When 24-year-old, UCLA grad student Brianna Kupfer was murdered at a furniture store in Los Angeles, I was quite shocked at how quickly the police and news media worked together to put the suspect’s description and photo out to the public. Reporters even said in their reports that she was Black. While completely relevant, we usually do not include that information in news reports anymore because it’s been deemed politically incorrect.
For the record, I am all for including relevant and useful information — even if that information is upsetting to some. Don’t tell me there’s a murderer on the run in my neighborhood and he’s 5’6”. WTF am I supposed to do with that? Give me relevant information that I can use. If he’s Black, say he’s Black. If he’s white, say he’s white.
This brings me to a column in the Los Angeles Times about the murder of 16-year-old Tioni Theus who, just days before the murder of Brianna Kupfer, was shot and dumped along the side of the freeway in South L.A. like garbage. I remember reading the column and thinking to myself at the conclusion — in what way was publishing that Tioni was engaging in sex work and shoplifting at all relevant to helping find her murderer if that was in fact the author’s point?
“She met a man in his 20s on Instagram, who Nafeesah Kincy says pulled her into prostitution and Rashida Kincy says used her to steal merchandise from high-end retail stores.”
The information wasn’t shared in a way to imply that maybe a john killed her. There was no reason to share that information except to further shame her in death and blame her for being murdered.
Sharing that information didn’t do anything but sully Tioni’s image in a way. This for example, didn’t happen with reportings of white Brianna Kupfer who continues to be labeled as an angel who walked on Earth among us. But the murdered Black girl’s business (that is not at all relevant to finding her killer) is spread across The Times in black and white for their audience to read. An audience that is still made up of mostly white people.
Unlike with Brianna Kupfer’s murder, where the news media was Johnny-on-the-spot, they were late to report on the death of Tioni Theus, only learning about it after independent Black journalist, Slauson Girl, first reported on it.
It reminds me of how the news media reported on the murders of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean in Ed Buck’s apartment. Both Black gay men who died of crystal meth overdoses were repeatedly referred to as prostitutes and porn stars in their death by the media, while the white man who was eventually tried and convicted for his role in their deaths was labeled as a celebrated Democratic activist and donor. He still is.
Los Angeles law enforcement used to refer to the murders of Black sex workers, gang members, and drug addicts as NHI, “No Humans Involved.” This attitude is still prevalent today and not just in the police department.
Character assassination of Black men and women by law enforcement extends beyond just those killed by the police. Rarely do you ever hear of the occupations of murder victims as part of their identity in news reporting — unless, of course, they’re alleged to be a sex worker. And I am okay with that if sharing that information is supposed to help bring justice to the victim. In Tioni Theus’ case, it was very disingenuous the way The Times shared that information — even down to the way it’s written.
“The girl was 16-year-old and she was a victim. 16-year-olds aren’t prostitutes—they’re trafficked. Since when did we start identifying minors as sex workers in the news media even if their cousins said they are? When did that become okay? Somebody get Olivia Benson on the phone.” A cousin of Theus’ said in her own words.
And you know once The Times says it, then it must be true and it’s okay for everyone else to say it. Y’all are worried about who’s up in your police departments and you need to be equally concerned about who’s controlling your news media.
It’s bad enough that Tioni Theus’ family and friends had to watch over $350k be offered as a reward to capture Brianna Kupfer’s killer, a man who was caught within just 24 hours of his photo being plastered everywhere. And while only $50k of the reward money came from public funds — the amount of money donated and news coverage had to have been hurtful when Tioni’s murder happened first and was still unsolved. Now they have to contend with Tioni being labeled as a “prostitute” and thief while still trying to ask for sympathy and help from the public to find her killer.
Back in 2020, The Times’ new owner said:
“We believe that The Times can better represent Los Angeles and California by providing more and better coverage of Black, Latino, Asian and other underrepresented communities in our English- and Spanish-language publications.”
If that column is an example of better representation from The Times, I’ll stick to the Black media when I want the Black perspective and to know what’s going on with Black people. I’ll use The Times for when I want to know what Black people are writing for white people about Black people.
Jasmyne Cannick lives in Los Angeles and writes about the collisions at the intersection of race, politics, and society.