#SayHerName: The Invisibilization of Black Women in the Media Coverage of BLM

Kathryn Hahn-Madole is a Freelance Data Analyst with undergraduate degrees in Latin American Studies and Business Management from Tulane University and a post-graduate certification in Gender, Migration, and Human Rights from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. She is entering a MSc program in Social and Economic Data Science at the University of Konstanz in the fall and is interested in gender, data science, and migration.

As the protests for Black lives have gained national attention, Black female organizers, activists and academic experts have propelled movement towards substantive change. Black women, like Breonna Taylor, have also been victims of the police brutality that has called the public to action. However, the media coverage of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests invisibilizes Black women by either ignoring them or characterizing them in gendered and passive ways, with few exceptions.

Many of the principle activists responsible for organizing the protests and developing the foundation of the movement are Black women. The co-founders of the BLM movement, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, are all Black women, and Black women founded several of the regional chapters.[1] Dr. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” and has long fought against police brutality against Black women, co-founded the #SayHerName campaign which in part aimed at visibilizing the murder of Taylor.[2] The movement to end police brutality and visibilize violence against Black women has long depended on the labor of Black women themselves, like Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist in the 1960s and herself a victim of police violence.[3]

Black women are systematically victims of police brutality.[4] Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Rekia Boyd, Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Kimberlé Randle-King, Joyce Curnell, Ralkina Jones, Kayla Moore, Gynnya McMillen, and Korryn Gaines are Black women killed by the police in just the past ten years.[5] Police brutality against Black women is a manifestation of both sexism and racism, meaning that these interactions often involve sexual humiliation and assault, creating a uniquely brutal form of violence.[6]

“Police brutality against Black women is a manifestation of both sexism and racism, meaning that these interactions often involve sexual humiliation and assault, creating a uniquely brutal form of violence.”

Despite the key role of Black women in the BLM movement, they are ignored in media coverage of the movement. I used natural language processing tools to uncover the patterns in the invisibilization of Black women in the media coverage of the BLM protests. To sample this media coverage, I developed three datasets, each of approximately 200 articles from 36 newspapers gathered by searching for “protests”, “Breonna Taylor,” or “George Floyd.” All articles were published in  June 2020. Based on AllSides’ Media Bias Ratings, I sorted the articles into five political categories: far left, left, center, right, and far right.[7] For each political leaning, I aimed to gather 40 articles for the given search word, and only gathered fewer if insufficient articles were available. The complete code I created for this analysis is available on GitHub.[8] Below is a summary of each of the datasets.

In the articles gathered by searching the word “protests,” words that indicate female gender are significantly less common than those that indicate male gender across the political spectrum. Men are mentioned almost three times more than women on average and the center to far right side of the political spectrum are worse offenders than the left to far left.

Even in the articles gathered by searching for “Breonna Taylor,” male-gendered words were more common than female-gendered in every political category except for the left.

Some coverage of Taylor’s murder and the corresponding protests does try to combat this invisibilization of Black women. For example, the #SayHerName initiative, co-founded by Dr. Crenshaw, was mentioned, albeit infrequently,  by newspapers of every political ideology in the articles gathered by searching “Breonna Taylor.” The headlines of the articles gathered from searching “Breonna Taylor,” provide further evidence of this visibilization effort. Between the far left and center of the political spectrum, headlines like, “Breonna Taylor, and why Black women are tired of being left out of our own fight,” “Breonna Taylor and George Floyd both deserve justice. But Justice for Black women is elusive,” and “From Recy Taylor to Breonna Taylor: Plight of Black Women often forgotten when it comes to justice,” demonstrate a conscious effort to visibilize and combat the injustice that Black women face at the hands of the police.[9] 

However, the coverage of the protests largely falls into the expected invisibilizing traps. To begin with, many of the news outlets produced fewer articles from searching the words “Breonna Taylor” than from searching for “George Floyd” or “protests.” While I gathered my goal of 200 articles for the search term “protests,” and 198 for the search term “George Floyd,” searches of “Breonna Taylor” produced only 179 articles because of an insufficient number of articles from every political ideology except the far left. 

Furthermore, within each of the article databases, Taylor was mentioned much less frequently than Floyd was, as can be seen in the graphic below. The relationship between the names and the datasets was significant based on a chi-square test (chi-square statistic = 1126.66 p-value < .00001)

I also found evidence that the active and blame-assigning word “murder” is used more frequently in connection with the killing of Floyd than the killing of Taylor, thus invisibilizing the violence police inflicted on Taylor. The relationship between the names “Breonna Taylor” and “Geroge Floyd” and the descriptor words “murder” and “death” was statistically significant based on a chi-square test (chi-square statistic = 14.6644,  p-value = 0.000128). As police were directly responsible for killing both Taylor and Floyd, this language use nudges readers to view the circumstances of Taylor’s murder as less violent and deserving of justice. This passivity also reflects reality, in that Taylor’s murderers remain free while Floyd’s have been arrested.

Restricting women to gendered characterizations by centering them in their families and the domestic environment is another way women are often invisibilized in the media. This characterization seems to emerge in the coverage of Taylor as words for family appeared much more often in connection with her name than in connection with Floyd’s name.

As Dr. Crenshaw said in her 2016 TED talk, “If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem.”[10] Black women are at the center of the BLM movement, as organizers, activists, and academic experts, but also as victims of police brutality and the myriad other manifestations of racism and sexism. The invisibilization of Black women on this subject both perpetuates and participates in these manifestations of racism and sexism. Organizations like the African American Policy Foundation are developing research and campaigns to visibilize police violence against Black women in the media because to end this violence, Black women have to be reflected in the media as they are: dynamic, active, and complex figures.[11]

[1] “Our Co-Founders.”

[2] “About the #SayHerName Campaign.”

[3] Blain, “The Black Women Who Paved the Way for This Moment”;  Blain, “A Short History of Black Women and Police Violence.”

[4] Crenshaw and Ritchie, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.”

[5] “By Remembering Our Sisters, We Challenge Police Violence Against Black Women and Legacies That Eclipse These Injustices.”

[6] Jackson, “#SayHerName–Police Violence Against Black Women and Girls.”

[7] “AllSides Media Bias Chart.”

[8] https://github.com/khahnmad/Gender-in-the-Media-Coverage-of-BLM-Movement

[9] Wilson, “Breonna Taylor, and Why Black Women Are Tired of Being Left Out of Our Own Fight”; Watson Coleman, “From Recy Taylor to Breonna Taylor”; Egbuono, “Opinion | What History Tells Us about Breonna Taylor — and the Erasure of Black Women.”

[10] “Kimberlé Crenshaw: The Urgency of Intersectionality | TED Talk.”

[11] “About the #SayHerName Campaign,”; Other organizations working to combat police violence against Black women include Black Lives Matter, Mothers of the Movement, Color of Change, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies.

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