Police, the Media, and the Public: ‘Don’t believe your lying eyes’

By Mary Silver

SPJ—Georgia

ATLANTA—Two police chiefs, two journalists, an elected official, two activists, a lawyer, and a professor walk into a bar. They talk in a thoughtful, civil way about police shootings, protests, and what the media gets wrong about that story. It was Society of Professional Journalists—Georgia’s “Police, the Media and the Public” at Manuel’s Tavern on October 31, 2015.

The Georgia chapter pulled together an all-star mix of voices. Peabody and Emmy award-winner Julius “Jay” Suber, George Chidi of Pine Lake City Council and Central Atlanta Progress, Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan, Dr. Makungu M. Akinyela of Georgia State University, Brookhaven Police Chief Gary Yandura, mental health advocate Lori Brickman, and Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, explored police shootings and what the media should do better. Sadly, Cobb County NAACP president Deane Bonner had to attend a funeral. She was missed.

Dr. Akinyela sat next to Chief Grogan. He cited the 2012 Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report, which said a vigilante, an officer, or a security guard kills a person of color every 28 hours. According to Akinyela, it is common that “an officer has killed with impunity and nothing has happened.” Grogan listened respectfully and said, “I would have to disagree with that.” He said most of the millions of encounters between police and citizens are not violent. “Are there cases where police officers use force and they should not have? Yes, of course.” —but police chiefs and the judicial system address the problem, in his opinion.

The talk was vivid. After the moderator got things started, panelists began to ask each other questions, passing the microphone back and forth.

Suber spoke of his early years in a broadcast newsroom, and how often the police radio and then the news stories would cite “three black guys” as perpetrators of mayhem. It became a joke among the reporters. Gesturing to himself, he asked what would be an accurate description? Is he a black guy? Is he one of the dreaded three black guys?   Or would it be better to say a man with a bald head and a herringbone jacket?

More than anything else, the media must look deeper for context, said Suber. We parachute in to a situation and report in 35 seconds. That is never the true story. “Don’t believe your lying eyes.”

The panelists wrangled about descriptions of suspects and the right way to inform people about suspects. When do descriptions help the public and the police and when they do they hurt public perceptions of “three black guys”?

Speaking of the death of Anthony Hill, Yandura said it was important to remember that an unarmed suspect can take an officer’s gun and shoot the officer. DeKalb County Police Officer Robert Olsen shot and killed Hill on March 9, 2015. Hill was naked and unarmed, and had a history of bipolar disorder. No charges were filed against the officer, but a grand jury recommended further investigation.

Chidi asked the chiefs if police officers feel under attack, when the media keeps running stories of bad actions and fatal encounters. Yes, they do, according to Grogan. Yandura nodded, with a somber expression.

The program was made possible by a grant from the National Society of Professional Journalists

The entire unedited panel will be posted shortly on our YouTube channel. Please check back.

 

 

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