Online protestors: Race dictates how media, investigators handle Charleston shooting

Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old from Lexington County, South Carolina, has been named the suspect sought in the shooting death of nine people killed at a Charleston church on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (Photos: Lexington County Detention Center/Facebook)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (MEDIA GENERAL) – While law enforcement officials continue to search for the suspect involved in a shooting that left nine people dead in a Charleston, South Carolina church late Wednesday, June 17, 2015, Americans have turned to social media to express their feelings on the tragedy.

Many have voiced support for the Charleston community, offering prayers and thoughts, while some are calling into question how the shooting has been handled by law enforcement officials and the media.

Several activists have called out the media and police officials for using specific terminology to describe the altercation, tying terms to race.

The suspect, Dylann Roof, 21, of Lexington County, South Carolina, a white male, allegedly killed nine African-Americans in a historically black church. The act is being investigated as a hate crime, according to Charleston Police Chief Gregg Mullen.

Many online protestors suggest other terminology would be used and the case would be handled differently if the suspect were a minority or Muslim, or if the victims were white.

Roof was identified as a suspect Thursday morning. Details have emerged that have led authorities to label the shooting a hate crime, and the incident could be labeled an act of domestic terrorism if the proper motive is established.

According to FBI codes, characteristics of domestic terrorism include “acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law. … (The act) appears intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member for broadcasting and online journalism for The Poynter Institute, said it is important for journalists to present facts before assigning labels to a person or incident.

“We (the media) try to use descriptors sometimes without understanding what they mean or what they have to do with the incident,” Tompkins said early Thursday morning before Roof was identified as the suspect. “At the moment, the larger issue is who is this person and where are they, because clearly this is a dangerous individual, police have said. And trying to understand what he did or whether he even understands what he did, (the media) will just have to answer those questions later.”

Tompkins continued: “To try to assign a motivation at this point seems to be premature and not at all useful. Partly because we don’t know anything about him: Is he mentally ill? Is he involved in some terrorist group? Is he a white supremacist? … We have no idea. So there’s no way at this moment to understand his motivation and so we (the media) oughta just not guess.”

Tompkins also said it is important for the media to press law enforcement officials for details when they, perhaps inadvertently, use misleading descriptors.

“If a cop calls (the suspect) a loner, ask how they know,” Tompkins said. “If they call (the suspect) a terrorist, ask what they know about the cause for which they wanted people to fear.”

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