The press fuels pop culture, especially cop shows and prison dramas. From memes like the "stoner mice" to Lifetime's "Ripped from the Headlines," the media's role in how we understand policing is everywhere—big networks like CBS even hire cops as consultants for their shows.
Even when we don't realize it, we internalize media's language and framing, and that's particularly damaging when it comes to how people in prisons and jails are portrayed—from publishing mugshots to characterizing people as "convicts."
The good thing is, when you know better, you do better. It's why we wrote a whole guidebook on how to work with incarcerated writers.
Most newsrooms, including well-resourced papers of record, are not considering the ways their work protects the police state. No matter what a newsroom's bent is, at minimum, journalists have a responsibility to hold power to account. Especially power that's only expanded since the first slave patrols.
In the spirit of correcting bad behavior, here are four types of headlines related to police, incarceration, and "justice" that we'd like our media colleagues to abolish:
1) Stop dehumanizing people.
Let's start with the basics: People in prison are people.
Words like "inmate," "prisoner," and "felon" dehumanize them. Instead, take a note from the disabled community, and use person-first language like "incarcerated people." Read more from The Marshall Project on their person-first style guide.
Headlines using "inmate" is one of the most common faux pas we see. Here's how we would've rewritten this CNN headline about Melissa Lucio:
Re-entering the free world after spending time in prison is hard, especially if you've been in lockup for nearly 50 years. So why did NJ.com center Sundiata Acoli's crime in news about his freedom? Is the implication that his release was a bad decision? Or that he'll never be more than this one act?
Considering Acoli had been denied parole eight times since becoming eligible in 1993, there's a bit more to the story.
Here's how we would've written this headline to give Acoli at least one story that didn't center his conviction:
2) Don't hide culpability.
Most journalists understand that clarity and accuracy are crucial in building trust. So why treat the police any differently?
The school shooting in Uvalde is a masterclass in why it is so reckless to believe police at face value. But even as early claims—including that police, once in the building, attempted to go inside the classroom—have been proven untrue, reporters are struggling to make those lies plain. Take this New York Times investigation, for instance, that ran after security footage revealed police did not attempt to enter the room for more than an hour. The push notification the New York Times sent to advertise the story said a top cop feared for his officers' safety and that was the excuse for allowing the gunman all that time with those precious children, unchallenged. Time and time again, police—and vigilantes like George Zimmerman—only have to claim they feared for their lives as justification to keep killing us.
Here's how the reporter frames the way police changed their story in this NYT example: "The official narrative has shifted from a story of swift response by the local police to one of hesitation and delay that deviated from two decades of training that instructs officers to quickly confront a gunman to save lives, even at a risk to their own."
That's a lot of words to say police lied—and that you fell for it. Here's how we'd rewrite that push notification:
When The New York Times covered Gonzalo Artemio Lopez's escape from a prison bus earlier this month, they used two of our least favorite words: "officials say." We know, and time and time again we see, that when "officials say," officials lie.
Questionable sourcing isn't the worst part of this headline. Rather than saying that police killed Lopez, which is what happened, the Times hid behind passive voice—another common way media protects the police—and left that crucial detail up to too much interpretation.
Police accountability matters. Here's how we would've written this push alert:
3) Never use misleading frames as clickbait.
Now Axios should know this is just lazy: In a 150-word piece that tries to blame New York City office workers' preference for staying home on crime, the story's only reference to said "crime" comes in this line: "The Big Apple is in the throes of a crime wave." That line links to this New York Times story about… subway ridership.
For an outlet that has hundreds of pieces about remote work, you'd think they'd go deeper than the ol' two-people-makes-a-trend line of thinking.
People are already scared enough of the outside world thanks to nearly three years of a pandemic. There's no need to tap into copaganda in a labor story. Here's how we'd write that headline:
If it weren't The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we might've been surprised about this pro-Cop City op-ed. Sometimes, we wonder if cops are running the AJC. After claiming "crime wave" with no data to back it up, this piece ignores valid criticism of police by the people who live near this land. Instead, it summarizes "much of the state opposition" to a new police training center to the worry over tearing down trees to build the site. Ah yes, trees, the unborn of the neoliberal left.
The piece continues: "This societal moment is too fraught with risk to lives and property to unduly delay the decision to move forward." The fact that they put lives and property on the same level says a lot.
But not quite as much as this: The president of AJC's parent company is actively fundraising for Cop City. Where's the objectivity in that?
4) Leave the copaganda to the cops.
It's not often we see a Girl Boss X copaganda crossover, but The Miami Herald did that. As the saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig—but it's still a pig. The problem with policing is not that we don't have enough women cops. The problem with policing is not that we don't have enough cultural or racial diversity among cops.
The problem with policing is that we have cops at all. Our headlines should reflect that:
It seems like Vox is in on the girl bossing, too. A recent episode of their Today, Explained podcast asked a simple question, and we've got a simple answer:
In this next piece, we'd say it's The Wall Street Journal that has 'lost their ever-lovin' minds.'
The story attributes murder rates to the pandemic and makes a case for small towns needing to hire more deputies while at the same time reporting that homicides have been challenging for law enforcement to address. The odd thing? The only people interviewed are cops and prosecutors except for two very short statements from people who are actually experiencing crime in these communities.