Father. Son. Unarmed. Employee. The press could have chosen to use any of those descriptors in detailing how police shot a 25-year-old Georgia man outside his job at Goodyear Tire. Instead, countless headlines included the fact that a young black man was in a Maserati at the time of his death.
Here’s what we know: Cobb County and Smyrna police went to Goodyear around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to serve Nicolas Thomas with a warrant for a probation violation.
According to police, Thomas tried to flee the scene by hopping in a car when police opened fire, killing the 25-year-old, who had become a father less than five months ago.
There have been no reports determining whether the car, in fact, belonged to Thomas. But here is how several news outlets headlined the story, accompanied by a photo of Thomas underneath:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Smyrna Police Shoot, Kill Man in Maserati"
Journalistic racial microaggressions—that’s what I call them. Those instances when journalism and bias meet to create a headline that includes the kind of car a young black man was driving at the time of his death.
It’s victim-blaming and it’s disrespectful to the young man’s family, who have to deal with not only the actual death of their son but also a second death after headlines go that extra yard to assign a stereotype.
The car he was in didn’t explain the shooting or why the cops felt “threatened.” It didn’t add anything to the story, unless, of course, you’re reaching for the tired stereotypes of young black men in expensive cars.
Is this detail factual? Yes. But journalists and editors choose which facts are included and which are omitted when telling a story. And including the type of car Thomas was driving in the body of the story wouldn’t have been all that brash—but plastering across a headine the type of car a man was driving at the time of his shooting death by police serves no purpose other than to suggest something about his character.
Headlines are used to grab the reader’s attention, and the reason it was included was to make sure that you, the reader, worked over all of the worn-out tropes that come to mind when you read about a young black Atlanta man shot in a pricey ride.
Make no mistake about it: They want you to read into the fact that a 25-year-old was shot inside a $100,000 car and connect enough illicit tales of young black men and nefarious behavior until you eventually get to something that doesn’t look like the right side of the law. In your doing so, the shooting becomes less tragic and therefore more justifiable, because having an expensive car means he had to be doing something wrong, right?
Otherwise, why include it?
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.