The news release from the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Police Department on Sunday night said, “At 5:11 p.m., Kenosha Police Officers … were involved in an officer involved shooting.” Video released later that night by a lawyer for the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man, shows Kenosha police shooting at Blake several times.
As newsrooms reckon with their failures to represent Black communities accurately, coverage of police shootings casts a light on the way words convey power and can breed mistrust.
Most newsrooms, particularly in the rush of breaking news, repeat the police jargon “officer-involved shooting,” which originated in the 1970s at the Los Angeles Police Department, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. That passive construction adopts law enforcement language and masks important details, including: Who shot whom?
At a National Press Club Journalism Institute program on “Covering Justice: Reimagining the cops, crime, courts beats,” Marshall Project journalist Jamiles Lartey offers a solution:
“Newspaper editors are historically allergic to the passive voice. That’s one of the first cardinal rules of news writing is you don’t write passively, you write actively. What happened? Who did it? And yet we’ve adopted this police jargon that is sort of the ultimate passive voice in these moments. Why? It’s not helping our readers understand anymore what happened. …
Just say what happened, don’t use jargon. … ’Police shot John Doe.’ It communicates more to the reader. That is not a political or ethical statement. That’s actually just a journalism point. It’s better writing.”
If you don’t know who shot whom, wait until you do before publishing unless there is an active threat to public safety, advised Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery on Monday.
Several journalists echoed his advice:
Blake remains hospitalized in serious condition on Monday afternoon, according to the Journal Sentinel, and the officers involved have been placed on leave.