In hopes of examining how local media in Cincinnati responded to the shooting of an unarmed black man, the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists convened a dialogue about the coverage.
The event, titled “Words & Images: A Media Debrief and Community Conversation,” was held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and attracted local journalists, community members, government representatives and attorneys from the case.
Together, they talked about how media handled its coverage of a University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, who fatally shot Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, during a traffic stop in July. Tensing has since been indicted on a murder charge, and the high-profile and divisive case is still ongoing.
The dialogue examined the photos that media chose to publish of DuBose and Tensing, the choice to broadcast body camera footage of the shooting, and even the way minute differences in word choice can leave a lasting impact on an individual’s or a community’s ability to heal.
Hagit Limor, moderator of the event and former SPJ national president, introduced the discussion with one simple goal: to learn from each other.
“I think all of the journalists in this room can agree to the power of words and images,” she said. “It’s why we do what we do.” But the way that we use our power can directly affect the way that our community responds to traumatic events, and beyond that, the way a community will forever remember that event.
One of the most discussed topics was the decision that local — and national — media made when selecting photos of Dubose and Tensing. Some outlets chose to display DuBose’s mug shot next to a photo of Tensing in his uniform smiling in front of an American flag.
“The DuBose family’s concern was that the media covered Sam as being a criminal — that he had to have done something wrong for this to happen to him,” said Michael Wright, the attorney for the DuBose family.
Stew Matthews, the attorney for Ray Tensing, expressed his own frustrations with the media, and claims his client has been called a murderer many times in local broadcasts. “The media took off with it,” Matthews said. “Tensing was tried and convicted in the press.”
A few members of the media panel spoke about the difficulty of getting access to other photos before deadline. Many times, they said, the mug shot is the only photo they can use.
“The outcry you hear from the community is that when you see a mug shot of an African-American male, you are reinforcing stereotypes that African-American males are criminals or that they have a high propensity for violence, or that in some way he contributed to his own death,” said Ericka King-Betts, executive director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission.
Rob Williams, an anchor for Fox 19, WXIX, said there is no hidden agenda in newsrooms when it comes to using mug shots, though he is sensitive to the power that photos can have on a reader’s perception of a story.
“It’s really important for a newsroom to reflect the community it serves, so that everyone can bring their own perspective and you can better serve the community,” Williams said.
One topic in the forefront of the event, as well as our national conversation around police-related shootings, is body camera footage. All members of the media panel agreed that body cameras should be outfitted on every officer, and the footage should be easily accessible and quickly released to news media. Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black responded that he will push Cincinnati to equip the cameras on every officer within the next year.
During a press conference when Tensing’s indictment was announced, raw footage from his body camera was displayed for the media and public to see. Many outlets chose to blur the footage, or to pan the camera down until they had time to analyze the video. Other outlets displayed the full footage live on their stations.
“That was one of the most important and historic news conferences ever. I remember barking out orders not to censor the video,” said Mike Neelly, news director for WLWT. “It would be wrong not to show the public. People needed to see it for themselves.”
Alex Bongiorno, news director for WCPO in Cincinnati, chose not to show the footage. When deciding whether to broadcast a video, Bongiorno said she thinks of her kids and whether she would want them to see it.
“I couldn’t imagine the thought of putting that out there. It felt reckless to show it,” she said. “We have never aired that footage.”
The dialogue is an important example of how journalists and the communities they cover can work together to talk about the impact of media coverage.
“It’s really important for journalists to be willing to listen,” said Peter Bhatia, editor and vice president of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “In a lot of ways, we are the aggressor. We’re out there interviewing and asking questions and turning over rocks and challenging the establishment, and that’s our nature and that’s what we do. So when we are in the position of listening, we can really learn from that.”
Bhatia’s sentiment echoed what the discussion that night was all about: listing to each other — whether we’re media, community members, or government officials — and learning from each other. “We’re journalists; we know how to listen,” Bhatia said. “It’s really important that we take the time to be open to other people’s views.”