Commentary: How the AP Robbed Renisha McBride of Her Dignity in Death

News organization characterizes the 19-year-old as a "woman who showed up drunk on porch" in a tweet.

Posted: 08/07/2014 05:56 PM EDT

Moments after a Detroit-area jury announced its verdict in the Renisha McBride murder case, the Associated Press sent out a breaking news alert on Twitter. "Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder in porch shooting."

Five minutes later, the AP updated its Twitter feed with more information. "Suburban Detroit homeowner convicted of second-degree murder for killing woman who showed up drunk on porch."

The only difference between the first tweet and the second is that the later post adds more information about the victim, 19-year-old Renisha McBride. Yet the AP's second post used 34 precious characters to describe a teenager who could have been described in 15 characters simply by using her name.

Compare the AP's sensationalistic, victim-shaming headline to the breaking news tweet from the Detroit Free Press, which announced, "Theodore Wafer convicted of second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearm in the fatal shooting of Renisha McBride."

Fortunately, Goldie Taylor and other observers on Twitter quickly noticed the discrepancy and called the AP out for it. McBride's status as a black teenager living in Detroit "certainly informed the way the AP headline was constructed," Taylor told me during an interview this afternoon. AP chose "code words" that "seemed to be casting a moral judgment on the victim," said Taylor. Rather than describing McBride as "unarmed," which Taylor said was more relevant to the case, they chose to describe her as "drunk."

While the country has been engaged in several racially charged controversies in recent years, the AP post does little to further our understanding of one another. Instead, "their headline does nothing more than stoke the flames of fear and racial tension to sell a story," ColorOfChange executive director Rashad Robinson told me today. "No parent should have to fear that their child will be gunned down because someone assumes they are a dangerous criminal based on the color of their skin," the group said in a statement.

It's not just the description of McBride that raises concern. The characterization of Wafer as a "suburban Detroit homeowner" also reflected a "cultural bias" in his favor, Taylor suggests. Remember, Wafer, a 55-year-old man who claimed to be fearful for his life, shot McBride through a locked screen door last November after getting his loaded shotgun, releasing the safety, aiming it at McBride and then pulling the trigger, essentially executing her for the crime of knocking on his door.

Some have, understandably, drawn comparisons with the McBride case to the recent shooting deaths of two other black teenagers, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. In a society that reinforces violent images of young black people and empowers white men to arm themselves in defense, it's not surprising that these incidents keep happening. What is surprising is that some juries keep believing these suspects even after they've killed the primary witness to their crimes.

Just as Michael Dunn never called the police to report the supposedly life-threatening incident that led him to kill Jordan Davis, Wafer also never called the police when he supposedly felt threatened by a young black woman knocking on his door.

And although George Zimmerman did call the police to report Trayvon Martin as a "suspicious" character in his neighborhood, he never bothered to wait for their arrival before taking the law, and Trayvon's young life, in his own hands.

But the Wayne County Circuit Court jury of seven men and five women came to a different conclusion today. After listening to 27 witnesses testify over eight days, they found Wafer guilty of second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearm, despite the best efforts of Wafer's defense team to demonize McBride.

Sadly, the type of overzealous defense work that portrays victims as deserving targets is all too familiar for women and people of color who have grown accustomed to such accusations. What isn't as familiar is when the supposedly unbiased news media brazenly repeat the very same stereotypes to describe the victims and the perpetrators.

It's no wonder that people like Wafer, Dunn and Zimmerman fear black teenagers when so many of the media images projected to them confirm their beliefs and stereotypes. And it's no wonder that black kids are disproportionately convicted for behavior that white kids engage in when juries repeatedly associate these kids with those dangerous media images.

It's gratifying, to some extent, that the jury got it right, this time. But we all know it will happen again and again until we change our attitudes. Yes, it's about time we hold these men accountable for their actions. But those of us in the media need to be held accountable for our actions, too.

(Author's Note: The original headline to this column used the word "slander," which is a legal term with a specific meaning. I've changed the headline and the column to reflect the incident more accurately. I apologize for the error.)

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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