In the United States, Black people, both perpetrators and victims, are rarely depicted without bias in the news media: No matter the circumstance, we’re portrayed as menacing and criminal; our personal information, including our names, our professions, and our family histories are openly shared, encouraging others to pass judgement. Personal photos—usually highlighting what’s perceived as “criminal” behavior—are publicized, and we’re still more likely to have our mugshots and arrest records published than photos that capture the fullness of our humanity. There has been a single outlier to this narrative in 2019: Botham Jean, the 26-year-old Black man killed in his Dallas, Texas, apartment in September 2018 by off-duty Dallas Police Department patrol officer Amber Guyger.
After Jean’s murder, local and national media outlets circulated images of him smiling and videos of him singing in church. Unlike previous victims of police brutality and vigilante violence—most notably Mike Brown, Jr. and Trayvon Martin, both of whom were framed as delinquent or misguided, many of the articles published in the wake of Jean’s murder portrayed him in a positive light. The Dallas Morning News juxtaposed a smiling photo of Jean with Guyger’s mugshot. Western Mass News followed suit, supplementing their coverage with video of Guyger being charged at the jail the night of Jean’s murder. In addition to the lively photos of Jean were images of his family mourning his death, seemingly chosen to demonstrate the positive relationships Jean had with family; they were a departure from the depiction of the “rough upbringings” that often accompany coverage of other Black victims.
Media outlets also provided insight into Jean’s everyday life: his relationship with God and the church, his love of education and singing. By contrast, Guyger’s appearance in her mugshot is plain, even apathetic, and typical signifiers of white victimhood—exaggerated tears, lists of educational or career accolades—were missing from reports about her crime. It was an unprecedented shift in how the media covered a victim of police brutality. Black death has never been sacred in America. Historically, lynchings were public spectacles where crowds gathered to cheer on the proceedings, take photos of hanging bodies, and even collect discarded body parts. In the digital age, images of Black death are circulated without hesitation on social media and local news, designed specifically to be consumed and regurgitated over and over again.
For white perpetrators, however, media prioritizes holistic representations, taking care to present them sympathetically, as people separate from their alleged crimes. Take Brock Turner, the rapist who attended Stanford University and received a six-month sentence for assault. When the story broke in 2016, news outlets prioritized his history as a competitive swimmer: The Washington Post referred to Turner as an “all-American swimmer,” while the New York Post described him as a “three-time, all-American, Stanford swimmer” who simply happened to have committed a sexual assault. Such descriptions defined Turner by accolades that had nothing to do with his propensity to commit sexual violence.
News coverage of Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered Brown in August 2014, also demonstrates the media’s inclination toward white victimhood. During coverage of the events, newspapers like the New York Times published articles such as “Darren Wilson Was Low-Profile Officer With Unsettled Early Days,” that tried to evoke sympathy, referencing Wilson’s professional awards, his “troubled childhood,” and testimonies to his reputation as a “good” cop. Wilson, not Brown, became the media’s preferred “victim”—the New York Times’ now-notorious reference to Brown as “no angel” encouraged readers to see Brown, not Wilson, as the aggressor.
Moreover, the media continued to seek pity for Wilson after a grand jury failed to indict him. A 2015 New Yorker profile, titled “The Cop,” details Wilson’s troubled life in the aftermath of Brown’s death. It included lines like “Wilson had some questionable behavior on the force, but not just with Black residents”—an attempt to present Wilson’s shoot-first behavior as colorblind. Elsewhere, Wilson made clear that the extent of his reflections on his crime was reference to a pending lawsuit brought by Brown’s family: “You do realize that his parents are suing me?…So I have to think about him.” Wilson’s is a white supremacist who used force authorized by the government to murder an innocent Black teenager; yet, the publication of this article (and others like it) centered Wilson’s experience in Brown’s murder.
From daily microaggressions to undisguised forms of anti-Blackness, an assumption fueled by media, law enforcement, and other institutional powers, of Black people as criminal and delinquent forces us to concede our humanity almost daily.
The coverage of Botham Jean’s death represents a course correction for media coverage of police brutality against Black victims, but there were still glaring errors: for instance, the widely circulated image of Jean’s brother, Brandt, hugging Guyger at her murder trial—a suggestion that if he can forgive her, we should too. Even in reports detailing the length of Guyger’s sentence, the photo of the hug has been used to almost brush aside her actual crime. And the empathy afforded to Jean didn’t extend to Joshua Brown, the key witness in Guyger’s trial, when he was shot to death just two days after Guyger’s sentencing. Media has reported little about Brown outside of his involvement in the case and his history of arrests for drug possession. News stories reporting on the circumstances of his death have remained one-sided, allowing officers to disregard theories that his death was associated with his participation in Guyger’s trial.
Familiar tropes of Black criminality—mugshots, divulging criminal histories—were all present in reports about Brown’s involvement in the case and his subsequent death. It’s more than likely that Jean’s perceived respectability—his role in the church, his love of choir music, his stature within the community—played a role in the way the media portrayed him. The innocence of his murder’s circumstances, the image conjured of him eating ice cream in his apartment before being murdered—solidified the empathy in descriptions of his life and death. It’s a sharp contrast to Joshua Brown, whose position within the carceral system required the opinions of law enforcement to decipher what happened.
Violence against Black people is universal, unavoidable, and, in a nation fortified by white supremacy, inevitable. I grieve with others the criminalization of Black people in life and death. The lack of reverence concerning our legacy in contrast to those of our murderers is startling, and it’s a desecration that informs how Black people are treated in real time. From daily microaggressions to undisguised forms of anti-Blackness, an assumption fueled by media, law enforcement, and other institutional powers, of Black people as criminal and delinquent forces us to concede our humanity almost daily. That’s why small steps like the respectful depiction of Jean are important. As we continue fighting for our future, we demand a justice that includes how we are remembered by those interpreting our death.