The Newsworthiness of Police Shootings

Winter 2019

Professor Alicia Simmons asks: Whose lives matter?

Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. These names launched a cultural reckoning. They rose up again and again as crowds filled the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black men.

But, “[these shootings] happen once every six days, by my estimate,” says Alicia Simmons, a social psychologist and associate professor of sociology. So why do we only know certain names?

“You need a particular kind of case to make news coverage,” Simmons says.

Professor Alicia Simmons

Her article, “Whose Lives Matter? The National Newsworthiness of Police Killing Unarmed Blacks,” identifies the factors that help a case reach prominence. These factors include: the percentage of the location’s population that is black, the existence of video evidence, and whether there were peaceful demonstrations in response.

Simmons and a team of student researchers have been digging deeper into the news cycle to look for patterns in the data. The students are collecting clips and transcripts from major networks like CNN, NBC, and Fox. They search the database LexisNexis for stories from prime-time news shows that mention the now-recognizable names of men shot by police. Next, they sort the data into categories, determining a news story’s framing — about protests, grand jury deliberations, or racial inequality — and the qualities that define the story.

The team is finding that the events preceding the shooting play a large role in the case’s rise to prominence. If the officer used a Taser, for example, that complicates the narrative.

“Everyone thinks Tasers are nonlethal,” Simmons says. “They’re actually less lethal. But because that story is harder to tell, because there is debate in the medical community, we don’t hear about those stories.”

She is also designing experiments to test for a news story’s effect on the viewer’s perception by manipulating a TV news clip to change the race and gender of a crime story’s perpetrator or victim.

A lot of Simmons’s research comes down to perception. Until the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, police shootings of unarmed black men rarely made major headlines. With the rise of protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, that is changing — but Simmons believes that the way they’re covered in major news outlets remains a symptom of the way we process crime in America. “I spend a lot of time thinking about how the American news media portray race and crime, and how that shapes people’s criminal justice policy preference and their racial attitudes,” she says.

Ultimately, Simmons wants to collect her research for a book that will outline these phenomena, presenting the data in a way that appeals to a popular audience as well as social scientists.

Simmons says her goal is to give clarity about the nature of the news cycle. “I want people to understand the plain statistic,” she says. “It happens every six days. How many people can you name?”