The public sees a number of contributing factors for the outbreak of violence and unrest in Baltimore last week.
About six-in-ten (61%) say that “some people taking advantage of the situation to engage in criminal behavior” contributed a “great deal” to the unrest, while 56% say the same about tensions between the African-American community and the police.
However, majorities say all five factors mentioned in the survey – including anger over the death of Freddie Gray, poverty in some neighborhoods and the initial response by city officials – contributed at least a fair amount to the unrest.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted April 30-May 3 among 1,000 adults, finds relatively modest racial differences in opinions about the factors that contributed to the unrest in Baltimore.
Two-thirds of whites (66%) and 54% of blacks say that people taking advantage of the situation to commit crimes contributed a great deal to the unrest. Blacks are more likely than whites to say that poverty is a major cause: 50% of blacks say this contributed a great deal to the turmoil, compared with 39% of whites.
The survey finds that majorities of both whites and blacks say Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby made the right decision in bringing criminal charges against some Baltimore police officers, including a charge of second-degree murder against one of the officers.
Overall, 65% say the decision by the state’s attorney to charge the officers was right, while 16% see it as the wrong decision; 18% do not offer an opinion. The question was asked May 1-3 among 798 adults. (Mosby announced the charges on May 1.)
Nearly eight-in-ten blacks (78%) and 60% of whites say the decision to bring charges was right. There are sharp partisan differences in these views: 75% of Democrats, 71% of independents and 45% of Republicans express positive views of the decision to charge the six officers.
While the public generally supports the decision to charge the police officers, most Americans do not have a great deal of confidence into the ongoing investigations into Gray’s death.
Just 13% say they have a great deal of confidence into the investigations while 35% say they have a fair amount of confidence. About four-in-ten (44%) have little or no confidence in the investigations. However, the share expressing confidence in the investigations rose during the latter part of the survey period: 40% expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence on April 30, while 50% expressed at least a fair amount of confidence from May 1-3, after the charges were announced.
The survey finds that, in a busy news week, the events in Baltimore were the public’s most closely followed story. A third (33%) followed the unrest in Baltimore very closely, while 22% tracked news about the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake very closely. About one-in-five followed news about the economy (20%), the Supreme Court arguments on same-sex marriage (18%) and the 2016 presidential candidates (16%).
The public gives mixed ratings to news organizations’ coverage of developments in Baltimore: 44% say the coverage was excellent or good; 48% say it was only fair or poor.
When asked about the amount of news coverage of specific events in Baltimore, 44% say news organizations devoted too much coverage to unrest and acts of violence after Gray’s death; just 12% say they gave too little coverage to the unrest, while 38% say news organizations gave the right amount of coverage.
What Factors Contributed to Unrest in Baltimore?
There are significant differences between Republicans and Democrats in their views of the factors behind the unrest in Baltimore.
About three-quarters of Republicans (76%) say that some people taking advantage of the situation to engage in criminal behavior contributed a great deal to the violence and unrest in Baltimore. For Republicans, no other factor comes close. Half (50%) say tensions between the police and black community contributed a great deal to the turmoil, and 48% say the same about anger over the death of Freddie Gray.
By contrast, majorities of Democrats say that tensions between the police and African-American community (63%), anger over the death of Freddie Gray (58%) and people taking advantage of the situation to commit crimes (54%) contributed a great deal to the unrest in Baltimore.
While nearly half of Democrats (48%) say poverty and lack of opportunities in some neighborhoods contributed a great deal to the unrest, just 30% of Republicans agree. Liberal Democrats are about twice as likely as conservative Republicans to say poverty in some neighborhoods contributed a great deal to the unrest (61% vs. 31%).
Views of Charging Police Officers: Baltimore, New York, Ferguson
The new survey finds 65% saying it was the right decision to bring charges against the Baltimore police officers involved in the Freddie Gray case, while just 16% call it the wrong decision. Majorities of blacks (78%) and whites (60%) call it the right decision, though this view is more widely held among blacks than whites.
A December 2014 survey found that 57% of Americans said it was the wrong decision not to charge New York City police officers in the choking death of Eric Garner; far fewer (22%) said this was the right decision. Blacks overwhelmingly said the decision was wrong, by a 90%-2% margin. On balance, whites also said the decision was wrong by a 47%-28% margin.
In the same survey, 50% of the public said the grand jury made the right decision not to charge police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, compared with 37% who called this the wrong decision. There were much wider racial differences in reactions to that outcome: 80% of blacks said it was the wrong decision not to charge Officer Wilson in Michael Brown’s death, while just 10% said it was the right decision. By contrast, most whites (64%) thought the grand jury made the right decision, compared with 23% who called it the wrong decision.
Views of News Coverage of Unrest in Baltimore
The public gives mixed ratings for how news organizations covered the events in Baltimore. About half rate the coverage as “only fair” (28%) or “poor” (20%), while roughly as many rate it “excellent” (9%) or “good” (35%). Whites, blacks and Hispanics give generally similar ratings.
People under 30 rate the news organizations’ coverage the most negatively. Three-in-ten (30%) say that news organizations did a poor job and another 34% say it was only fair. Just 30% say the press did an excellent or good job covering events in Baltimore. By contrast, adults 50 and older are more likely to say the press did an excellent or good job (54%) than a fair or poor one (40%).
Republicans and Democrats both rate the coverage somewhat positively, on balance, but independents are decidedly critical. About half of Republicans and Democrats (52% each) say the coverage was excellent or good, while about four-in-ten say it was fair or poor. Among independents, 37% rate the press’s performance on this story positively, compared with a 57% majority saying it has been only fair (29%) or poor (28%).
Many more say the news organizations gave too much coverage to the unrest and violence than too little coverage (44% vs. 12%), but 38% say it was the right amount. Roughly equal shares think the press gave too much (25%) as too little (28%) coverage to the circumstances surrounding Gray’s death; a 39% plurality thinks it was the right amount. When it comes to the non-violent protests, more believe that news organizations have given too little (37%) than too much (22%) coverage.
A large share of adults 18-29 think the news organizations have covered the non-violent protests too little (56%) and just 13% think there has been too much coverage of them. On the other hand, most adults 65 and older think coverage of the non-violence has been the right amount (39%) or too much (34%); just 17% think there was too little coverage of that aspect of the events.
About four-in-ten independents (42%) and Democrats (40%) say the news organizations have given too little coverage to the non-violent protests; fewer Republicans (23%) think that there was not enough coverage of them.
The Week’s News
The unrest following the death of Freddie Gray was the top story last week, with a third of the public (33%) saying they followed developments in Baltimore “very closely.” Smaller shares followed news about the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal (22%) and reports on the condition of the U.S. economy (20%) very closely. Similar shares tracked news about the Supreme Court hearing a case on same-sex marriage (18%) and the candidates for the 2016 presidential election (16%).
Half of blacks (50%) followed news on the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death very closely, compared with 32% of whites and 22% of Hispanics. Last August, 54% of blacks and 25% of whites paid very close attention to news about Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO.