The Thin Blue Line in Black and White: Symbolic Constructions of Police Use of Deadly Force in Canadian Newspapers

Sutton, Danielle
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University of Guelph

In Canada, and internationally, the issue of police use of deadly force has been problematized and pushed to the forefront of public and political consciousness. The news media has played a vital role in the process of many citizens’ acquisition of information about crime in general, and police use of deadly force specifically. Research examining media constructions of police use of deadly force has been conducted exclusively in the United States, resulting in a gap in knowledge surrounding media constructions of police use of deadly force in Canada. The current research seeks to fill that gap by conducting a mixed-methods content analysis of 1,364 news articles reporting on police use of deadly force in Canada over a six-year period (2008-2010 and 2015-2017). The analysis was informed by the theoretical writings of Thompson (1990) and Bourdieu (1991) and adheres, both ontologically and epistemologically, to a contextual constructionist framework (Best [1995] 2009; Rafter 1992). Results reveal how most news articles are constructed as primarily supportive of the police use of deadly force, including claims that may work to legitimate the force used. Such claims often highlight the threat the victim posed and the rationality of the deadly response. Journalists often sought to provide a balanced perspective, although just over half of all articles included claims that may work to question the legitimacy of the force used. These trends differ by case and victim characteristics. Articles reporting on victims who were White, Indigenous, or exhibited signs of mental illness included more supportive claims and were arguably legitimated more often than articles reporting on other racialized victims and those who did not exhibit signs of mental illness. The results provide evidence of a new discourse emerging - one that that challenges the doxa surrounding the police killings of select racialized victims but not others. Findings highlight the necessity of future research to examine whether the current global movement that is decrying police use of deadly force can successfully shift the doxa so that institutional changes will follow.

deadly force, racialized victims, mental illness, media, discourse, police