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On Dec. 27, 2021, the Los Angeles Police Department released an antiseptic statement titled “North Hollywood Officer Involved Shooting Incident in North Hollywood.” It said that four days earlier, North Hollywood officers received a report of an “Assault with a Deadly Weapon in Progress” at a business and, when they arrived, shot and killed the suspect and a bystander.
“Neutral objectivity insists we use clunky euphemisms like ‘officer-involved shooting,’” Lowery wrote in a June 2020 New York Times op-ed, “Moral clarity, and a faithful adherence to grammar and syntax, would demand we use words that most precisely mean the thing we’re trying to communicate: ‘the police shot someone.’”
On Aug. 24, 2020 — one day after a white Kenosha Wisconsin police officer shot and seriously injured Jacob Blake, a 29 year-old Black man — the Associated Press Stylebook instructed reporters to “avoid this vague jargon for shootings and other cases involving police. Be specific about what happened. If police use the term, ask: How was the officer or officers involved? Who did the shooting? If the information is not available or not provided, spell that out.”
The response to Floyd’s murder and growing criticism around the media’s coverage of police violence drove the AP to issue the guidance: “A day after the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake, the Stylebook team agreed unanimously to create a separate entry. We published it in Stylebook Online that day, and tweeted it the next day,” Stylebook editor Paula Froke said.
But we, in collaboration with The Garrison Project and HuffPost, decided to examine how often reporters have used the phrase since then — as well as the decades leading up to its guidance. To do so, we analyzed approximately 136,000 newspaper articles that ran between 2000 and 2021 categorized under “Death and Injuries By Police” in the LexisNexis database.
We counted the number of times “officer-involved” and the similar “police-involved” appeared in articles. The articles came from 35 major American newspapers, chosen to represent the largest outlets — the AP, The New York Times and USA Today among them — as well as local daily papers across the country. Six of 35 newspapers appeared to have some years of missing data from LexisNexis, but excluding them from our analysis did not significantly change results so we did not eliminate them.
The results were disheartening. Usage of “officer-involved” rose steadily throughout the 2000s. We found an average of 22 uses of “officer-involved” per month, with the phrase appearing at least once in 5% of all articles in 2000. By 2010, there was an average of 34 uses per month with the phrase appearing once in 11% of all articles about police violence.
Usage of the phrase declined in 2020, but following Floyd’s murder — and, two months later, the new AP guidance — it began to climb back up in 2021. In August of last year, “officer-involved” appeared 56 times, and was used at least once in 8% of all articles about police violence in that month. This represents a return to the rates in the mid-2000s, after usage of “officer-involved” had begun to significantly increase.
We also analyzed active-voice descriptions of police violence, which produce better, clearer reporting. (The AP described “officer-involved” as “vague.”) We counted the number of — and percentage of — uses of “police shot” and “police killed.” The use of either active phrase is consistently significantly lower than the use of passive phrases. In articles about police violence published each month during the 2000-2021 span surveyed, active phrases appeared 100 times or more during just three months.
Decades later, the phrase came under scrutiny from activists and reporters during the headiest days of the Black Lives Matter era from 2014 to 2016, which saw the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling and thousands of others. In a July 2014 op-ed, Washington Post opinion columnist Radley Balko wrote that “officer-involved shooting” is “a way of describing a shooting without assigning responsibility.”
Froke told HuffPost that the AP’s internal discussions about “officer-involved” began in 2015, first resulting in its inclusion in the Stylebook’s “Cliches, Jargon” entry — what Froke described as “an extended entry on jargon and cliches, with ‘officer-involved shooting’ as one of many examples to avoid” — in 2017. And then, in 2020, its clearest guidance: Stop using the phrase.
We separated usage in the articles we analyzed into these categories: the total number of times the phrase “officer-involved” appeared anywhere in the articles; the total number of articles that used the phrase at least once; and the percentage of articles that used it at least once. In some cases, the articles directly quoted a police officer or other official, thereby amplifying the value-neutral assessment. In other cases, the phrase was used directly in the author’s own words.
These numbers were tallied on a monthly basis, which allowed us to observe the shifts in usage in the aftermath of high-profile police violence or following AP guidance and other high-profile media critiques.
Our findings illustrate how long it takes to change reporters’ habits — and their reliance on police accounts of shootings. A phrase invented by police became, over the past 50 years, commonplace in reporting and more popular over the past two decades, even amid growing skepticism of police and heightened media literacy.
As media attention toward police violence increased in the mid-2010s, so did usage of “officer-involved.” The first significant increase in monthly usage came after white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Black teenager Michael Brown in August 2014, demonstrating that more coverage of police violence does not lead to clearer reporting.
Throughout 2015, a year marked by Baltimore police killing Freddie Gray in April and the November release of the 2014 video of Chicago police fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, usage of “officer-involved” was higher than in 2014. For the year, the average usage per month was 177 times. Importantly, the AP’s Froke said that in 2015, an “editor advised AP staff in an internal note to avoid the term and instead be specific about what happened.”
Usage of “officer-involved” peaked that July, when the phrase was used 447 times and appeared at least once in 13% of all articles about police violence. That was up significantly from the previous two months; in May 2016, there were 132 uses of the phrase and in June, 100. The 447 uses of “officer-involved” in July represented the single highest usage of “officer-involved” in a month between 2000 and 2021.
In 2017, AP Stylebook added “officer-involved shooting” to its “Cliches, Jargon” section. Along with warning reporters against using the phrase, the entry provided an example of the phrase in action: “Police say an intoxicated person of interest suffered a self-inflicted gunshot to his left foot in an officer-involved shooting.”
Then came the year with the largest civil rights uprising in a generation. In the first half of 2020, use of “officer-involved” was high — between 17% and 20% of articles used the phrase. In May 2020, the month of Floyd’s murder, usage declined to 8% of the articles surveyed and the phrase was used 130 times.
After Floyd’s murder, rates of usage of the phrase plummeted to the low single digits, but it’s unclear if that was due to simply so many more articles on police violence than was typical. However, in the months following the AP guidance, as coverage of police violence began to decline overall, the number of times the phrase was used and the rates of usage also remained low.
But progress was short-lived. In April 2021, the month former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Floyd, the phrase was used 136 times — but the rate at which the phrase appeared in articles remained in the 5% range. “Officer-involved” even snuck its way back into coverage about Floyd.
“I think it’s a good thing that there was more coverage in volume but the fact that those mentions [of ‘officer-involved’] went through the roof, underscores that the median coverage is bad,” Lowery said. “If we write about it more, that is not a net good thing. Not if the writing is bad, not if the coverage obfuscates what happened and launders the police narrative into public consciousness.”
“If we went to editors and were like, ‘Can you commit to saying police shot?’ I think that they wouldn’t want to fight it. I haven’t seen editors double down, right? I’ve just seen, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way,’” McKesson said. “They just need to be pressed.”
“I think that there’s power to having the conversation in public and interrogating how we do it,” Lowery said. “The only way for that public pressure to be successful is for the conversation to be led by journalists. These critiques from within the industry carry more weight.”
In December, after a pair of Los Angeles Times headlines about Orellana-Peralta’s killing — “2 killed in shooting at North Hollywood store, including suspect,” and “14 year-old girl in dressing room killed by LAPD bullet in shooting that also left suspect dead” — garnered criticism from readers, the newspaper tweeted, “For the record: We’ve deleted a previous tweet that used passive language to describe this shooting.”
“‘Officer-involved shooting’ is an excellent meat-and-potatoes example of the way time and time and again, we sanitize violence committed by the government,” Lowery said. “Too much of journalists’ coverage of the police writ large, an arm of our government — the armed arm of our government — is too deferential and does not act as an independent entity to cover, interrogate, and contextualize an act of violence by the government.”
This content was originally published here.