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Coverage of Cincinnati riots shows media bias

April 23, 2001

The journalism reviews should (but probably won’t) rate the news media on their handling of the Cincinnati riots. If they did, a lot of C-minus marks would be handed out.The New York Times, for example, couldn’t even bring itself to use the “r” word. Instead of “riots” it talked of “sporadic protests and vandalism.” This doesn’t quite catch the flavor of bricks being heaved through windshields at the heads of motorists, more than a hundred homes and businesses set on fire, or “the bullets whizzing by my head,” as one resident put it.

The Times mentioned that a police officer was “reported grazed” by a bullet. In fact, a sniper shot him in the stomach, but the bullet deflected harmlessly off his belt buckle up into his clothing. The Times said groups of young black men had “alarmed whites.” “‘Alarmed’ is a curious euphemism for what these gangs of rioters were doing to whites,” the Smartertimes Web site said. The Cincinnati Enquirer offered a more direct account: “A mob of black youths … dragged a white woman out of her car … and into the street, beating her until other neighborhood residents rescued her. Kim Brown, an Avondale resident, … said members of the mob pulled the woman out of the car and ‘started busting her up.'” Another driver assaulted by the mob was Roslyn Jones, an albino black woman, hit by a hail of bricks, one of which struck her in the head. The attack stopped when someone shouted, “She’s black!” One witness said: “It was a night of white terror. It turned from a police issue to a black-white issue.”

Because the Times smothered the news instead of reporting it, readers had almost no clue about the ferocity of what was happening in Cincinnati. Honest accounts of the rioting were hard to find elsewhere, too. Maybe reporters were holding back because they didn’t want to inflame a bad situation. Or maybe they thought the rioters had a point because the police killing of Timothy Thomas doesn’t look at all like a justified shooting. Unarmed, Thomas was by most accounts a harmless scofflaw.

Sympathy for the rioters, in fact, poked through much coverage. Call this the “It took violence to bring Cincinnati to its senses” school of reporting. Some of it came close to providing media sanctioning for mob violence. A Page One report in the Los Angeles Times said: “(W)hile no one wants to say that the riots were good, there was on Friday an undeniable sense of relief that the mayhem … had laid bare Cincinnati’s fissures. Now, perhaps, there could be progress.” On the Sunday TV show “This Week,” an ABC correspondent sounded the same note: “In a week of uncomfortable truths, none has been more uncomfortable than this: It took riots to make people understand how deep are the racial divisions. And it took rioting for people to feel the urgency required to close those divides.” Listen up, Cincinnati: Riots are good for you. We here at the network think they are a growth opportunity.

Media coverage of the shooting revolved around one endlessly recycled fact — that Cincinnati police had killed 15 people in six years, all of them black men. Since no context was provided, this was clearly taken to mean that the Cincinnati police are gun-happy and racist. But there isn’t much hard evidence to back up this belief. The Enquirer did an excellent series on the police at the end of 1999. It found plenty of fault (sloppy procedures, a policy of firing at moving cars, failure to investigate many shootings). But it found no unusual racial pattern: 78 percent of those shot at by police were black. This appears to be an exact reflection of black participation in violent crime in the city: 78 percent of those arrested for violent felonies are black. And black and white cops seem to shoot to kill at about the same rate. The department is roughly a quarter black, and 25 percent of those who did the shooting were black cops. Nothing here supports the conclusion that “Cincinnati had become a model of racial injustice” (Time magazine last week).

The series also found that the number of Cincinnati police shootings was low: From 1994 through 1999, the period surveyed, it was less than half that of other cities in the region — Columbus, Cleveland and Indianapolis. This was seven police killings ago, so the rate has risen sharply and explanations are due. But at least the Enquirer analysis undercut the notion that the Cincinnati force is historically a killing machine. Getting numbers on police killings is notoriously difficult, but Cincinnati’s rate of shootings still does not seem out of line with those of other cities in its area.

On a national basis, judged by killings per 100,000 population, Cincinnati comes nowhere near contending for the most gun-happy force. National reporters from Washington need only look at their hometown. The Washington Post reported in 1998 that Washington’s heavily black department had shot and killed 57 people in the previous five years. Last year the Detroit Free Press reported that the Detroit police, another heavily black force, were killing nearly 10 civilians a year.

Cincinnati does indeed seem to have a lot of problems. One of them is the descent on the city of reporters who report their attitudes and beliefs, not what they see and really know.

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