid creating misperceptions.
They should especially try to avoid creating large misperceptions. And not only that!
They should try to avoid creating large misperceptions about extremely important topics. In theory, that's what journalists, and journalism itself, should sensibly try to do.
We offer all that as theory. In practice, we'd be inclined to offer this judgment:
On the topic of death at the hands of police officers, we'd have to say that our major news orgs have been doing a very poor job.
Dating at least to 2012, our news orgs have devoted massive attention to some such events, but only if the person who dies is black. If the person who dies is white, Hispanic or "other"—we're using the Washington Post's terminology—our news orgs have tended to avoid discussing such incidents at all.
As a result of this remarkable practice, everyone has heard of Rayshard Brooks, as is completely appropriate. But to this day, no one on the face of the earth has heard of Nicholas Bils.
Everyone has heard of Breonna Taylor, and indeed everyone should have. But no one has heard of Rhogena Nicholas—or of her husband, Dennis Tuttle, who was shot and killed alongside her.
For perfectly sensible reasons, the whole world has seen the videotape of the late George Floyd as he died in Minneapolis, facedown in the street. But no one has heard of Tony Timpa. He died facedown in the street in Dallas, crying for his life.
There are many other examples. No one has ever heard of John Geer or of Bijan Ghaisar, despite endless attempts by the Washington Post editorial board to call attention to the peculiar circumstances of their shooting deaths.
The Post wrote endless editorials, but the national press corps wasn't buying. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows why the corps took a pass.
On June 11, Professor McWhorter rattled off other examples in this essay at Quillette. Because the essay didn't appear in The Atlantic, Atlantic readers were spared the indignity of possibly being exposed to those other names.
By normal standards, this would be a stunning example of absurdly selective press coverage. Somewhat ironically, it echoes part of our nation's brutal history, in which some lives mattered and other lives didn't, based wholly on issues of "race," a conceptual framework which comes to us live and direct from "the world the slaveholders made."
Does this highly selective press coverage make sense? As always, opinions will differ.
Almost surely, though, this vastly selective presentation has been creating vast misperceptions, some of them deeply harmful. As our reports continue, we'll take a stab at what those misperceptions might be. For today, we'l only say this:
Sometimes, the American people get to hear an occasional accurate fact. Recently, an accurate statement emerged from the world's least likely source.
A journalist who's a food decent person asked a rather peculiar question. In fairness, her question conformed to the highly selective journalistic practice described above.
A journalist asked a peculiar question. In reply, the American president, Donald J. Trump, made an accurate statement!
When has he ever done that before? The recent exchange went like this:
HERRIDGE (7/14/20): Let's talk about George Floyd. You said George Floyd's death was a terrible thing.As usual, Trump assailed the journalist for having asked the question. In this case, though, the journalist's question really was rather odd—and the commander in chief had responded by making an accurate statement!
HERRIDGE: Why are African-Americans still dying at the hands of law enforcement in this country?
TRUMP: So are white people. So are white people. What a terrible question to ask. So are white people. More white people, by the way. More white people.
It's true! More white people actually are "dying at the hands of police." The Washington Post's Fatal Force site attempts to record all incidents in which people are shot and killed by police. From 2015 through the present day, their totals look like this:
People shot and killed by police, 2015 to present"Other" people are largely Native Americans, Asian-Americans and (or so it would seem) people of Middle Eastern heritage. For whatever reason, the number of "Unknowns" has grown exponentially, year after year.
Unknown [race/ethnicity]: 552
(In 2015, Unknowns were only 2.8% of the total number killed. In 2019, the number stood at 14.3%. In this way, the Fatal Force data have become less useful over the years.)
At any rate, Trump's statement was factually accurate. According to the Fatal Force site, police shoot and kill roughly twice as many people of the one group, as compared to people of the other group.
For ourselves, we can't find fault with Commander Trump for making his testy statement. While it comported to current press practice, Herridge's question might easily have fed a rather large misperception.
Beyond that, her question might feed the peculiar idea that only one class of shooting deaths matter. We wouldn't have scolded her as Trump did, but it seems to us that his accurate statement also made perfect sense.
Amazingly, Trump made an accurate statement—but he didn't make every accurate statement. Lying behind his accurate statement, a statistical disproportion exists—and at New York magazine, Matt Stieb proceeded to state it.
Warning! Stieb's statements weren't all perfectly accurate, but he did state a basic point. In the main, here's what he said:
STIEB (7/14/20): The president’s answer ignores the basic demographics of the country over which he presides. As CBS News’ Wesley Lowery noted in 2016, the most recent census data shows that there are almost 160 million more white people in the U.S. than there are Black people. White Americans make up around 62 percent of the population, but 49 percent of those killed by police officers; Black Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but represent 24 percent of those killed by police officers. According to a database compiled by the Washington Post, 1,301 Black people have been killed by the police since 2015, while 2,495 whites were killed. But because of the vast demographic differences, Black Americans are killed at a rate more than twice that of white Americans.The commander's statement was perfectly accurate. So, it would seem, is Stieb's basic claim, in which "black Americans are killed at a rate more than twice that of white Americans."
That's a large disproportion too. This second disproportion would also be part of any serious attempt to discuss this highly important topic, though there's little chance that we'll ever see any such widespread discussion within our upper-end press corps, which runs on Storyline.
The passage we've posted does contain a few flaws. In our worst moments, we'd say it reflects the slapdash lack of effort our tribe brings to any attempt to discuss or critique this memorized Storyline.
For starters, Stieb was working directly from this analysis piece by Lowery in 2016. Stating the obvious, "the most recent census data" from 2016 are not the most recent today.
Last July, the Census Bureau estimated that (non-Hispanic) whites represent 60.1% percent of the country's population. The correct number may have been 62% in 2016, but it isn't now.
Beyond that, Lowery seems to have understated the percentage of "white" people's deaths. According to the Fatal Force site he helped create, 51.8% percent of 2016's shooting deaths involved victims who were "white."
(For obvious reasons, we're only considering those shooting deaths where the victim's race/ethnicity was known.)
Overall, "whites" constitute 51% of the Fatal Force shooting deaths from 2015 to the present. Whites probably constituted 61% of the nation's population over that period of time.
On a strictly statistical basis, that's a bit of a "white advantage." It's also true that blacks are shot and killed by police officers at a highly disproportional rate.
Over the course of the past six years, "blacks" have constituted roughly 13% of the U.S. population, but they represent 26.4% of all shooting deaths in the Fatal Force data. This second disproportion—a statistical disproportion—is in that sense quite large.
In truth, a great deal remains to be said about that disproportion. Tomorrow, we'll consider some factors cited by McWhorter, and also by a second figure too vile to be named at this time.
That said, our flailing tribe has a Storyline and, as humans tend to do, we prefer to stick to it. We seem to be following a certain type of logic, in which the statistical disproportion we've just cited justifies a vast disproportion in coverage—a vast disproportion in which only one class of deaths gets mentioned in public at all.
Tremendous misperceptions will arise from that practice. But then again, who really cares? The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we humans love Storyline and tend to dump everything else.
Professor Cobb and Reverend Sharpton have recently seemed to say that actually all deaths matter. Is it possible that Cobb and Sharpton are right? Is it possible that current press practice is stupid, faux, phony and wrong?
Tomorrow: Brutal history; deaths of despair