News Framing of Freddy Gray’s Death

On April 12, 2015, 25-year-old African-American man Freddie Gray, was detained by police, allegedly for resisting arrest and possession of an illegal weapon.  During custody, he was transported in a police van, in which he sustained injuries that would prove fatal.  After Gray’s death a week later, the police officers involved in his arrest were charged with homicide, and protests broke out in the city of Baltimore and throughout the nation.  In the wake of the controversy, the story of Freddie Gray’s death garnered a significant amount of attention, specifically from major news networks like Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

On CNN’s website, there are 335 combined results for videos and written stories relating to Freddie Gray.  The stories posted on CNN’s website conspicuously do not mention race or civil rights a majority of the time.  Most of the articles are about the legality of the case, who is responsible, and whether or not the knife Gray was carrying at the time of his arrest was legal or illegal. CNN is more concerned with who is right and who is wrong, rather than using the case as an opportunity to address the larger issue of black-white race relation, law enforcement policy, and the judicial system in America.  One of the only stories that mentions possibility of police corruption is a statement from Freddie Gray’s lawyer. The only other mention of race, was in discussing the death of Michael Brown a black man shot and killed by a white officer in Missouri. However, they don’t make a comparison or discuss a possible correlation between the two cases.  Even when broaching the larger issue of police brutality in America, CNN frames the story strictly within the legal sphere.  CNN focuses on the minutia, the details about Gray’s injury and the events of the day he was arrested.

Fox News reported over 400 articles on the death of Freddie Gray. Contrary to CNN, Fox news focused slightly more on the issue of race, calling Freddie Gray a “symbol of police brutality against blacks,” and showing clips of the mayor of Baltimore and mentioning how she is comfortable addressing “urban issues.” They also shared a perspective mainly from the police commissioner, the mayor of Baltimore, as well as multiple different white male and female reporters. Unlike CNN, Fox shares less from the perspective of the police officers, and includes an interview by a former driver of a police van who describes Freddie Grays injury as one that could have occurred in a “Rough Ride,” meaning a when the driver of a van purposefully stops and starts very abruptly, and makes sharp turns in order to injure the passenger. Someone who watches Fox News would immediately see the issues with the police officers actions, and can see that this is a civil rights issue.

There are 441 stories and media clips on MSNBC related to Freddie Gray. Most of them are focused on telling stories of the people surrounding this event. We read about and hear from the family members of Gray and the perspectives of each the six police officers that were charged in connection with his death. Like CNN, not much emphasis was placed on the issue of Gray’s death being a product of racial bias, although at the end of long overview articles, the authors would briefly mention–for a few sentences–the tension between Baltimore police and their local African-American citizens. In general, the MSNBC focuses on framing the story as a spine injury leading to his death. The articles repeatedly describe the scene in the police car that led up to the spinal injury, giving us something to pay attention to and think about. MSNBC is less about the imagery but more about the commentary from people. The most effective image is probably a picture of the six police that got charged because it finally revealed that some of the officers were black, which can radically shift a person’s view on this subject. MSNBC makes it clear that this is more than just about racial tension, but about how brutal the police force has become and its impact on victim’s families.

Depending on where one first encountered this story, one might view it as a strictly legal debate.  Watching CNN or MSNBC, the core issue is who is at fault for the individual death of Freddie Gray.  Barely at all does CNN take the time to juxtapose the story against countless other similar events that have happened recently.  By contrast, perhaps surprisingly, Fox News addresses the story of Freddie Gray as a singular part of the larger issue of police brutality in America.  Certainly, each news network chose to frame the story in a specific way to benefit their desired message.

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