Faculty Spotlight

Traumatized in Life, Objectified in Death: Professor Lydia Ogden Discusses Media Coverage of the Police Homicide of Eric Garner

When members of the New York Police Department killed Eric Garner on a sidewalk in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, Simmons University Social Work Professor Lydia Ogden noticed something about the media coverage of his murder: “The media reports were talking a lot about his physical health conditions,” Ogden said. “You heard about his obesity or his asthma as if those were the reasons for his death, rather than being stopped by the police to begin with.”

Ogden’s curiosity would lead to further research and co-authorship, with Anjali Fulambarker, PhD, of Governors State University, and Christina Haggerty '18MSW, of Simmons University, of “Race and Disability in Media Coverage of the Police Homicide of Eric Garner,” which won the 2019 Disability Manuscript Award from the Council on Social Work Education.

In the months after Garner’s homicide, Ogden, whose research is centered around disability (although usually psychiatric disability), began to look closer at Garner’s story and the way the story was characterized by the news media. As she uncovered more about Garner’s own life, she realized that “his different physical health conditions... amounted to a disability. He had worked for the parks department and had to stop because of asthma, but it seemed they were using his disability to discredit the racism underlying why he had been stopped and killed.”

Teaming up with Fulambarker, a criminal justice scholar, and Haggerty, a master of social work candidate at Simmons, Ogden conducted a media analysis, which allowed them to look at common themes and emphases in the news coverage of Garner’s death at the hands of the police. The analysis began with a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which broadly classified the media sources’ audience trust by whether they lean to the political left, right, or center. Then, Ogden and her coauthors surveyed media reports from a representative sampling from across the political spectrum, as classified by the Pew report.

What they found were more than 130 archival news sources that Ogden said included “implicit and explicit forms of ableism and racism in the way they talked about Garner and his death that took away his victimhood by talking about his health conditions...Garner himself was really objectified: they talked about his size, being a 350 pound asthmatic, talked about his children by their number rather than describing him as an involved father, which if you dig a little deeper, he actually was. Most of the coverage used completely objectifying language.”

This kind of media analysis is not necessarily common to disability scholarship in social work, or even as a tool that can help social workers in clinical settings, but Ogden believes that it can be just that.

“It’s about critical media literacy,” she said. “When we passively take in the news, we may not be hearing what’s really going on, but if we start looking through the lens of critical theory...then you start to see a fuller picture and can begin identifying the systems that lead to racism and ableism and other forms of institutional bias and oppression. We propose that this is a skill social workers should have — at Simmons we train them to be clinicians but also clinician activists. If this is what your clients are experiencing when they take-in the news, it’s important to consider how that’s going to affect their mental health...It impacts not just society, it also impacts individuals.”

Ogden is quick to note, however, that this isn’t an exercise in media criticism or calling out so-called fake news, but rather a way for practitioners to see the racism and ableism, and other forms of oppression, that are largely normalized in our media and civic discourse, and to consider more deeply how that normalization affects those without privilege.

“If you think about even the sources you trust, there are flaws in all of those sources,” Ogden said. “It’s about being cognizant of how people who are like you and who are different from you are being portrayed, and what that can mean to your social work clients… As educators, we also need to think about what this means to ourselves and our students, how this affects our teaching and their learning. What messages have we passively accepted about ourselves and others? We may not be totally cognizant of how these things are affecting us…[because] biases like these are insidious and commonplace.”

In recent years there has been no shortage of opportunities for clinicians and scholars to carry out the kind of media analysis that Ogden and her coauthors modeled. In the months after Garner’s murder, police killed Michelle Cuseaux in Phoenix, AZ, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, Tanisha Anderson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH, and Laquan McDonald in Chicago — and many more.

The frequency and seeming normalcy that these killings have assumed in the course of American life is, among other things, a testament to the urgency of the problem of police violence against people of color, and particularly those who are made more vulnerable by intersectional oppressions such as ableism and sexism. Now more than ever, there is a need for effective and humane tools with which clinical social workers can expand their self-awareness and approach their clients who experience trauma, racism, and ableism every day.

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