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To Be Clear, Jordan Neely Was Murdered. How Framing The Story Changes the Story
A man is choked to death on a New York subway. How it has been reported is revolting.
If you’re like me, you probably read a lot of news. Or maybe you try and actively avoid the news, but it still seeps through anyway.
I like following “the news” because I like to try and grasp how the world works, and I try to understand the experiences of other people on planet earth who are not me. I think the temptation to shove your head in the sand from “bad news” is an act of privilege — but that’s a story for another day.
But I read something this morning that reminded me how every story you read is framed in a certain way, even if it’s pretending not to be.
The headline is technically factual, but it’s also not.
I say that because it’s incredibly specific in what emotions it evokes — or doesn’t evoke.
It delivers information in two parts, and the first part — “Man Dies on Subway” — is a very specific way to frame this event. If you’re reading 100 headlines a day, or even just five, it’s easy to miss.
What it is telling the reader is that the death is on the man. It is something that just happened to him, like that time you were minding your own business and a pigeon took a shit on your head. It was no-one’s fault. It just happened.
We don’t know anything about the man — he’s just a man. And he is dead. How he died is almost an afterthought — “After Another Rider Places Him In A Chokehold”.
Someone placed someone else in a chokehold, as if he were placing a plate down at the dinner table. “Placed” is not an act of violence. Like a man merely dying, ‘placing’ something is neutral; passive; nonplussed.
I would argue a more honest way to write this headline would be to say “Man Murdered On Subway.”
Because he was. Jordan Neely (gosh, he has a name!) was killed.
Why was he killed? Why was he murdered? There are clues in the NYT’s piece:
Witnesses said the victim had been acting in a “hostile and erratic manner” toward other passengers on the train when he was approached by the other man, 24, who moved to restrain him, according to the police.
Jordan had been acting in a “hostile and erratic manner”. That’s why he was slayed.
Of course thanks to the internet, other details are emerging. Boston journalist Tori Bedford outlined what she’s since learnt about Jordan Neely:
Jordan Neely, 30, was a Michael Jackson impersonator who performed for years in Times Square and on the subway. A neighbor later said his dancing helped him in his struggle with mental health.
Neely was homeless at the time he was killed - just before, a witness said Neely shouted at other passengers that he had no food, that he was tired and that he didn’t care if he went to jail.
When he was 14, Neely's mother Christie was brutally murdered by her boyfriend, her body found in a suitcase near a Bronx highway. At 18, Neely testified at the trial. “The relationship had been crazy . . . a fight every,” Neely told the court.
She ended with this comment:
Language matters when we talk about the lives of our fellow human beings. Take care of one another.
While The New York Times treated the whole thing with a voice so incredibly passive it completely misrepresented what happened, other outlets were much worse.
I Googled the murdered man’s name, and these were the top hits:
I should just say now — Jordan Neely hadn’t laid a hand on anyone.
I clicked on the New York Post’s piece:
Dramatic new video shows a straphanger taking matters into his own hands, pinning down an unhinged man in a deadly incident at a Manhattan subway station this week.
There are a lot of words to call a murderer or killer, but this publication went for “straphanger” — conjuring up images of a typical, every-man commuter standing on the subway. He was just like you and me.
Meanwhile the victim — the NYT’s “man” has turned into an “unhinged man”.
The unhinged man has a name of course — Jordan Neely. He liked to dress up as Michael Jackson. Why was he pinned down? Well, for talking. Then for screaming:
“He starts to make a speech,” freelance journalist Juan Alberto Vazquez said in Spanish during an interview Tuesday, referring to the disturbed man.
“Disturbed man”. A disturbed man was giving “a speech”.
“He started screaming in an aggressive manner,” Vazquez told The Post.
“He said he had no food, he had no drink, that he was tired and doesn’t care if he goes to jail. He started screaming all these things, took off his jacket, a black jacket that he had, and threw it on the ground.”
Jordan (his name is barely used, further dehumanizing him) was screaming that he had no food or drink. Two necessities of life. I note that Jordan was also living on the street at the time. He had no shelter — another necessity of life. “That’s when he said the straphanger came up behind” and “took him to the ground in a chokehold — keeping him there for some 15 minutes.”
As for the murderer?
“The straphanger — who sources said is a Marine veteran — was taken into custody and later released without charges.”
Every story you read is framed in a certain way. My writing is too, of course. Webworm is pretty clear about that, I think. I am not some neutral AI voice tapping down these words.
When I write this newsletter to you, I often imagine I am writing an email to someone from school that I’ve known for 20 years. I am not neutral.
I used the word “murderer” — and that is also incredibly charged. There is a reason many outlets avoid using it, as it tends to be more of a legal term. You are convicted as a murderer by the courts — until then, you are an “alleged” murderer.
But I wanted to make a point, and I believe it, and I hope my rantings made sense.
This is an extreme version of what we read in the press every day. It should come as no surprise that Jordan was a black man. Whether you’re in America or New Zealand or Australia the UK — people of colour are framed in a very specific way. And often the writers or editor’s won’t even clock they’re doing it.
When I read how the unhoused are reported on, it’s little surprise they’re treated and talked about as scum by many with homes. You feel less guilty when you step over them.
I think about how Jordan Neely, this Michael Jackson impersonator, was written about in death:
Once you see this kind of writing and framing, you can never unsee it. You probably already know this. I am ranting to the converted. But it’s a reminder to keep an eye out for it, as this shit filters through society — and nothing ever changes.
You might have seen some similar examples recently. Feel free to share them in the comments.
Sigh. I hope your week is going okay.
PS: I have had people yell at me on New York subway cars. I did not murder any of them.