Distorted journalistic reports can inaugurate both false hopes and unwarranted fears. For instance, the results may create a national media feeding frenzy.
For a few journalists, the media constraints of time, brevity, and simplicity preclude the careful documentation, nuanced positions, and precautionary qualifications essential to putting together a newsworthy article. Writers like New York Daily News Senior Justice writer, Shaun King, might benefit personally from reporting controversy, but his incautious reporting on a story may have caused severe damage to an already criticized movement this past week.
In one of his New York Daily News stories this past week, King went after the local press in an article titled, “Beautiful 22-year-old mother Symone Marshall dies in Texas police custody after weeks of neglect.” In the article, King compared Symone’s death to that of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old Black woman who was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, after being in custody for three days in July 2015. King’s story went viral and not only led to an immediate public outcry, but it also sent local and national media outlets into an all-out frenzy.
In his article, King wrote, “A beautiful 22-year-old mother of a 3-year-old-daughter died in police custody on Tuesday, May 10, and nobody’s talking. Not the police. Not the jail. Not the medical examiner. Not the local press. Nobody.”
What was presented by King as a situation where the local press in Texas purposely turned a blind eye to a story, turned out to be the exact opposite. The reason? Local media refused to talk about the story, because there was no story. Symone’s death was not like Bland’s death at all.
On April 26th, Symone and a friend were traveling along interstate 45 when the two were involved in a single-vehicle crash. Emergency responders showed up to the scene to evaluate the situation, when both women refused medical treatment.
The Sheriff’s Office stated that both women agreed and signed waivers to not be treated by the EMS officials that responded to the crash scene. Both women were arrested on a cocaine possession charge, and Symone was also arrested for giving the police a false name.
Symone’s passenger made bond, however Symone stayed behind bars for two weeks because she was unable to come up with the $5,000 bond. Symone is said to have told her sister, Honey Marshall, while in jail, that “she wasn’t feeling well; her head was hurting; and she felt like blacking out.” Her sister said she called the jail demanding that Symone be taken to a hospital.
On May 10, just weeks after being arrested, Symone suffered a seizure, and according to prison officials, was rushed to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Walker County Sheriff Clint McRae said the jail followed all of the proper procedures. He also stated the jail has a full time physician and that Symone was never denied medical treatment.
“Everything has been followed through and through, and has been looked at,” said McRae.
When King’s article dropped, the NAACP in Houston and other local groups immediately began to organize the online campaign #Justice4Symone as word spread around Texas like a wild fire.
The NAACP quickly jumped into action and wrote on their Instagram page: “Through #Justice4Symone we are demanding justice for the life and family of Symone Marshall through an online campaign. Ms. Marshall, died in police custody and we NEED answers. Please help to put pressure on the Walker County Jail and the Huntsville Police Department regarding the release of the information regarding Marshall’s untimely death!”
Student activists explained the urgency of the situation as being “fired up and ready to go” when they first heard about King’s story in the New York Daily News and on social media.
Especially in the article where King wrote, “Barring police coming out and saying, ‘You know what? We’re going to shoot straight with you here. We killed your loved one. We’re killers. It’s what we do,’ it’s almost impossible to understand exactly what happened here.”
But to the contrary, it was extremely possible and realistic to figure out what exactly happened here. Symone was not murdered, and with a little investigation that would have been proven.
Sheriff McRae says it was captured all on jail surveillance video.
“(She) takes a drink of water, lays back and starts having more of a convulsive incident,” said McRae. “Our department has handled this case by the book. We’re not going to end up like the Sandra Bland case.”
This past week, Leaders of the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam in Houston met with the Walker County Sheriff Department and found no wrongdoing after their visit.
“I don’t believe she was physically abused, I don’t believe she was mistreated, but I do believe she did receive adequate thorough care here and that she died at the hospital–not here,” said community activist Quanell X. “I’m really hurt and upset that they would get everybody riled up considering what we just went through with Sandra Bland.”
Local student activist Anthony Collier also expressed his frustration with the false alarm.
“Today I had a meeting with Sheriff McRae and Captain Fisher in the Walker County jail,” said Collier. “Based off of the evidence presented to me, I do not believe Walker County did anything wrong. Journalists should be careful not to jump the gun. You compromise the integrity of the movement by crying wolf. Symone Marshall is not Sandra Bland.”
King wrote in his article, “Young Black girls and women like Gynnya McMillen, Sandra Bland, and Natasha McKenna are going to local jails alive and leaving on stretchers and in body bags — never to be seen again.”
This statement may be true but many community activists don’t believe Symone’s case falls in the same category.
King also wrote, “With all of the focus on police brutality on America’s streets, another place full of injustice exists beyond the reach of cellphone cameras or accessible eyewitnesses — America’s jails and prisons.”
King is right (even though this jail contained surveillance cameras). This is a sad truth all across the country, as community leaders and activists work tirelessly to find pragmatic solutions to address these issues inside of our jails and prisons. However, King’s sensational style of reporting runs the risk of not only damaging his credibility, but damaging the credibility of the entire movement as well.
“The New York Daily News hurt and upset people by comparing this case to Sandra Bland, and they never picked up the phone to get another side. Be responsible with your reporting,” said Quanell X.
Crying wolf hurts everyone who is on the ground working daily in Texas and around the country. This is especially frustrating for a community that was at the heart of dealing with the Sandra Bland situation. The exact cause of the young woman’s death is pending toxicology reports.
The Texas State Police will do an independent review of the case.
The Forward Times will continue to follow any new developments.