In one scene of The Hate U Give, a film adaptation of Angie Thomas’ bestselling novel, the protagonist, Starr Carter, a bright, Harry Potter-obsessed sneakerhead, is being interviewed by a news reporter about her childhood friend Khalil Harris, who was shot to death by a police officer.
Starr was in the passenger’s seat of Khalil’s car the night he was pulled over and killed. During the interview, the reporter asks Starr about Khalil’s drug-dealing past and affiliation with the King Lords, a local gang. This interrogation frustrates Starr, who tries to explain that Khalil was supporting his grandmother who had cancer. She criticizes the journalist for putting Khalil “on trial” by shaping a narrative that depicts him as a criminal and failing to contextualize the socioeconomic conditions in which he grew up.
Biased TV news reports about Khalil’s case are a recurring motif in The Hate U Give, which hit select theaters Friday. The scenes mirror the real-life media portrayals of police victims like Laquan McDonald, Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. The film also thoughtfully calls attention to the ways in which media shape public opinion of police violence cases, especially when the victim is black and the shooter is white. The media’s story angles can also impact whether the shooter is indicted in these cases, according to a 2017 study, “Black Racial Stereotypes and Victim Blaming: Implications for Media Coverage and Criminal Proceedings in Cases of Police Violence against Racial and Ethnic Minorities” published in the Journal of Social Issues.
“Potential jurors are flooded with this information,” Kristin N. Dukes, co-author of the study and dean for institutional diversity at Allegheny College, said via phone interview Friday. “We are talking about weeks, months, sometimes years, before these cases go to trial. Even in the courtroom we get this negative information about the victim and you can’t erase this info once it’s out there.”
For the study, participants read about an altercation that ended with a shooting death, similar to the case of Khalil’s. The victim and shooter’s race could either be black or white, a factor that was randomly assigned to each participant. They were also given information about the victim that was either negative or positive stereotypes often associated with black men in media. The information reflected what might be reported in the media about the victim of police violence.
Examples of these negative stereotypes can be observed in the reporting of several cases in the past decade. Following Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, outlets reported on his school suspensions and him carrying traces of marijuana. In 2014, following Michael Brown’s death, there were reports on his failing grades and surveillance footage of an alleged robbery, although he was not stopped as a robbery suspect before he was killed. In 2015, Sandra Bland’s previous police traffic stops and unpaid court fines were called in to question. In 2016, following Laquan McDonald’s death, Chicago newspapers requested the release of the teen’s juvenile records although his family was against it. In September, a news story on 10 grams of marijuana found in Botham Jean’s apartment where he was killed, upset his lawyers.
On the other hand, the positive stereotypes given in the study about the victim included details such as, “he was coming from a symphony performance at his college,” “he was newspaper writer at his college,” “he came from an intact home and his parents were both professionals,” Dukes explained.
After receiving this background information on the victim, the participants were asked for feedback: was the victim at fault and to blame for the incident?; Did they feel sympathy and empathy for the shooter and victim?; And what indictment recommendations would they give the shooter as jurors?
“When negative stereotypical information was given, more fault or blame was attributed to the victim than the shooter,” Dukes said. “And the shooter was less likely to get a first-degree murder recommendation as an indictment and more likely to get a justifiable homicide recommendation. So basically because this victim was a ‘bad guy,’ the shooter gets off.”
The sentencing outcomes in this research reflects what happens in Khalil’s case in The Hate U Give, as the grand jury decides not to indict the officer in the teen’s shooting death. There was also no indictment in Michael Brown or Sandra Bland’s cases. Although Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald on Friday, indictments and convictions for officers are rare.
The issue of racial bias in media is nothing new. In 1968, the Kerner Commission report outlined the failures of the media to “analyze and report adequately on racial problems” during the summer of 1967, when there were nearly 164 riots in cities around the country, amid black Americans’ frustrations over racial discrimination.
Black residents in these cities felt “that newsmen rely on the police for most of their information about what is happening during a disorder and tend to report much more of what the officials are doing and saying than what Negro citizens or leaders in the city are doing and saying,” the report stated.
Fast forward 50 years and little has changed. This sentiment is still echoed by today’s generation. In 2017, for instance, artist Alexandra Bell recreated the front page of a 2014 New York Times issue which featured side-by-side profiles of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown. She edited the article headlines to critique the “false equivalency” between the officer and the teen made by the outlet, and plastered posters around Brooklyn, New York. Social media has also become a space to express frustrations with media coverage. Following Michael Brown’s death, Twitter users created the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to specifically call out the way in which the media uses certain images to perpetuate the “black thug” stereotype.
In the future, the media has to be more careful when deciding which details they publish on black victims of police violence and ask, “Is this information relevant to the case?” Dukes suggested.
“With Tamir Rice, did we need to know that his mother at one point was on government assistance and that they were homeless and searching for somewhere to live?” Dukes said. “How is this pertinent to the fact that that child was outside playing with a toy gun and the cops rolled up on him and killed him within 15 to 30 seconds of being on the scene?”
By highlighting the media’s role in the way black victims are perceived, it can help stir more conversation around decades of research on media bias that doesn’t always get enough attention in the mainstream, Dukes said.
“That research isn’t in popular culture and I think that if we are all more aware of it, as consumers we can go into this looking at this from a critical lens [and] we can hold media outlets accountable.”
By the end of the film, Starr stops by Khalil’s home, goes into his bedroom and reminisces on his life. There we see the side of Khalil that never made it to the press. There are posters of his favorite rappers on the wall, and in a box, Starr finds the magic wand he saved from their days of mimicking Harry Potter battles.
“I’ll never forget,” Starr says of her friend’s memory. “I’ll never be quiet.” Although demonized in the public eye, it’s clear Khalil’s nature as a hopeful teen who was caring for his family won’t be lost among his loved ones — no matter what the headlines say.