Home > Uncategorized > Ferguson to Madison: Covering the Tragic Killing of Tony Robinson

Ferguson to Madison: Covering the Tragic Killing of Tony Robinson

Experiencing discrimination literally hurts your heart.

Important new research from my friend and former colleague from my University of Nebraska-Lincoln days Bridget Goosby shows that people who report being discriminated against have higher levels of systolic and diastolic blood pressure — that is, being discriminated against is associated with inflammation and other cardiovascular problems that are less likely to occur for those who do not report experiences of facing discrimination.

In my own city of Madison, citizens, public officials, and the media that cover them are experiencing one result of a decades-long problem with racial and economic inequality in a city famous for its liberalism. On Friday night, an unarmed 19-year-old black man named Tony Robinson was killed by a white police officer named Matt Kenny of the Madison Police Department.

Madison is grieving.

Madison is angry.

Madison is engaged.

How the city and its news media deal with the grief, the anger and the engagement could have important consequences for the future of the city I love. To that end, I want to offer some suggestions to the local and national news media covering the tragic shooting of Tony Robinson.

Madison is blessed with a very strong local news media – with multiple newspapers, news-oriented websites and several television and radio stations that rigorously cover politics, communities and civic life. This morning, Madison led off national newscasts and local newscasts alike. The world is watching.

Journalists have unique access to cover aspects of a situation that others cannot. They can release police tapes of the events leading up to the shooting, talk with the police chief, and rely upon the years spent cultivating local sources to provide a variety of angles to what is happening now.

Journalists also have special access to experts studying the myriad issues at play in the death of Tony Robinson – from racial discrimination to economic inequality, from mass incarceration to higher education inequality, and from community policing to crisis management. Highlighting the voices of the community and of people who study the issues at play are things the news media should do – and keep doing.

I work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the finest institutions of higher learning and study in the world. Scholars here are experts on these issues. Most of them want to help.

It is vitally important for journalists to use their skills to get the facts exactly right about what happened Friday night and what happens to the family and friends of Tony Robinson, Officer Kenny, the Madison Police Department, and important civic activist groups like Young, Gifted, and Black.

It is just as important for them to use their skills to tell the broader story of the shooting and what the people of Madison, the civic activists and elected officials, and the public servants assigned to protect and serve Madison can do to not only prevent a tragedy like this from happening again, but to move the city closer to the kind of place it purports to be.

If I were on the assignment desk at a local or national news outlet, I’d be pushing for stories about:

  • How communities can productively talk about race? UW-experts like Kathy Cramer, Shawnika Hull, Hemant Shah, Linn Posey-Maddox, Sue Robinson and others would be valuable resources.
  • Madison’s incarceration rate and how it differs by important factors like race. UW-experts like Pam Oliver, Karma Chavez, and David Schultz would be good sources.
  • How does access to education and inequality in education affect community life? UW-experts like Sara Goldrick-Rab, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner (disclosure: we’re married), Nick Hillman, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Madeline Hafner would be great people with whom to start.
  • How can cities productively respond to crisis-moments? Donald Moynihan and Jack Mitchell could provide perspectives from the public management and public media fronts, respectively.
  • How can the media comprehensively and ethically cover major stories that help paint a comprehensive picture of the events leading up to and spilling out of last weekend’s tragic events? Folks in my own department and related fields of inquiry and teaching would be great resources.
  • How does economic inequality manifest itself in cities like ours? Folks like Christine Schwartz, John Ahlquist, and Eric Grodsky are good places to start.

It has been a terrible few days in Madison, but what led to Friday’s tragic event did not come out of nowhere. I have been generally impressed with the level of response from Madison’s community, its news media, and its police department in the wake of Friday night, but it is too easy and too common to let moments like this pass without pushing for meaningful change. A sustained media effort to ask critical questions and pose a variety of options that sit before us is vital if this time is to be any different.

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