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Video & recap: Covering justice – Reimagining the cops, crime, courts beats

After the ‘flash of interest’ will criminal justice coverage be the same?

Three veteran journalists agreed Friday that coverage of law enforcement policy reforms and systemic injustices must outlast the current moment and take precedence over crime blotter news and clickbait misdemeanors that sap newsroom resources and perpetuate stereotypes.

The National Press Club Journalism Institute and News Leaders Association hosted a video program featuring Michael Days of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Libor Jany of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Jamiles Lartey of the Marshall Project for a conversation on “Covering Justice: Reimagining the cops, crime, courts beats.”

While acknowledging that George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis and the ensuing social justice protests have captured the nation’s attention, the three conceded that that consciousness could be fleeting. 

“The better question to me is, will we remain engaged beyond that sort of flash of interest in the general public and will we continue to highlight these stories when potentially folks’ attention span has moved on,” Lartey said. “I think the question is, do we have the interest and the mentality to stick with it. I hope so, I don’t I don’t know if I can answer it in the affirmative.”

Key points from their hour-long conversation:

  • Covering protests is one thing; covering the broader issue of criminal justice requires long-term commitment.
  • Newsrooms need to rethink crime coverage and allow reporters to examine crime and policing through thorough reporting.
  • Journalists should be mindful of language used by police to avoid accountability.
  • Local reporters need to carry out independent reporting that doesn’t rely simply on police as sources and national reporters must resist the temptation to swoop in to a community without regard for local issues and sensibilities.

Sticking with the issue

Lartey: It takes more stick-to-it-iveness to cover your local police department, to cover police reforms, to cover the less public and less performative side of these questions. So, can we? I think, yes, it’s certainly something that people in our industry have the skill set to do — to file for public records requests, to analyze statutes that local city governments are writing in response to the public outcry — and say ‘Hey, is this going to work? Or what will be the side effects of passing a city ordinance or a federal law that will do that?” 

Jany: I get the sense through talking with my colleagues that the burden really falls on the reporters to lean on management, lean on the editors months down the road … after the world’s gaze has sort of drifted to the next story. So I’m hopeful, but a lot of the burden is going to fall on reporters to sort of push back and ensure that some of these changes do stick. 

The challenges of sustaining nuanced, deep coverage

Jany: The irony is that a lot of these critical questions come up on deadline, right? You’ve been out reporting the story the entire day, and you race back and you’re working on getting something online, and fleshing it out for the paper the next day, and these very critical, monumental decisions and questions arise in moments like this… 

You don’t always have the luxury of time to tap your editor on the shoulder and have these conversations. You have to be very intentional about having them in, quote unquote, peace time when you’re not on deadline and and just ensure that you’re on the same page before you reach that point.

Lartey: Even if you are well-apprised of this issue, even if you have a background in reporting it, it’s still easy to just get caught up doing other things and to accept that that conversation is over. We had that conversation around Ferguson, we had that conversation around Freddie Gray, we had that conversation around Philando Castile, and people don’t want to read that right now, and I should just focus on Trump or COVID because that’s what people care about. This has been a good kind of wake-up call and reminder to me that if something is important, it’s important. You can’t rely on the vicissitudes of the new cycle to make it important.

Is this just a moment or does it have staying power?

Days: I would like to think that as journalists, we can be really involved, very much involved very intentionally and make sure it doesn’t just pass because Black and brown people deserve to be treated like human beings in their communities. It is interesting that a lot of middle-class white people, upper middle-class white people, seem to be very much taken with Black Lives Matter. Witness Portland every day for who knows how long.

Lartey: This is a moment where, especially because the George Floyd video was so affecting, and arresting, if I can use that term, and the kind of humanity of it — it didn’t happen in a flash, it didn’t happen in a moment, it wasn’t a quick decision that you could sort of rationalize away. I think it did peel back a bit of the curtain, and force people to consider some of their assumptions about policing. And I think that’s durable, and I think that’s going to last beyond this.

Jany: Maybe this is the sort of cynicism of a police reporter, somebody who’s been reporting on this for some time. We’ve had other controversial episodes, not just in Minneapolis, but in the greater Twin Cities area —- Jamar Clark, Justine Damond, Philando Castile in recent years — and it almost followed a very predictable and familiar pattern where there was that initial emotional outcry, there were protests, and there were calls for greater police accountability and transparency. And, arguably, they didn’t always lead to substantive change. People’s focus and attention invariably drifted on to the next next story. 

How to deal with language of policing

Lartey: A lot of crime stories you could basically take all of the copy and repost it the next day with a different address, different particulars, but they’re often very similar. So, I think we need to  be thoughtful about how the language we use in those stories creates a narrative, creates a kind of meta scape. As the general public, we just start to assume that crime is always of the shape and nature of the language used in crime stories.

One simple example for me is the use of the term “officer-involved shooting.” … When you think about it, it’s kind of funny. Newspaper editors are historically allergic to the passive voice. That’s one of the first cardinal rules of news writing is you don’t write passively, you write actively. What happened? Who did it? And yet we’ve adopted this police jargon that is sort of the ultimate passive voice in these moments. Why? It’s not helping our readers understand anymore what happened…

Just say what happened, don’t use jargon…’Police shot John Doe,’ it communicates more to the reader. That is not a political or ethical statement. That’s actually just a journalism point. It’s better writing.

Ending crime blotter and “novelty” stories

Jany: I think we’re starting to have these conversations and especially as there’s a greater recognition or awareness of how the criminal justice system ensnares people and how stories like that, and the charges, can have these long-lasting effects or impacts on people’s lives. We’re starting to have these conversations internally and moving away from these throwaway crime stories.

This program is one of an ongoing series of free conversations. Click here to see our upcoming programs, or to watch a recording of a previous event. Please contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.

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