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Which Voices Matter: Local News Coverage of the GRPD and Community Responses

April 26, 2017

Two weeks ago we wrote about the outcome of the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting that took place shortly after the GRPD, at gun point, falsely accused 5 young African Americans of instigating a fight. 

The community once again showed up in  numbers at the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting to once again challenge city officials around the recent traffic study, the racism within the GRPD and the lack of affordable housing in the city.

Dozens of people spoke during the public comment period. Some read statements, while others shed tears because of the anger and sadness they feel based on the lack of action from the city. There were several representatives from community-based organizations that spoke, but what was most powerful were the comments from those who have been most impacted by the racist practices of the GRPD and the lack of affordable housing in Grand Rapids.

Despite the input from people throughout the community, the local news media didn’t think that these voices were worthy of being sources to cite in their coverage on Tuesday, April 25. What follows is an analysis of the stories related to the recent practices of the GRPD, its connection to racism and the coverage of the Grand Rapids City Commission meeting on April 25th.

The MLive story was headlined, Commission rejects ‘knee-jerk’ response to Grand Rapids traffic stop study. In the MLive story, the only sources cited were five of the six City Commissioners, City Manager Greg Sundstrom and Police Chief David Rahinsky. To be clear, the MLive article was written at noon on the 25th, after the meeting of the Committee of the Whole, not after the evening meeting where the public comments dominated the meeting.

A story on WZZM 13 tended to mimic the MLive article, in that the only voices heard in the story were that of Mayor Bliss and Police Chief Rahinsky. 

The WXMI 17 story was an improvement over the WZZM 13 piece, in that the provided brief comments from two African American women, comments that were challenging the city officials. Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalyn Bliss was also cited in the story, a story that was framed as Racial Tensions Discussed at Grand Rapids City Commission meeting. 

However, what was problematic about the story was when the two news anchors then brought up children and guns and got the news reporter to talk about recent examples of kids with guns in the Grand Rapids area. This switch to talking about kids and guns diminished the commentary about racism that the story began with. In many ways what the news anchor did was to minimize the issue of racism and to re-frame the story around youth access to guns, even stating that the GRPD follows certain protocol that they will not change with regards to youth and guns.

WOOD TV8 decided to run an interview with Grand Rapids Mayor Bliss, instead of focusing on the community’s reaction at the City Commission meeting. While Mayor Bliss admitted that part of the problem was structural racism, she would not say that the GRPD practices racism when asked by the reporter. In fact, her responses were quite calculated in such a way as to deflect any attention to the recent traffic study and to other GRPD practices, since she felt that every department in the city could “do a better job.” 

It is worth noting that the MLive article and the WZZM 13 story did mention a 2015 report from the City of Grand Rapids called the Safe Alliance for Everyone Anti-Violence Strategy Report & Recommendations. That report offers little in terms of Police and Community relations, as well as any real acknowledgement that the GRPD is an institution that practices systemic racism and White Supremacy.

This is true of the local news coverage within the last 24 hours, where all of the stories are framed in such a way as to make one think that all parties involved are equally responsible for the “racial tensions.” These stories completely avoid what many people from the communities most impacted by these policies and practices of the GRPD, communities of color, have experienced as racism and White Supremacy.

This type of coverage will not likely change, since the commercial media sees police departments as public servants and not as part of a system of oppression.

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