‘Unarmed Black Man’ doesn’t mean what you think it means

3 words that repeatedly appear in stories about racially motivated shootings reinforce the biased assumptions that journalists are trying to expose.

June 1, 2020
Category: Ethics & Trust

This column is a modified version of the NPR Public Editor column that was first published last week. It takes on a new urgency this week with the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

When journalists write or broadcast these words — “unarmed black man” — what do you hear? It’s a phrase that has become pervasive in the American news media, including on NPR’s airwaves and in its digital news stories.

Since a string of deaths of young black men at the hands of police gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, the phrase has become journalistic shorthand for this message: white people unjustly shooting a black man, because their racial prejudice led them to assume he was a threat.

That’s a lot of work for three words.

One loyal NPR fan pointed out to me that when we utter that phrase, it doesn’t always mean the same thing for the speaker as for the listener. And now I can’t stop hearing it.

Deirdre Moultrie noticed those words peppered throughout her two favorite sources of news, NPR and The New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast, most recently in reference to the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. Every time Moultrie, 41, from Randallstown, Maryland., heard the phrase spoken, it caused her pain.

As a preschool teacher and someone who devotes a lot of energy to educating and mentoring children, she wrote to our office: “I am begging NPR to stop referring to black men killed unjustly as ‘unarmed black man.’ … Please stop! As a black woman and a lover of black men, it hurts me every time I hear this despicable phrase on the radio.”

A search of the archive reveals that NPR has used the phrase 82 times in the past year. Five of those were headlines, 26 were in newscasts read at the top of the hour. And most of those references  — 65 to be exact  — occurred since Arbery was killed in February. In that same time period, “unarmed white man” does not appear anywhere in NPR’s coverage.

After talking to editors inside and outside NPR, criminologists, journalists and Moultrie herself, I’ve concluded that the phrase is overused. Journalists everywhere, including those at NPR, should be cautious about when and why they use it, because it is rooted in hidden assumptions that are different, depending on who you are.

Most of the time, when a journalist writes or says, “unarmed black man,” she is using the phrase as code, signaling to her audience that a victim of violence did not pose a deadly threat to the killer or killers, be they citizens or cops. Often that may well be true — but the headline-speak is insufficient journalistically to get to the explanation of why. What’s more, that cliche presumes the first question we should ask about a black jogger is: Was he armed?

Indeed the entire story of unjustified violence by white people against black people is rooted in more than whether the black man did or didn’t have a gun. Had Arbery been shot in the back while jogging by two men who assumed because he was black he was a fleeing burglar, and a gun was found in his pocket, would that make it more justifiable? The core narrative doesn’t make sense unless you are familiar with and accept the premise that rooted deep in the collective American psyche is more than armed or unarmed: It’s about a false assumption that black people are more likely to be criminals.

“The fact that you have to signify that a black person is unarmed is problematic,” said Lorenzo Boyd, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion, and the director of The Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven. “I understand it’s descriptive, but it’s hurtful.”

The research is conclusive, Boyd said. Racial prejudice is deeply embedded in our culture, and it results in systemic discrimination by authority figures including police, security guards and even teachers.

“If we are assuming black people are armed, that premise is flawed,” Boyd said.

This is not to suggest that when journalists use the phrase “unarmed black man,” they are buying into that erroneous narrative of black criminality. In fact, it’s more likely the exact opposite. Journalism is rooted in a long history of questioning authority — and usually the guys with the guns have the authority. We are also wired to explore the research that demonstrates how deep-seated prejudice seeps into the assumptions that lie under the judicial system, as well as the extra-judicial systems.

And when a journalist writes or utters the phrase “unarmed black man,” she is often honestly trying to quickly convey the key question the audience has: What was the circumstance of the confrontation?

Here’s how that logic plays out.

Journalist: A white man shot a black man.
Dubious audience member who might dismiss the story: What was the black man doing that caused the white man to shoot him?
Journalist: Well, the black man didn’t have a gun, he posed no deadly threat.
Audience: That’s important for us to know (because we have these hidden biases).
Journalist: Right, a white man shot an unarmed black man.

But it doesn’t work.

“Language itself is complicated and it changes context,” said Karen Yin, a veteran editor and the creator and keeper of the Conscious Style Guide, a resource that amalgamates dozens of recommendations and best practices for language describing communities historically marginalized by communicators. “The same language that works in one setting doesn’t work in another setting.”

Without being completely aware of it, journalists are using the phrase, “unarmed black man” to indicate an episode in the wide arc of unjustified violence by white people against black people.

But from her home in Randallstown, when NPR listener Dee Moultrie hears the same phrase, she’s really hearing: NPR journalists don’t think white people will be sympathetic to a black man, unless they stipulate that he didn’t have a gun.

“NPR and ‘The Daily’ are where I get my news. That’s what keeps me afloat. That’s what keeps me entertained. It’s almost like base, like home,” Moultrie told me in a video chat this week. “ I couldn’t allow my space to be invaded by that phrase. So I had to say something. And it wasn’t even out of anger.”

Then she reconsidered, and realized that her media consumption was impacting the way she herself talked about the phenomenon of white violence against black people.

“Well, I was a little angry,” she said. “But it was more so because I’ve said that phrase before. So like, OK, I have to tell Michael Barbaro (of ‘The Daily’ podcast) to stop saying that. I have to tell NPR. Because they just don’t know.”

Now we know.

If I did have power to implement policy, here’s what my guidance would say:

Be careful and intentional about using the phrase “unarmed black man” in stories about white people killing black people, particularly in headlines. While the specific information is vitally important to the story, use precise language in full context rather than speak in a code that is not heard in the same universal way by each member of the audience. Instead, slow your explanation down and stick to the facts. Imagine these questions about the phrase “unarmed black man.” Answer them, but in more than three words. Why is it important that the assailant was white and the victim was black? What do you mean by unarmed? Are the shooters claiming to believe the victim had a weapon? If so, what kind of weapon? Would the victim being armed have justified the killing? Would you use the term to describe a white person? If not, why?

Yin told me this is the overall message of her style guide: “Conscious language lives at the intersection of critical thinking and compassion.”

Language is messy and it evolves. As professionals, the best we can do is continue to evolve with it.

Kelly McBride is Poynter’s senior vice president and the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter. She can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kellymcb.

Comments

Comments are closed.

  • 1. When I hear “unarmed black man” it really frustrates me. Bc I feel like whomever is automatic at trying to portray that this black man is a victim.
    Response:

    Definitions:
    Victim, (noun)
    A person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.

    Victim, (noun) in the sense of casualty
    A person or thing that suffers harm or death

    The word “victim” is not synonymous with “innocent.”

    2. I dont believe in innocent people being killed by police bc of their race.

    Response: Do you believe that it’s alright if guilty people are killed by police because of their race?

    3. But I also dont believe that just bc a man is “unarmed”, that he is automatically a victim, nor that bc he is black, that it was something to do with racism.

    Response: I have already touched on the fact that the word “victim” does not mean “innocent.” You are correct, however, that there is no way to definitively PROVE that the murders of these individuals, which have been absolutely brutal, were motivated by racism.

    4. An unarmed man who is strong enough, or stronger then the officer at which he is going up against, could easily go from unarmed to armed. Or just the simple fact that he is stronger then the officer, or whether he is not obeying the direction that the officer may be telling him.

    Response: That statement is… a very loaded statement. If using your logic from the above statement, I have a few questions. Do you believe that police officers should hold the right and authority to use lethal force and/or take the life of any detainee that is physically stronger than the officer detaining them? Do you believe that police officers should hold the right and authority to use lethal force and/or take the life of any detainee physically capable of “going from unarmed to armed”, and could if they wanted to? If someone is sitting on the ground after being cuffed, and they’re told to get up, they’re disobeying the “direction the officer may be telling him.” It could be refusing to do the sobriety test. It could be running from the police. Do you believe an officer should hold the right and authority to use lethal force and/or take the life of any detainee who disobeys them?

    5. Lack of cooperation by someone breaking a law, or causing disorderly conduct, followed by failing to comply with officers, that puts many people at risk…not just of getting hurt, but of being killed.

    Response:
    Definition:
    Disorderly conduct (noun)
    Unruly behavior constituting a minor offense. Some examples are loitering, being drunk in public. States vary in how they proceed with disorderly conduct, but it’s mostly used to describe someone who is being incredibly annoying to others. Police may use a disorderly conduct charge to keep the peace when people are behaving in a disruptive manner to themselves or others, but otherwise present no danger. I also want to note here that

    Do you believe that police officers should hold the right and authority to use lethal force and/or take the life of individuals who don’t 100% comply with them while they’re being detained for being ridiculously annoying, drunk in public, or hanging around without buying anything? Do you believe that police officers should hold the right and authority to use lethal force and/or take the life of individuals who don’t 100% cooperate with them while they’re being detained for breaking a law? Do you believe that someone who doesn’t comply 100% while they’re being detained for being ridiculously annoying, drunk in public, hanging around without buying, or breaking a law puts many people at risk of not just getting hurt, but being killed?

    6. Whether it be in car chases, shoot outs, fleeing on foot, etc…

    Response: Do you believe that police officers should hold the right and authority to use lethal force and/or take the life of detainees who flee on foot?

    7. If someone is making a choice to break the law and put themselves on the path of inevitably having to deal with the police, and they chose to take the path of non cooperation, that choice alone, takes away their right to be seen as a victim.

    Response: Again, the word “victim” is not synonymous with “innocent.” Judging from how I think you view the word “victim”, do you believe that someone who loses their life because they didn’t “cooperate” with police after breaking a law voids their “right to be seen as a victim, or in other words, makes them unworthy of being mourned as an unfortunate loss?

    8. They do not have the right to be made into a victim bc they are “black”, or bc they might have been “unarmed”. What were they doing in the first place that caused an officer to feel it is necessary to draw a firearm on them.

    Response: Again, the word “victim” is not synonymous with the word “innocent.” The fact that you are assuming, nay, pretty much definitively stating that you believe that the individuals who have been labeled “unarmed black man” MUST HAVE done something to provoke the officer to kill them. You’re basically insinuating that you personally do not believe that any of these black individuals didn’t have it coming.

    9. “Unarmed black man”, paints a picture of the black man automatically being a victim….but as I said, as yourself, why was the black man being targeted by the police in the first place, was be fleeing, was he fighting back when an officer was trying to detain him, was he using a different object or intending to harm the officer with an object that was within reach…what did he do in the first place. “Unarmed”, doesn’t mean “innocent, or victim”.

    Response: In the wake of the growing protests for #BlackLivesMatter, your comments are concerning. The fact that you seem to find it impossible to believe that someone would murder someone for their skin color is sweet and romantic, but also messed up because you’ve essentially confirmed that you believe every stereotype we are trying to end. First of all, officers are not to use lethal force until absolutely necessary. Literally, one of these people that you don’t see as victims could have just murdered someone, robbed a jewelry store, or any other crime out there, and the police STILL AREN’T SUPPOSED TO JUST KILL THEM. Do people deserve to be killed stealing and then running from the cops? Should a person die for being poor? “If someone is making a choice to break the law and put themselves on the path of inevitably having to deal with the police…”. There are many laws that one can break, so you may want to clarify which ones you think are worthy of being killed for. Thus far, you’re suggesting that an individual who loses their life because they didn’t “cooperate” with police (which can literally mean anything from refusing to answer questions to making it extremely difficult for the officer to get them into the squad car) after being detained for ANY and ALL crimes, DESERVED to have their life taken from them, and they had it coming. When a woman gets raped, do you ask her what she did to make that man rape her?

    I have to ask. Did you actually read this article? It’s stating that the words “unarmed black man” is being used inappropriately, almost generically to address another painful episode in this series of unwarranted violence towards African Americans. They shouldn’t do this for many reasons. One reason is because it is reinforcing the ideation that black men are ALWAYS armed and potentially dangerous. How many times have you seen “unarmed white man” on a headline? Another reason is because Americans fight tooth and nail for gun rights. African Americans are Americans too, right? Any given black person with a gun that you come across might just have gone through the same process as other people, received their permit like other people, and can carry a firearm legally, as a FREE AMERICAN, like other people. So, even if a black person does have a gun, it doesn’t mean they’re not legally allowed to have that gun, and it doesn’t indicate a threat either so why do we feel the need to even mention it? If it’s discovered that someone WAS armed AFTER they were shot and killed, does that make it justified?

    In my opinion, NO ONE should ever die at the hands of the police unless that person is an active threat at that moment. Instead, our police culture acts on the logic that there’s a chance they could be dangerous, so they should kill before they find out. NO ONE should die for breaking a law, no one should be shot in the back and killed while running away from the police. I don’t care if someone broke the law. That doesn’t mean they deserve to die. It means they deserve to be taken to court and tried. Black Lives Matter is a movement promoting a change in Americas police culture as a whole, and to raise awareness about how some Americans lack empathy and compassion for African Americans and consider their lives to hold little to no value. You so confidently informed us that you’re not racist, but the fact that the term “unarmed black man” frustrates you because it suggests and paints a picture of the black man as innocent and you’re assuming he’s not, really contradicts that claim. I don’t think you’re black but if you are, I’m even more surprised by your comments. You truly sound like you’re saying that you don’t care that unresistant black men die at the hand of white police officers frequently, because you assume they probably asked for it and are not innocent at all. I’d like to remind you that Black Lives Matter.

  • I thought you were headed a different direction when you pointed out that NPR hasn’t said “unarmed white man”. Why does the press call out a victim’s race if they are black but not white? Why do they call out race at all? Because they’re biased. And they aren’t helping the situation. Are there racially motivated killings? Absolutely. Is there racism in society? Yes. But NPR is demonstrating their own racial bias by treating the killing of black victims different than others (white, Asian. Indian, Latino, etc.).

    It would seem we should only call out a victim’s race if its material to the story.

    • I always wonder why the media (or folks in general) feel they have to add a disclaimer to their statements. “A man was shot and killed in Podunk Nebraska today” I understand that there isn’t as much impact, but it’s inclusive and, to me, doesn’t come across as volatile as “unarmed black man”. A man was shot… who just happens to be black. I have a friend who is gay. I had to tell her to change her thinking. She isn’t “Jane” the gay girl… she’s “Jane” who is a wonderful person and hard worker… who happens to be gay. Take the disclaimer out of the conversation

  • I found this article to be enlightening for me personally and in my attempts to communicate clearly. I also find NPR to be a solid resource but I do still have to exercise due caution and critical review. Not one human being is without bias.
    I am dismayed at the use of coded language so readily used in our culture/sub-cutural groupings. I believe that writers and journalists need to examine their language in particular. What may work for a person’s own generation may communicate something completely different to those either older or younger than themself.
    Thank you for this article. I’m saving it as a clear example, especially in dealing with my topics of history, religion, and sociology.
    It is the job of those who communicate with others to do one’s best effort not to pick the easiest path, but the truest one. Euphemisms rarely serve Truth. At least that’s my best take on it, and there are many who agree with that and say it better.

  • When I hear “unarmed black man” it really frustrates me. Bc I feel like whomever is automatic at trying to portray that this black man is a victim. Im not racist, and I dont believe in innocent people being killed by police bc of their race. But I also dont believe that just bc a man is “unarmed”, that he is automatically a victim, nor that bc he is black, that it was something to do with racism. Just bc the black man didnt have a gun, doesnt mean that he wasnt a threat! An unarmed man who is strong enough, or stronger then the officer at which he is going up against, could easily go from unarmed to armed. Or just the simple fact that he is stronger then the officer, or whether he is not obeying the direction that the officer may be telling him. Lack of cooperation by someone breaking a law, or causing disorderly conduct, followed by failing to comply with officers, that puts many people at risk…not just of getting hurt, but of being killed. Innocent bystanders caught in the paths of people fleeing from the law. Whether it be in car chases, shoot outs, fleeing on foot, etc…
    If someone is making a choice to break the law and put themselves on the path of inevitably having to deal with the police, and they chose to take the path of non cooperation, that choice alone, takes away their right to be seen as a victim. They do not have the right to be made into a victim bc they are “black”, or bc they might have been “unarmed”. What were they doing in the first place that caused an officer to feel it is necessary to draw a firearm on them.

    And I’m not saying that this is true for every situation where a black man has been unarmed and killed by a white police officer. But I am saying that, more often then not, an officer was just doing their, they didnt choose for the person on the other end to be black. White people have been killed by black cops, and white cops have killed white people and black cops have killed black people. “Unarmed black man”, paints a picture of the black man automatically being a victim….but as I said, as yourself, why was the black man being targeted by the police in the first place, was be fleeing, was he fighting back when an officer was trying to detain him, was he using a different object or intending to harm the officer with an object that was within reach…what did he do in the first place. “Unarmed”, doesnt mean “innocent, or victim”. It just means that he didnt have a gun.

    • agree

  • I hear what you’re saying. I also believe that the “unarmed” qualifier is descriptive of the police who tend to shoot black men and attempt to justify it by claiming the victim was posing a deadly threat. When I read or hear “unarmed black man” in reference to a police shooting, I don’t think “as opposed to armed black men.” I think “This time there better be a murder charge.” I guess I’m hoping that by highlighting the senseless murder of a human being by a cop who felt “threatened” not because of any weapon but by the color of a man’s skin, will possibly affect actual change by keeping the focus on the murderous cop.
    Again, I do hear you and I see where the phrase could be taken the way you’ve explained it. As a white woman, I can’t step into your shoes and really know, but I’m listening and I learned something by reading what you wrote. Thank you. ♡