Killings of/by Police: Some Primary Sources and Notes on Editorializing

Here are a few notes, from looking at some primary sources, on how killing of Black people has been reported in news media in past decades. I am no historian, and never studied journalism in any formal way — hope others will share that background — but here are some things I’ve learned about how our news “reports the facts.”

Editorializing, generally —

Merriam-Webster lists the first known use of the word “editorialize” in 1856, with the sense of expressing an opinion (of a newspaper editor). Related usage, “to introduce an opinion into the reporting of facts,” seems to have developed later (not sure when).

“Don’t editorialize” — i.e., “Never inject your opinions into a hard-news story” — has been accepted, dogmatic advice for journalists for decades. But it is not always clear what is and what is not opinion. And it’s worth considering how newspapers have both reflected and helped drive ways in which the various actors in killings involving police — as perpetrators and/or victims — are viewed.

For example, what would probably be called “editorializing” today was standard reporting practice in 19th Century newspapers: Police “kept order” by manhandling “vagrants” and “Negro roughs.” Police officers, always “well-loved” and “dedicated,” regularly battled with, sometimes killed, “bandits” and “gangsters.” Reports included the feelings and fears of some people, ignoring others, and added statements about “fortunate” or “sad” conclusions to a story. Standards shifted throughout the 20th Century, but police still faced “criminals” and “convicts” and “disorderly pickets” and “rioting unionists.” When people spoke up about police violence, “brutality” often stayed inside quotation marks. And, of course, references to “state violence” in mainstream U.S. media usually referred to other countries. Reporting in historic Black newspapers, the oldest of which launched in the early 20th Century, also changed over the decades and differed between, e.g., the Chicago Defender and Baltimore’s Afro-American.

Here, for further consideration, are a few pieces about editorializing and how it is understood (or not) today:

I also share below, just to prompt thought and discussion, two examples from my experience (neither involving police) of arguments over what is/isn’t editorializing. In addition, this excerpt from Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia offers two police-related examples asking readers and journalists to consider the effect of where we begin any story.

Reporting Examples, from 1880s to 1950s


Some of the earliest DC newspaper stories include elements that seem seriously out of date: reference to landmarks long gone, horses as transportation, chain gangs and workhouses, quaint product advertisements. Some elements are surprisingly stable, though: St. Peter’s Catholic Church, at the same location for 200 years; St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (Government Hospital for the Insane), which opened in 1851; arguments over who controls school buildings and other public resources; conflicts between locals and the federal government. Two interrelated stories, from 1884 and 1885, involving police and guns, include both old-fashioned and all-too-current elements.

In 1884, white police officer John Fowler shot at a Black man named John Langster, who then wrestled the gun from the officer and killed him. In 1885, another white police officer, Daniel Sheehan, cited the 1884 case as justification for his fatal shooting of Addison Coleman, a Black man who “defied arrest.”

Langster (or Lancaster) was either 18 or 21 and was tried in the media as well as in the courts in ways that are very familiar, even if the language and conventions of the day were different. Details and links in Langster/Lancaster case.

Addison Coleman, like many victims of police and other gun violence today, was also tried in the papers. (Unsure of his age; clues from other newspaper records are: he was arrested for resisting arrest in 1876 and married in 1878 — so was probably at least a few years older than Langster.) Details and links in Coleman case.

In 1887, local civic leaders gathered for what The Evening Star calls “A Colored Indignation Meeting.” (might have to scroll down to get to this document). In addition to discussing a more recent case of police brutality, the meeting considered the case of Addison Coleman and the fact that “eight colored men had been shot and killed in the District by policemen and that none of them had ever been punished” (October 19, 1887, The Evening Star, p.6). The Post did not (to the best of my search ability) cover the meeting or the issue at all.

1920, 1954, 1958

How historic Black papers dealt with the deaths of Black people at the hands of police is a topic of its own. But here, as points of reference, are two stories, decades and apart and distant in other ways:

1920, The Chicago Defender. A Black non-burglar was shot and killed by a white policeman in Chicago responding to a burglary call. The Chicago Defender carried the story of the attempt at legal action. Oscar Brown case.

1954, Baltimore Afro-American. Roger Alredge, an 18-year-old Black Marine, was killed by white police following a traffic stop. The Afro-American covered the story and brought research to the grand jury: “Evidence uncovered by AFRO reporters brings grand jury action in shooting” (Afro-American (1893-); Baltimore, Md. 17 Apr 1954: 8). Several additional stories in the Afro-American discuss this case; none elsewhere that I could find, and nothing after the mother’s lawsuit was filed.

In 1958, a Black teen was shot to death by a white Capitol Police officer. The funeral was covered by the Afro-American, while the Evening Star and the Post directed attention to the court cases. See the Tucker case.

NOTE: Some materials from newspaper archives are copied in PDF or text form in the pages cited above for educational purposes. But full access to original sources in library newspaper databases (including DC Public Library, used here) requires student ID or library card.

EXAMPLE ONE: “A Christian Service”

I was once chastised for “editorializing” in referring to a public event, that had been advertised as a civic gathering, as “a Christian service.” My editor thought the statement came across as criticism or accusation and felt that I, as a Jew, was being overly-sensitive to religious content. I argued that describing the event any other way was inaccurate overall and failed to acknowledge the experience of non-Christians. In the end, he agreed to my reporting the following:

With the DC Council censure of Councilmember Marion Barry just hours old, Matthews Memorial Baptist Church hosted the “State of Ward 8.” Civic information was available downstairs, with economic development plans, options in park improvements and a model of the new design for Washington Highlands Library on display; citizens were asked for input. Upstairs, in the sanctuary, however, a Christian service was offered.

…Dancers and choirs provided a consistent message of Christian redemption. Several participants, not standing to praise the Lord when encouraged to do so, left early. Mid-way through the service, pastors were invited to “anoint” Barry in what appeared to be a powerful experience for Christians but left others puzzled.

“I’m a Muslim, and I don’t understand what this is supposed to mean,” said Aquarius Vann-Ghasri, DC Housing Authority family commissioner, during the event. In addition, she asked, “I wonder what happened to separation of church and state?”
— “Delivering” Despite Censure? Barry’s “State of Ward 8” Promises Redemption; March 2010 East of the River

Would a Christian have written something different? What about a Christian from a tradition that did not practice that kind of anointing? While it may be less common today, complete blurring of lines between Christian religious and civic activities was the norm when I moved here (in 1988). Is mentioning such a reality editorializing? Or is accepting lack of division between church and state editorializing? Similar questions apply to so many other realities that the writer chooses to make explicit or not.

EXAMPLE TWO: Extraneous Addition

A very different argument over editorializing arose over a long ago report on a public meeting. The central topic was the then-new proposal to turn the Old Naval Hospital (9th & Penn, SE) into The Hill Center, in the process removing the Community Action Guild (CAG) from its long-time tenancy in the carriage house. I was asked to insert material into the story about land owned by CAG. I was reporting on the meeting, not doing an in-depth research piece on the proposal and its proponents and opponents; I argued, therefore, that adding that material, which had not come up in the meeting, was a form of editorializing.

I believed that including the additional material was making implicit arguments about CAG’s need for the space in question; I thought it unfair to throw in financial and property background for one participant in an ANC meeting, when that was never, in my experience, done for other such participants; and I thought it awkward, at best, to put extraneous material I had not found, or even sought, into my reporting without explanation as to how it got there. In the end, we reached an odd understanding: The material was added to the story, but my name was removed from it. (I was paid, but the byline was “staff.”)