On Wednesday evening, Jeffrey Katz, the news director of DC public radio station WAMU, sent a memo to staffers: “We generally follow NPR’s lead regarding our style, with very few exceptions,” he wrote, “but as an editorial team, we disagree with their guidance on how to refer to the death of George Floyd. We believe it’s appropriate, and journalistically justified, to refer to Floyd’s death as a killing.”
NPR issued that guidance Friday: “Let’s be careful and accurate about how we describe the circumstances of Floyd’s death,” the memo from NPR News managing editor Terence Samuel began. “The most effective approach is to describe the actions of the police officer — the knee to the neck captured on video — that preceded Floyd’s death.”
Some examples of how Samuel said NPR journalists could describe Floyd’s death:
We can say Floyd died after Officer Chauvin was seen on video with his knee on Floyd’s neck.
We can say Chauvin is accused of murder in Floyd’s death.
We can say Chauvin is accused of causing Floyd’s death.
We can say Chauvin is accused of, or charged with, killing Floyd.
We can say Chauvin allegedly killed or allegedly murdered.
This guidance hews closely to standard and longstanding journalistic purpose. The Associated Press Stylebook entry for homicide, murder, manslaughter, for example, says that murder “is a malicious, premeditated homicide. … A homicide should not be described as murder unless a person has been convicted of that charge.” Rules like this not only prevent journalists from reporting past the facts at hand, they can also help protect news organizations from libel suits.
But to refrain from calling Floyd’s death a killing, when video shows it occurred after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, seems conservative even by AP’s standards. “The policy is kind of the standard operating policy on news,” Samuel tells Washingtonian. “Be accurate. Be descriptive. Tell people as much as we know when we know it. This has gotten way more involved because there are so many experts on this particular story, because everybody saw the tape.”
Now, Samuel says, “It is fair to say that is no longer the case. You can listen to NPR and hear that it’s certainly been described as a police killing.” On Monday, two autopsies, one a private procedure performed by doctors Floyd’s family hired and another by the medical examiner of Hennepin County, Minnesota, concluded that Floyd’s death was a homicide. Officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck, was originally charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, charges that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison upgraded Wednesday as he also announced charges against the other police officer’s present. The murder charges, Samuel says, helped contribute to NPR’s evolving guidance on how to talk about Floyd’s death. “I wanted people to be careful,” he says. “I still want that to be the goal.”
I asked Samuel how that guidance was received at NPR. It was clear, he says, that people inside and outside the organization “wanted us to be really aggressive in telling this story” and wanted NPR to take a position. “That’s not our job,” he says. The debate over how to refer to Floyd’s death, he says, is “one of the great joys and one of the great curses of working in a building with a thousand people who have a chance to say something about this.” There was a staff meeting Wednesday, he says, “where somebody said our reporting used passive words.” Was that fair? “That is a point of view,” he says. “I disagree with it.”
The question of how to talk about Floyd’s killing is not an academic exercise for NPR’s journalists, nor is it one for anyone telling the story in Washington, DC, where protests sparked by the incident and President Trump’s response to them have dominated the city’s attention for days. “Look, I think it feels different for a lot of people,” Samuel says. “I am a 58-year-old black man, and I think my responsibility, my opportunity in this situation was to tell the best story that we knew how, with all the force and the credibility of the organization today so we can also come back and do the exact same thing tomorrow. I think the reason people want us to basically tell some version of the story that they think is the right one is they think we have a certain credibility, and I get that. The reason that credibility exists,” he says, “is we’re very, very careful about how we do this kind of work.”
As the country grapples with the issues raised by Floyd’s killing, Samuel says, “I think there are a lot of black Americans who are not at all surprised that this played out the way it did, and so even though I think there are passions that are inflamed, I think that a lot of the story to be told here is a lot larger. And I try to keep that story in mind as we move forward.”