Jacob Blake, 'Unarmed,' and How a False Talking Point Becomes Record

Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley announces no charges would be filed against Police Officer Rusten Shesk...

Kenosha District Attorney Michael Graveley announces no charges would be filed against Police Officer Rusten Sheskey for the shooting of Jacob Blake. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

This piece originally appeared in the Fourth Watch newsletter.

If I say “Hands up, don’t shoot,” what do you think of? Most likely it’s Michael Brown, and Ferguson, where it was reported widely that those were the words said by Brown before he was shot and killed by police. The Obama administration Justice Department found that not to be the case — but it’s hard to go back and correct the historical record in people’s minds.

Today we got the news that the police officers involved in the shooting of Jacob Blake, leaving him paralyzed, would not be charged. The Washington Post portrayed the news this way in their tweet:

“An unarmed Black man.”

Instead, what we learned today was Blake was in fact armed. He had a knife — something the District Attorney said Blake himself made clear. But this was the way the Washington Post portrayed the case — and they weren’t alone. ESPN for some reason wrote up a story, as did TMZ. Each included a line that Blake was “unarmed.” Less than 30 minutes after the announcement, MSNBC published an opinion article arguing that it was a “bad system” that caused police to shoot “unarmed” Black people.

Hours later, the Washington Post deleted the tweet, and clarified that Blake was reportedly armed. ESPN and TMZ removed the reference. MSNBC changed the headline, but kept the word “unarmed” in the text. None of this is a statement on the decision not to charge the officers. Maybe it was excessive force. I’m not making a judgment about that. But it is imprecision that leads to a furthering of a false narrative — one that will leave a false historical record.

Wesley Lowery had a great thread about the problem with it too. “It’s a mistake for media to constantly use ‘unarmed’ as a shorthand to signal to readers ‘this shooting was potentially bad’,” he wrote. “It erases cases like Philando Castile (victim being ‘armed’ does not mean a shooting was justified) and leads to errors like these.”

Media errors here came because saying “unarmed” made it sound worse – and wasn’t true. And it hurts consumers when they don’t have the full picture.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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Newsrust: Jacob Blake, 'Unarmed,' and How a False Talking Point Becomes Record
Jacob Blake, 'Unarmed,' and How a False Talking Point Becomes Record
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