National media coverage regarding officer-involved shootings seems to have one thing in common: The first reported details often end up being misleading, incomplete or blatantly incorrect.
Moreover, the resulting mythology based on these inaccuracies ends up serving as a rallying cry for protests and even riots, regardless of the truth. From “hands up, don’t shoot” to cops pulling over a young black man because of “air fresheners,” one thing is clear: The media plays a central role in disseminating inaccurate details that feed into the public’s perception of an event as deeply unjust.
Ma’Khia Bryant had a knife – and was attempting to stab another girl with it when she was shot
When 15-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was fatally shot Tuesday by police in Columbus, Ohio, the media quickly published and shared the accounts of hysterical and bereft family members. A tweet from The Daily Beast April 20 kicked off the following narrative that would go on to consume much of the media in the hours following Bryant’s death:
“According to Hazel Bryant, who said the 15-year-old was her niece, the teen called the police because someone in her house was abusing her. Bryant went on to say police shot her four times,” The Daily Beast tweeted.
NPR echoed this story line in its original breaking news article, citing the aunt who alleged that officers were called “when a group of ‘older kids’ threatened her with assault,” according to the article. CNN commentator Keith Boykin tweeted that police had “shot and killed 15-year-old Makiyah Bryant” just after a jury convicted former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd. (RELATED: NPR Disclaimer Admits ‘Some Facts’ The Media Reports About Shootings May Later Be ‘Wrong’)
“Say her name,” Boykin declared.
The girl’s mother told @10TV her daughter’s name was Ma’Khia Bryant. Her aunt told us she was 15, but her mom says she was 16. She told @LaceyCrisp Ma’Khia was an honor roll student and a sweet child. Police shot and killed her on Legion Lane at 4:30 p.m. today. pic.twitter.com/qL4zh6uFyG
— Angela Reighard (@AngelaReighard) April 21, 2021
The Washington Post published an article that included a quote from Bryant’s aunt as well. In this article, the aunt claimed Bryant dropped the knife before the officer shot. The article does not mention that the knife is clearly visible in her hand in the body camera footage.
By that point, however, the damage had been done. Media outlets scrambled to update stories, oftentimes minimizing video documentation of Bryant wielding a weapon. Subsequent protests broke out in Ohio, with hundreds marching over the incident.
NPR’s updated article noted that “a knife can be seen close to her” after the shooting, though it doesn’t note that the video appears to show a knife in Bryant’s hands just prior. The Post’s article also avoids definitively saying that Bryant had a knife, at one point writing simply that she is seen taking “a swing” at the other female’s head.
Days after the shooting, “NBC Nightly News” deceptively edited the 911 call and left out the portion where the caller said someone was “trying to stab us,” Newsbusters’ Nicholas Fondacaro pointed out. Meanwhile, MSNBC’s Joy Reid expressed doubt in the officer’s claims even after playing the body camera footage on her own show.
Joy Reid insinuates the Columbus police officers responding to the scene of the #MakhiaBryant shooting had it out for black people because one of them had a Blue Lives Matter mask.
Reid also doubles on how you can’t believe what your eyes tell you b/c…police lie all the time? pic.twitter.com/GmYem5ZvEi
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) April 22, 2021
In their report on the officer-involved shooting in Columbus, Ohio, NBC Nightly News deceptively edited the 911 call to leave out the part where the caller says a girl was “trying to stab us.” They also don’t show viewers the knife in the attacker’s hand just before the shots. pic.twitter.com/r5uXD1qDb1
— Nicholas Fondacaro (@NickFondacaro) April 22, 2021
The Daily Beast noted in an updated article that Bryant is seen lunging at another female with a knife before being shot, though the majority of its article is dedicating to family members and activists’ comments.
None of these articles attempted to confirm whether Bryant made the 911 call or if it was the female she lunged at with a knife prior to being shot.
Jacob Blake was not an “unarmed black man”
Another example of fiction outrunning fact with the media’s help is the claim that Jacob Blake – a black man shot and paralyzed by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin – was unarmed.
CNN’s Jake Tapper said on Aug. 15 that “disturbing video shows Jacob Blake, unarmed, being” shot. Multiple media publications – including The Post, Buzzfeed, PBS and Vogue – quickly echoed the “unarmed” claims, according to an article published by City Journal.
The story line of an unarmed black man shot by police prompted rioting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Multiple businesses were burned to the ground.
In January 2021, Blake spoke to ABC News in an exclusive interview and admitted he had a pocket knife. This admission backed the officer responsible for the shooting – officer Rusten Sheskey – who said Blake reached for his waistline amid a struggle and that officers believed he had a weapon.
“At that point, I’m rattled,” Blake told ABC News as he recalled resisting police and pulling taser prongs out of his skin during the fight. “I realized I had dropped my knife, had a little pocket knife. So I picked it up after I got off of him because they tased me and I fell on top of him.”
Blake told investigators he had a knife from the start, according to ABC News, although his lawyers first denied that he was carrying anything.
Still, the unarmed narrative continues to dominate this officer-involved shooting story. ESPN falsely claimed Blake was unarmed as recently as April 2021, leaving it up for hours before issuing a correction.
Similarly, the Post tweeted on Jan. 5, 2021 that officers wouldn’t be charged in the shooting of the “unarmed Black man” – despite Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley noting just days earlier that Blake had a weapon. Following backlash, the Post updated its story and deleted the tweet, Fox News reported.
The media also cast a shadow over Blake’s history – namely that he had a warrant out for felony sexual assault and was not allowed to go to the alleged victim’s home. Police were called to the alleged victim’s home after a 911 caller said he was there. (RELATED: Washington Post Forced To Correct Article, Tweet Describing Jacob Blake As ‘Unarmed’ Despite Evidence Showing He Had Knife)
Instead, the press only highlighted how the shooting happened in front of his kids. But these articles often overlook yet another big part of this story: Sheskey said he used deadly force because he was worried Blake was trying to kidnap a child.
CNN noted this in an article published Sept. 25, 2020:
‘He’s got my kid. He’s got my keys,’ Sheskey heard a woman say, according to attorney Brendan Matthews, who is representing the officer. If Sheskey had allowed Blake to drive away and something happened to the child ‘the question would have been ‘why didn’t you do something?’ Matthews said.
“Hands up, don’t shoot” is built on a lie
Michael Brown never put his hands up while he was running away. We know this now, but at the time, with great help from big media, “hands up don’t shoot” became the dominant image in the public’s mind after Michael Brown was shot to death by police in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
Eyewitnesses first claimed Brown had his hands up when police shot him. CNN aired an interview with two of the eyewitnesses who made the claim, and national media ran with it. Business Insider, The Guardian and NY Mag were just some to repeat the claims.
The symbol of a black man with his hands raised at police became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. To this day, one often hears the now-familiar “hands up, don’t shoot” chant at protests.
Yet this claim – that Brown had his hands up as he was fatally shot – couldn’t be confirmed by both a St. Louis County grand jury and a Department of Justice investigation.
“Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown,” The Post’s Jonathan Capehart declared in an opinion piece published in 2015.
The Post later published a piece fact-checking the narrative around “hand up, don’t shoot.” While the publication noted this phrase has now taken on a life of its own, it added that this “did not happen in Brown’s killing” – despite media and politicians declaring otherwise.
“Investigators have overwhelmingly rejected witness accounts that Brown had his hands up in a surrender before being shot execution-style,” the Post’s fact-checking section said as it gave the claim Four Pinocchios.
“The DOJ has concluded Wilson did not know whether Brown was armed, acted out of self-defense and was justified in killing Brown,” the article added. “The majority of witnesses told federal investigators that the initial claims that Brown’s hands were up were not accurate. ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ did not happen in Brown’s killing, and it is a characterization that deserves Four Pinocchios. Politicians should step carefully if they try to highlight this expression in the future.”
Daunte Wright wasn’t pulled over because of air fresheners
This routine stop ended in tragedy when a female officer, Kim Potter, pulled out a gun and shot Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis earlier in April. Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said he believes she meant to pull a Taser. Potter has since been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
The mother in this case was quick to issue an explanation: She told reporters her son was pulled over for having air fresheners hanging from the rear view window of his car.
The headlines immediately rang out:
Daunte Wright’s Mother Says Son Killed Over Air Freshener in Car, – Newsweek
Daunte Wright Mentor Wishes He Would Have Told Him About Police and Minnesota’s Air-Freshener Law, – The Daily Beast
Killed over a Car Air Freshener: Outrage Grows over Police Shooting of Daunte Wright in Minnesota, – Democracy Now
Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon told a different story, noting that Wright was actually “pulled over for having an expired registration on the vehicle.” The officer approached and saw “an item hanging from the rear view mirror” and then learned there was a “gross misdemeanor warrant” out for his arrest.
Despite Wright being pulled over due to an expired registration, the media continues to highlight the air freshener claims.
NBC News admitted in an article that Wright was stopped for having expired license plates, but focused on the air freshener narrative instead.
“The police confrontation escalated after officers saw what could have been an air freshener hanging illegally from the rearview mirror,” NBC News declared in an article headlined “Daunte Wright was stopped for expired plates, but driving while Black may have been his ‘crime.'”
“How a Common Air Freshener Can Result in a High-Stakes Traffic Stop,” an article published by The New York Times on April 17 explains. Meanwhile, MSNBC’s Joy Reid claimed he was pulled over because of an air freshener just days ago on Twitter.
…a 15-year-old girl… before they’ve even buried the 20-year-old shot for a dangling air freshener… meanwhile having to fight tooth and nail just to hang on to your voting rights and to defend your humanity against people who think saying Black Lives Matter is “terrorism”…
— Joy-Ann Pro-Democracy & Masks Reid ???? (@JoyAnnReid) April 21, 2021
it was over an air freshener, and he called his mother because he knew what might happen, and he was just 20, and he was unarmed, and he was a father. it’s all heartbreaking. but even if none of these things were true he should not have been killed.
— josie duffy rice (@jduffyrice) April 12, 2021
Again, the incomplete narrative led to rioting in the city, just days before Chauvin would be charged.
Overall, it’s been hit or miss when it comes to corporate media coverage of breaking news stories, particularly in regards to officer-involved shootings. The misses often lead to dire consequences. It’s unlikely Ferguson will recover from those riots anytime soon, experts believe.
In the last few years, NPR has even opted to tuck a disclaimer at the bottom of some of its breaking news reports (where few will see) noting that “some facts reported by the media may later turn out to be wrong.”