How the Media Can Help Make Sense of a Senseless Week

Policing the Police
Courtesy of PBS

Cable and network news organizations have been trying their best this week to report on the awful events in Dallas, St. Paul and Baton Rouge, but that kind of 24/7 coverage — which has been occasionally less timely than what emerges from various social media channels — has come to have a numbing, awful kind of familiarity. The same talking heads emerge, the same voices try to make sense of devastating events that just keep coming. 

It hasn’t even been a month since the mass shooting on Orlando, yet here we are.

It’s as if we are stuck in a devastating feedback loop and keep seeing the same reruns again and again — but these heartbreaking, chaotic reruns aren’t scripted, they’re real. (And it’s worth pointing out that, as gripping as following developments on social media can be, tweets and posts can be wrong, as they were in the case of a person of interest in the Dallas shootings, whose image was everywhere Thursday evening but who was quickly found to have been uninvolved in the violence.)

It’s hard to tear oneself away from the constant commentary, whether it’s political opinionating on Twitter, talking heads on cable news, or simple contemplation of the courage of Diamond Reynolds, who described the death of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, with unimaginable courage and self-possession. The fallout from the deaths of Castile and Alton Sterling, both of whom were shot during encounters with police, hadn’t even fully sunk in when the news of the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas broke late Thursday.

There are too many heartbroken families in America this week. Again.

It’s not that the news media hasn’t acknowledged that heartbreak or that it’s done a bad job of covering these stories as they happen. But we need to get more of the story behind the story. We need more serious and informed coverage of the issues that drive these weekly — and, seemingly, daily — tragedies.

News organizations need to be offering much, much more in the way of in-depth coverage of how we got to this point, when it comes to both police-connected violence, gun violence and mass shootings. We need fewer talking heads and more reporting and context. If news organizations are to set themselves apart from the proliferation of coverage on social media, they have the resources go beneath the surface. Yes, Facebook Live can be an incredible tool — but so is “Frontline.”

As John Eggerton wrote in Broadcasting and Cable, “[P]erhaps network news magazines could rest the ‘cheerleaders murdered over spring break’ investigation stories for a spell to focus on the issue of race relations in this country.” The same is true when it comes to the issues surrounding gun violence and police reform. It’s not that attempts haven’t been made in these directions — CNN’s “Guns in America” project is one worthy effort — but many cable and broadcast news organizations could be doing much more. When it comes to some of the most pressing issues of our time, these networks have not exactly overwhelmed viewers with timely, cogent and substantive coverage.

It’s very possible to shed light on how we got here and to do so with first-rate, absorbing storytelling. Two Frontline documentaries — one recent and one more than a year old — have particular relevance this week. Both are available in full online. Whether you have the fortitude to view them today or need to wait until your emotions are more settled, I highly recommend them both.

Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA” first aired on PBS in January of last year, and it’s a thoughtful examination of an organization that has exceptional power and influence. The hourlong documentary uses well-informed reporting to place the group’s actions and history in context. Many of those interviewed have themselves worked for the NRA, and every commentator, ex-NRA or not, is very forthright about the group’s agendas and tactics.

A few weeks ago, many Americans were gripped by grainy coverage of a Congressional sit-in — relayed via a Periscope link — during which lawmakers agitated for a vote on gun-control measures. Those restrictions were voted down, and even though “Gunned Down” is not about that particular moment, it investigates what happened in the post-Sandy Hook era to impassioned efforts to alter existing gun-control laws, especially those regulating assault weapons. 

Policing the Police,” which aired very recently on PBS, shows New Yorker reporter and writer Jelani Cobb spending time with members of the troubled Newark Police Department, one of many investigated by the Department of Justice in the last couple of decades. Cobb also talks to the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka. Baraka and Cobb were friends in college, which is acknowledged in the documentary, but the “Frontline” piece does not go easy on the cops in that city — nor does it convey the idea that reforming police departments, especially in low-income cities with myriad challenges, is easy.

As Baraka himself says, the problems in the Newark police department were decades in the making, and they’ll likely take just as long to fix. Cobb does a fair, insightful job of laying out why the city’s residents have issues with the police. He also talks to the cops on the beat about what makes policing the city so hard, and the footage of those ride-alongs bears witness to the many dangers and difficulties of the Newark cops’ jobs.

It’s tempting to remain glued to breaking news coverage, and as citizens of a country undergoing great change, we owe it to ourselves and our communities to be informed. But we also need to educate ourselves and understand that the challenges we face are complex and will require ongoing, collective efforts to change (and after this week, it’d be pretty difficult to find people who think nothing needs to change in this country). The media can allow us to move forward with the kind of knowledge and understanding we need to be effective, and thus give those efforts a better chance of succeeding. 

Perhaps it’s the ultimate cliche to end with a quote from Bob Marley, but this one keeps rattling around in my head: “If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from.”