Media Coverage of the Timothy Thomas Shooting, the Cincinnati Riots, and Implications for Law Enforcement

Paul D. Skalski, Michigan State University
J. Pete Blair, Michigan State University
Kenneth A. Lachlan, Michigan State University

On April 7, 2001, Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach shot and killed area resident Timothy Thomas, an apparently unarmed man wanted on misdemeanor charges. Mr. Thomas was the thirteenth African-American killed by the Cincinnati Police Department in a year. The Thomas shooting ignited a powder keg of violence and mayhem in the city, as angry citizens burst onto the streets in protest. When the smoke cleared a week later, Cincinnati residents were left to dig out from some of the worst rioting in the city's history. The present study is a case analysis of the media coverage of the events leading up to the Cincinnati riots. It examines media coverage of the Timothy Thomas shooting and shows how police hesitancy in publicly responding to the incident could have contributed to the eventual riots. The paper concludes by offering some simple public relations strategies police can use to reduce the likelihood of similar events happening in the future. Background and Theory News media coverage of high-profile events such as police shootings is guided in part by economic considerations. The economic theory of news making posits that the probability of an event becoming news is negatively related to the expense involved in discovering its existence and positively related to anticipated interest among audiences that advertisers are seeking to reach (McManus, 1988). To increase the profitability of their commodity (i.e., news), journalists and editors often employ specific strategies to maximize audience interest. One such strategy is sensationalism-the more sensational the event seems, the greater the likelihood of its coverage (Jeffres, 1994). Police shootings have an inherent element of sensationalism, and they can be made even more sensationalistic by how they are framed and presented. A social frame, for example, places an isolated incident (e.g., a police shooting) into a larger societal context (e.g., all recent police shootings). Style of presentation can also increase a media message's impact on audiences. For example, (a) intensity of language (Walker & Meyer, 1980) and (b) sequencing of content (Yarborough & Gagne, 1987) have been found to relate positively to (a) perceived importance of information and (b) recall of communicated information. Taken together, the research findings on news suggest that it can have powerful effects on audiences, especially when newsmakers present information in particular ways. Priming theory (Jo & Berkowitz, 1994) offers one explanation for how news coverage could lead to rioting. According to priming theory, exposure to an event via the mass media activates ideas with a similar meaning for a short time afterward. These thoughts, in turn, can activate other semantically related ideas and action tendencies. For example, a person who reads a news story about an unjustified police shooting may recall their own negative experiences with the police, which can then "activate" a desire to lash out against the police. Several intervening variables may positively facilitate this relationship, including identification (e.g., with a same-race victim of police violence) and the reality of the depiction (i.e., news events lead to greater priming than fictional events). Rationale and Hypotheses The above summary of theory and research findings offers several plausible reasons for why the media coverage of the Timothy Thomas shooting could have contributed to the ensuing violence. First, police response to the incident may have been too slow, forcing the media to take the "less expensive" route to coverage, which in this case would have been relying mainly on information from community leaders, victim's family members, and others with interests counter to those of the police. This "slanted coverage" could have made a bad situation seem much worse. The first question addressed in this research will therefore be: How does the coverage of police response differ from the coverage of responses of others during the days leading up to the rioting? Second, the shooting had lots of potentially sensational elements, which may have been compounded by the police failure to address them. The shooting took place in the context of several other shootings by police in the city, for example, and seemed unjustified in light of the victim being unarmed (Vela, 2001). This combination of factors gave news makers plenty of material to frame the story as "sensational." The sensational aspects of the story could have "primed" residents to erupt into violence, especially those residents who saw themselves as similar to the victim. The second question, then, is: What inflammatory and/or sensationalistic techniques were employed in presenting this story? Methods and Preliminary Results To examine how the Cincinnati media covered the Thomas shooting, a content analysis of several area news sources (including The Cincinnati Post and The Cincinnati Enquirer) will be performed. Content analysis refers to the "systematic, objective, quantitative analysis of message characteristics" (Neuendorf 2002, p. 1). This content analysis will be supplemented with quotes and other qualitative information to provide a richer understanding of what occured. The primary time frame for the investigation will be the three days from the shooting to the start of the riots. Coverage of previous police shootings will also be explored. The content analysis phase of this research is currently in progress. Instead of reviewing all that has been done so far, selected preliminary findings from one source, The Cincinnati Enquirer, will now be presented. To get a sense of the sheer amount of coverage the Thomas shooting and riots have received, several searches were performed in March of 2002 using the Enquirer's online database. A search for the phrase "Thomas shooting" yielded 913 results. A search for "April riots" results in an even more impressive 1106 returns. Apparently, the shooting and riots have garnered a lot of attention in the area since their occurrence last April. During the three day period from the shooting to the full-blown outbreak of rioting, The Cincinnati Enquirer included six stories on the incidents-one the day after in occurred, two the next day, and three the day after that. By day four, there were 15 related stories. Looking at the three days before the extended riot coverage, a qualitative analysis reveals how the shooting story progressed. On day one, the Enquirer immediately framed the larger implications of the occurrence. The headline read, "Officer shoots, kills suspect: Man was unarmed, wanted on misdemeanor charges." The story is then framed in light of past instances of police violence against residents of the area. Interestingly, residents and citizens groups responded to the situation immediately-they expressed outrage about what happened in the story. The police, on the other hand, only provided basic factual information about what happened (Vela, 2001), and it took three days for a police press conference to appear in the paper. By then, it may was probably too late. Angry citizens had already begun to take to the streets. And at the press conference, the police only announced that much of the investigation was being kept confidential. This type of response seems pallid in contrast to the response from area parents and citizens. On day two of the coverage, a story with the headline "Mom Asks: Why?" appeared-in the story, Timothy Thomas' mom and other residents demanded that the police address their relationship with the African-American community. Unfortunately, the response from CPD came too late to stop the rioting. The full version of this paper will look at coverage in The Cincinnati Enquirer and other area media sources in more depth, mainly through quantitative content analysis. Conclusions The results of this paper may suggest a direct linkage to media coverage and public unrest. Since we live in a country that ensures the freedom of the press to cover events as they see fit, it is incumbent upon those who protect the public to understand how media coverage can incite unrest and how public officials can best respond to critical incidents in an effort to maintain public order. The conclusion of this paper will discuss some basic public relations strategies that can be implemented by the police in an effort to keep public anger from boiling over as it did in Cincinnati. These strategies could be implemented by law enforcement agencies in the future to assuage the public before rioting occurs.

References Jeffres, L. W. (1994). Mass media processes. Waveland Press: Prospect Heights, IL. Jo, E. & Berkowitz, L. (1994). A priming effect analysis of media influences: An update. In J.

Bryant and D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research.

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ.

McManus, J. (1988). An economic theory of news selection. Paper presented to the Mass Communication and Society Division at the Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Portland, OR. Neuendorf, K. A. (2002). The content analysis guidebook. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA. Vela, S. (2001). Officer shoots, kills suspect. The Cincinnati Enquirer [Online]. Available at: Walker, C. H. & Yekovich, F. R. (1980). Integrating different types of information in texts. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 357-370. Yarborough, D. B. & Gagne, E. D. (1987). Metaphor and the free recall of technical text. Discourse Processes, 10(1), 81-91.

(Return to Program Resources)

Updated 05/20/2006