A Cleveland media group has gone on the defensive after publishing a much-criticized story looking at how the father of the 12-year-old boy who was killed by a police officer last week has a “history of violence against women.” The story by the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which is responsible for Cleveland.com and is affiliated with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was published mere hours before the video of the shooting was released, which shows the police officer opened fire on Tamir Rice less than 2 seconds after pulling up to the playground. The piece notes that Leonard Warner, the boy’s father, “has multiple convictions for the abuse of women.”
Why does that detail matter? Facing backlash for the story that many quickly described as victim-blaming, a clarification line was added to the piece: “People from across the region have been asking whether Rice grew up around violence. The Northeast Ohio Media Group investigated the backgrounds of the parents and found the mother and father both have violent pasts.”
The Huffington Post’s Nick Wing explains the trouble with the piece:
We've seen this type of media coverage before, though it's often focused on the victims of police violence themselves, rather than on their relatives. After the deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in August, for example, some news stories evidently sought to paint the slain teenagers as drug addicts, delinquents and thugs.
This coverage was criticized by many as an attempt to smear the victims' characters and distract from the issue of police violence—and, more subtly, to suggest that the killing of young black men is somehow acceptable or unsurprising. And it succeeded—these stories were used by some people to explain why Martin and Brown deserved to die, or how they may have somehow invited their own deaths.
The criticism didn’t just come from outside the media group. Cleveland Scene reports that a Plain Dealer employee sent an email to the entire staff criticizing the piece, calling it “shameful” and highlighting that the “update does not change that fact.” The unnamed person wonders:
Who are the "people from across the region" asking that question? More importantly, how is it relevant to Tamir Rice's death?
It isn't. It simply isn't. And adding a paragraph after-the-fact to try to justify your actions is borderline insulting.
But the editors appear to be standing by the story. Chris Quinn, the Northeast Ohio Media Group’s vice president of content wrote a piece defending the line of inquiry: “One way to stop police from killing any more 12-year-olds might be to understand the forces that lead children to undertake behavior that could put them in the sights of police guns.” Knowing details about the child’s background “can shed further light on why this 12-year-old was waving a weapon around a public park.” That weapon in question was a toy gun.