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Daily News and Post Demonstrate How Not to Cover the Murder of a Black Person

What Does This Have to Do With Anything?

James Harris Jackson, 28, was arrested earlier today for the murder of 66-year-old Timothy Caughman. Following an altercation on Monday, Caughman was stabbed multiple times in the back and chest by Jackson. Jackson then fled on foot, only to turn himself over to the NYPD the day after. After turning himself in, Jackson described his motivations for the attack.

According to police sources, Jackson, a Caucasian man and member of a known hate group, explained that his attack on the African-American Caughman was motivated by his hatred of black men who date white women. Assistant Chief William Aubrey went on to explain that Jackson had been stewing in “his hate towards blacks” for “well over 10 years.”

Furthermore, it is believed that the Army veteran traveled from Baltimore to New York to commit the crime specifically because of the city’s status as a media capital. His goal being to maximize the exposure and impact of the murder for the purpose of sending a message.

It is a simple, yet tragic story. White supremacist commits an act of terrorism. Jackson, by his own admission, specifically traveled across state lines in order to commit an act of random violence with the intention of maximizing how many people he intimidated in the pursuit of his socio-political aims. It is textbook terrorism.

Here’s a photographer making sure they get Jackson’s most flattering angle for some reason

Caughman’s death is certainly worth reporting. Especially, as he was murdered in a terrorist attack committed by white supremacist wielding a 26-inch sword. However, it is the way that the media has chosen to report his death that is troubling. Most notably, the articles in the New York Daily News and the New York Post manage to simultaneously be a how-to guide in smearing people of color who are murdered and the worst examples of the trend.

Victim Blaming 101

Reporting on the life and death of a person will always be a reductive act. It seems unlikely that the life of a human could ever be done justice in 1250 words or less. At best, it will be the greatest hits or the information most relevant to the reason why the article is being written. Given that, one only has to take a look at the way Caughman, the victim of a crime, is described to understand the issue.

As opposed to emphasizing the randomness of the crime, the fact that Caughman was an elderly homeless man, or making any attempt to humanize the victim in any way, both outlets chose to instead to define Caughman by his prior crimes. Both the Post and the Daily News make a point of mentioning Caughman’s prior arrests. They then, seemingly engage in a race to the bottom. Each trying to out do the other in who can best minimize Caughman’s murder at the hands of a white supremacist.

Description of Caughman in Post
Description of Caughman in Post
Description of Caughman in Daily News
Description of Caughman in Daily News

The Daily News takes an early lead by mentioning Caughman may have had HIV/AIDS and listing what crimes he was arrested for specifically. Arguably, in an attempt to paint him as a violent criminal. However, the Post easily pulls ahead. Their article labels Caughman a “career criminal” and then chooses to describe the man’s last moments by his refusal to talk to the police and the fact that he was “acting combative.” Furthermore, while the Post described the victim by his past, irrelevant crimes, they choose to define Jackson, the murderer, by his manner of dress.

Description of Jackson in Post
Description of Jackson in Post

To be fair, Jackson had not been found when the Post’s article was written. Therefore, describing what he was wearing as a way to help people identify and capture the man might have been prudent. However, their description of Jackson as essentially James Bond, “dapper-yet-deadly,” “well-groomed,” and “sharp-dressed,” seems less helpful and more indicative of a dangerous trend. Specifically, the media’s fascination with white supremacists who dress fancy, as though one’s style of dress precludes them from being a racist.

However, the Daily News edges out the Post in the contest for the worst article on the murder of a black man by a white supremacist with their ability to draw false equivalencies. In a come from behind, the Daily News ends their article by mentioning the murders committed by Ismaaiyl Brinsley. As a reminder, in December 2014, Brinsley had traveled to New York from Baltimore and killed 2 police officers.

Final two paragraphs of Daily News Article on unrelated killing

The smarter of you will wonder in what way are Caughman’s past arrests, his medical history, or the death of 2 unrelated cops 2 years prior relevant to his murder. Well, the answer is nothing. Obviously. By Jackson’s own admission, the attack was motivated solely because Caughman was a black man. Undoubtedly, the fact that the victim was also elderly and homeless and therefore an easy target also played a role in this cowardly attack. However, in choosing to add this information, the writers and editors are making a conscious choice on how they want Caughman’s death to be interpreted.

He’s No Angel

Here’s the issue and it seems odd to have to state it. Including information in an article implies that that information is in some way relevant to the events that article describes. Therefore, the inclusion that Caughman may have had HIV/AIDS and had been arrested in the past, either implies that those factors played a direct role in his death or that those factors are worthy of the reader’s consideration as they consider his death.

Whether this is done because of confirmation bias or the explicit racism of the reporters or editors is unknown. However, regardless of intent, this particular information colors the reader’s perception of the importance of Caughman’s death. Minimizing the tragedy by pointing to his past crimes and more disturbingly, his medical history to paint him as a deviant. One who, as a previous article points out, our society assumes might have committed future crimes or whose life is inherently worthless due to a stigmatized disease.

At worst, it implies causality. While other information might have emphasized the random nature of the murder or the fact that Jackson was preying on the weak, including in the articles that Caughman once committed a crime only acts to minimize what Jackson did. It has the potential to transform the murder from an act of terrorism to the killing of a criminal in the minds of readers. The Daily News eventually updated their article, after complaints, providing a good example of how different information (his interests and hobbies as opposed to crimes) would have humanized him from the beginning.

See, it really is not that hard

However, the Daily News’ article still includes the unrelated man who murdered 2 police officers. This only serves to minimize the senseless death of a homeless black man, their desire to draw a false parallel between hate crimes against Black people and the death of cops is staggeringly insensitive. All it is is a proverbial wink and nudge to the reader. The implication is that the real tragedy is when black people kill cops, not when black people are murdered.

In all honesty, there are so many other, more obvious ways to place what occurred into the larger context of the United States that going the “All/Blue Lives Matter” route is actually almost impressive. The mental gymnastics required on the part of the Daily News’ writers to reach that conclusion are Olympic level.

Here are some examples of other ways they could have gone. How about mentioning the rise and normalizing of white supremacy in America? Jackson belonged to a hate group. How about talking about that particular hate group, or discussing the rise in the number of hate groups in America over the past 10 years. That seems especially cogent since his hatred of Black people tracks back that long.

Jackson seems angry about interracial dating. Interracial coupling and miscegenation are pretty common topics in the Alt-Right, given that they pertain to the White Genocide conspiracy. In fact, Rep. Steve King was just tweeting about America and “other people’s babies” being detrimental to American “culture” (read: White Supremacy). More generally, how about tying this white supremacist to the larger trend of white supremacy, as opposed to tying a random black person to another random black person? Just throwing some ideas out there.

This unfair treatment of dead Black people by the media is nothing new. As Adam Johnson points out, in many cases where Black people are murdered by the police, the media cannot resist introducing the criminal histories of those Black people to smear them. However, few examples of this behavior are as egregious of what the New York Post and New York Daily News did in the case of Timothy Caughman.

Furthermore, the media seems allergic to attaching white supremacists who commit hate crimes to the larger ideology of white supremacy, or even labeling them white supremacists as neither article does. Instead, they choose to treat each hate crime as though it is wholly unrelated and not part of a larger ideology, which only serves to further normalize it. Given the ease at which the Daily News was able to find more humanizing evidence, but were simply chomping at the bit to talk about the victim’s criminal record, we should just be glad they did not include a mugshot as is often the trend.

Written by B. Sutton

I am the host of The Discourse and, occasionally, I do anthropology. Follow me on Twitter @PrettyBadLefty.

B. Sutton is a Writer for Progressive Army.

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SPLASH! News for March 22, 2017

Daily News and Post Demonstrate How Not to Cover the Murder of a Black Person