The Absurd Way the Media Labeled Robert Lewis Dear vs. Mike Brown

December 1st 2015

After every shooting, there are five, fundamental questions that the media attempts to answer: who, what, where, when, and why? We describe mass shootings as acts of senseless violence, but still—in our endless search for meaning, we turn to the perpetrator.

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What we learn about the shooter's background does not always inform our understanding of the tragedy they caused. How we describe the shooter, however, can be revealing. The American media does not always treat alleged shooters equally, as the New York Times demonstrated this weekend in its coverage of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado, which left three people dead and nine others injured.

In a profile of Robert Lewis Dear, the alleged gunmen who opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic last week, the Times called the 57-year-old man a "gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts towards neighbors and women he knew." The choice of the word "gentle" prompted backlash on social media, and the newspaper later removed the controversial adjective.

Shortly thereafter, another version of the article appeared online. Rather than "gentle," Dear is described as an "itinerant loner who left behind a trail of disputes and occasionally violent acts toward neighbors and women he knew." A Times editor responded to criticism about the profile's original diction on Twitter: "It's hard work covering these," Patrick LaForge wrote.

To be sure, it is hard work to answer those five questions, especially the last: why? "The shooting came at a time when Planned Parenthood has been criticized because of surreptitious videos made by anti-abortion groups of officials discussing using fetal organs for research," the Times wrote. Indeed, all signs seem to indicate that Dear was motivated by an anti-abortion agenda; as he was being arrested, for example, investigators say that they heard him say "no more baby parts," an apparent reference to the videos.

But again, the Times' choice of the word "surreptitious" implies that the undercover videos offer a factual representation of the recorded conversation. "If accuracy is the New York Times' goal, the precise modifier it wants to use isn't 'surreptitious,'" Salon wrote. "I do believe it's 'fraudulent.'"

Does word choice really matter?

In a word, yes. And the Times has acknowledged as much—both by removing and replacing the word "gentle" in this profile, and in statements about previous editorial mistakes. One of the most famous examples comes from last year, when the newspaper said that Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer in a case that provoked protests across the country, was "no angel."

BrownMedium/Matt Bors - fair.org

"That choice of words was a regrettable mistake," Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of the Times, wrote in an op-ed. "In saying that the 18-year-old Michael Brown was 'no angel' in the fifth paragraph of Monday's front-page profile, The Times seems to suggest that this was, altogether, a bad kid."

That example raises an important point. It does not necessarily matter if the subject of reporting is the perpetrator or victim or even a peripheral character; word choice can reveal bias—whether that bias is implicit or explicit—and that can, in turn, affect readers' perception of the subject. The "no angel" language used in the Times' Michael Brown profile certainly supports that argument, as many people (especially those who sided with the officer who fatally shot Brown) adopted their language. "No angle" became a mantra of sorts for the pro-Darren Wilson crowd.

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"I understand the concerns, and I get it," John Eligon, the author of the Brown profile said of the editorial blunder. "Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have changed that."

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