"Not another Freddie Gray": The National's coverage of the Baltimore riots and what a mother meant when she angrily drove her son away from the action

The complainant, Walter McKane, thought a headline on The National was unduly inflammatory and distorted the meaning of a Baltimore mother’s interview by taking the phrase “I don’t want him to be another Freddie Gray” out of context.

COMPLAINT

In late April and early May, The National presented multiple reports from Baltimore, Maryland. The coverage of protests and demonstrations followed the death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, who was severely injured while in police custody. This event and the lack of clear answers about what had happened ignited a long-smoldering situation in the city of Baltimore. (The six police officers involved have since been indicted on various charges, including one charge of second degree murder.)

You thought one of these stories was reported irresponsibly and resulted in CBC “stoking the flames” of unrest. The story, presented by reporter Paul Hunter, followed by a Q and A with Peter Mansbridge, was a wrap-up of that’s day’s events, and a look ahead to the possibility of another night of rioting. There was a compelling piece of video of a woman chasing, hitting and berating her son when she found him participating in the riots. The headline over the video stated: “A Baltimore mother stops her son from rioting so he won’t die in custody. Paul Hunter has the latest from a torn city.”

You objected to this characterization, both in the headline and in the body of Mr. Hunter’s piece. You said that the woman’s clip had been taken out of context. She did not drag him away because of her fears of him becoming another Freddie Gray, but rather because she did not want her son to participate in illegal activity:

Today, Tuesday April 28th, at the opening of the National and later on in the program the CBC shows a short clip of the Baltimore mom who dragged her kid away from the riot.

The CBC shows a short clip from the CBS interview. In this clip, the mom says that “I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray”. That is all the CBC aired.

Both Peter Mansbridge and Paul Hunter tell the audience that she was conveying the message that she did not want her son to be killed in police custody.

BUT, she did not say that, or even allude to that, in the interview that the CBC edited. Her point was that she did not want her son participating in a riot.

You provided a link to the CBS news report which you said made it clear that was her meaning. You also said that after doing a quick Google search, CBC seemed to be “the only major news network in North America that interpreted her words to mean that she was afraid for her son’s life at the hands of the Baltimore police.”

After you received management’s reply that her concerns for his criminal behaviour and for his safety are not mutually exclusive, you asked for a review. You agreed that they were not mutually exclusive, but that was not the point. You called the explanation a “flimsy defence”:

Well, of course they are not mutually exclusive.

BUT to make the leap that she did not want her son to be a criminal, as she actually said, to ‘dying in police custody’ which she did not say or even imply, as your headline erroneously noted, and both Paul Hunter and Peter Mansbridge reported, is disingenuous at best . . .

Two reporters, the producer, the video editors, and not one saying ‘hey, wait a minute, that is not the message she is conveying’, is deep rot.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The executive producer of The National, Mark Harrison, responded to your concerns. He explained that the mother expressed both concerns, and they were not mutually exclusive. He added that in the longer CBS interview aired that evening, the mother, Toya Graham, “condemned the vandalism and rioting and made it clear that she didn’t want her son taking part, ‘I was shocked, I was angry, because you never want to see your child out there doing that.’” But he pointed out that even in the CBS coverage you had linked to, the fear of her son ending up like Freddie Gray was mentioned. He quoted from the script of that news item:

The Baltimore mother caught on video repeatedly smacking her son after catching him participating in rioting in Baltimore told CBS News that she was only concerned about protecting him.

“He gave me eye contact. And at that point, you know, not even thinking about cameras or anything like that. That’s my only son and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray,” Toya Graham said, referencing the 25-year-old man who died after mysteriously sustaining severe spinal injuries in police custody earlier in the month. [Mark Harrison’s emphasis.]

He also told you that in the course of the conversation between Mr. Hunter and Mr. Mansbridge, Hunter did provide the full context – that he had shown the image of a mom who was yelling at and striking her son because he was taking part in the riots.

He acknowledged that you believe this to be inflammatory but he said he felt that CBC News had reported responsibly and fairly.

REVIEW

The essence of the concern here is that you think Ms. Graham was concerned with her son participating in a riot, and was not concerned that her son would be harmed if he ended up in police custody. You think the phrase was taken out of context and incorrectly linked. In your estimation the headline is inaccurate.

Accuracy of course is the basis of all journalism. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices includes accuracy as one of the fundamental values that anchor all of JSP:

Accuracy

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

You cited the CBS story, which was the originator of the footage of this woman, as proving your point. The headline on that story on the CBS webpage is: “Baltimore Mom who smacked son during riots: I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.” The woman recounts how she was standing behind police lines, as rocks and bricks were pelted at them. Then she spotted her son with a brick in his hand. In an interview a day later, she said she “lost it” at that moment.

We can’t read her mind, but you can only imagine the adrenalin pumping and that her dominant emotions would have been anger and fear. Your question seems to centre around what she was most fearful about. In the news story the CBS reporter sets up the Freddie Gray clip this way:

The Baltimore mother caught on video repeatedly smacking her son after catching him participating in rioting in Baltimore told CBS News that she was only concerned about protecting him.

Toya Graham then says on camera:

He gave me eye contact. And at that point, you know, not even thinking about cameras or anything like that. That’s my only son and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray . . .

While you reject the link to fear of safety for her son at the hands of police because she never actually said it, it is hard to imagine what else a reference to Freddie Gray might mean. The death of Freddie Gray became a symbol and focus of anger about years of mistreatment black men had experienced in the custody of Baltimore police. It was a kind of shorthand made explicit by the CBS reporter, and used in the CBC headline. In the context of the Baltimore story, a black mother saying she doesn’t want her son to be another Freddie Gray clearly means she thinks there is a chance, if he is arrested, he could be harmed by police. She didn’t want him participating in the violence because it was wrong, and she had explicitly told him to stay away, and because she understood the risks of falling into police hands.

It is true that the images were of a woman berating and angry at her son for disobeying and breaking the law. And coverage the next day was filled with “supermom” type headlines. That doesn’t negate the accuracy of the story the night before on The National. And as Mr. Harrison pointed out, in the body of the piece Mr. Hunter does reference that this mother was angry at her son for joining the protest.

The National focused on the Freddie Gray comment in its headline. Headlines are, by their nature, short and without much context. They can only convey a limited amount of information. This one was not inaccurate, and so did not violate CBC Journalistic policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman