On Monday during a broadcast report about the murder of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman who was stabbed to death at a Bay Area Rapid Transit train station, local Oakland station KTVU showed a photo of Wilson holding what appeared to be a gun. (Wilson was in fact holding a gun-shaped phone case.)
Wilson and her sister were attacked seemingly at random by convicted felon John Lee Cowell, a white man with a history of violence. But a casual viewer may have seen the photo of Wilson — which KTVU pulled from her Facebook page — and had a different impression of what lead to the young woman's death. The photo has already been used on social media to blame Wilson for her own murder.
For some who caught a glimpse of KTVU's coverage of Wilson's death, it won't matter that the recent high school graduate, who had dreams of studying criminal justice or maybe joining the military, was killed by a stranger without provocation. Artist Shani Jamila told Refinery29 that the station's decision to use that photo of Wilson on air was a "crime upon a crime."
"The choice to show a photo of Nia and her phone was a deliberate misrepresentation that sought to create an automatic distancing. The image insinuates: 'We don’t see ourselves in her, she is not like us. Maybe she did something to deserve this,'" Jamila said. "One of the first things Letifah, Nia’s sister who was also attacked, said was that we should not believe whatever media spin might emerge. She spoke out in defence of her sister’s character. It’s devastating that in the midst of her mourning one of the most immediate truths was that she knew that her sister’s character was likely to be maligned."
In a joint statement, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), the Bay Area Black Journalists Association (BABJA), and the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education called KTVU's "mistake" a violation of "one of journalism’s core ethics: 'do no harm.'"
"The use of the photo can be seen as an attempt to dismiss her humanity and silence those who view her death as a racially-motivated attack," the statement read. "Such depictions reinforce unconscious bias, particularly against people of colour, who are over-represented in stories about crime and violence."
Though the station's anchor Frank Somerville apologised, calling the airing of the photo "insensitive" and a "mistake," for many, the incident points to a long legacy of the media portraying Black women as "less innocent" victims or not even covering the deaths and disappearances of Black women at all.
According to Chagmion Antoine, an award winning journalist and producer, a lot of it boils down to be news being a product sold to primarily white audiences. "Clearly news media that feels its audience is predominately white is going to have pressure, either subconscious or conscious, to appeal to a white sensibility," Antoine told Refinery29 in an interview Thursday. "We know for a fact that the white perception of people of colour has consistently been negative because they're flooded with negative images."
The phenomena is well documented. One of the most well known examples of media bias against Black female victims is the coverage of the abduction of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Smart's disappearance sparked wall to wall coverage from every major news outlet, even after she was found alive nine months later.
However, a month before Smart went missing, Alexis Patterson, a 7-year-old Black girl from Milwaukee vanished on her way to school. Patterson's disappearance received a blip of media coverage; unlike Smart, her case is not ingrained in America's consciousness and her family has not received book deals or TV specials. She remains missing to this day.
"Black women just don't have the same kind of social currency that white women have," Antoine said. "Before when a Black girl went missing, no one had to talk about it, it was easy to skirt that conversation."
Research has suggested that lack of diversity in newsrooms and the desire to tell dramatic stories that will garner high ratings leads to implicit bias in the reporting of crime victims. Despite pushes for increased diversity in recent years, newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white and male.
"There's a reckoning that needs to be had," Antoine said, "and the attempt to demonise Black women is really just an attempt to avoid that."
Ultimately, it's up to journalists to ensure audiences see the humanity of women like Nia Wilson and other victims of colour. "Nia and Letifah are inherently worthy of our empathy. Their loved ones deserve our support," Jamila said. "This incident deserves our outrage. This perpetrator deserves real consequences. And the images that accompany the way too limited media coverage of this tragedy should reinforce that narrative."