On Today’s Edition of Words Mean Things…

Nesbitt

Nesbitt

As the parents of Michael Brown laid their son to rest in Ferguson, Missouri, this morning, the New York Times ran a profile chronicling the brief life of the murdered teen. Reaction was swift, with outlets from Gawker to the Daily Dot weighing in. Later, NYT‘s’ Margaret Sullivan added commentary of her own, complete with quotes from John Eligon, the author of the profile, and Allison Mitchell, the NYT’s national editor.

As a 31-year-old black man himself, Mr. Eligon told me, he is attentive to many of the issues in the Ferguson case. During his time covering the Midwest for the Times, he has experienced apparent racial profiling — “I’ve had the cops called on me twice for looking suspicious” — and while covering courts in Manhattan, he once was told to sit down and wait for his lawyer to arrive.”

Mr. Eligon’s piece last week describing the mood in Ferguson was one of several in which he brought that awareness to his reporting.

“I understand the concerns, and I get it,” Mr. Eligon said. He agreed that “no angel” was not a good choice of words and explained that they were meant to play off the opening anecdote of the article in which Mr. Brown saw an angelic vision. That anecdote “is about as positive as you can get,” Mr. Eligon said, and noted that a better way to segue into the rest of the article might have been to use a phrase like “wasn’t perfect.”

“Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have changed that,” he said.

In general, he said, the profile was a “full, mostly positive picture” of the young man.

For the most part, Eligon’s take isn’t wrong. He does paint a picture of an ordinary kid doing ordinary kid things, like testing parental boundaries and playing video games. That Eligon recognizes his awkward wordplay is also important. But then we get to this nugget:

There is other language in the article that some readers are objecting to—in particular, the references to Mr. Brown’s interest in rap music with its sometimes provocative lyrics. Mr. Eligon said he pressed his editors to make changes on parts of the article that dealt with rap. “Rapping is just rapping. It’s not indicative of someone’s character,” he told me.

Even after Eligon pressed his editors, the problematic lines remained. Given our country’s propensity for building hip-hop boogeymen, perhaps his superiors shouldn’t have made it seem that Brown’s love of writing “contemplative and vulgar” lyrics was the beginning of a downward spiral. Also, tying in the alleged shoplifting charge when it was unrelated to the reason Officer Wilson stopped the unarmed boy is a bit questionable.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repating: Words. Mean. Things. Eligon’s attempt to illustrate Brown’s complexities was a necessary one, but I’d be lying if I said some parts didn’t read as a lazy character assassination. In stories like these, where racial politics are at the forefront, it’s important not to rely on old, tired tropes. Failing to do so sorta erases the humanity of the subject you’re attempting to convey.

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