Across the country, people are calling for police accountability. But what might press accountability look like?
When a Kenosha, Wis., police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of his children in August, leaving the 29-year-old Black man paralyzed, Wisconsin found itself in the national spotlight in all the wrong ways. At the tail end of a summer in which calls to end police violence rang through the streets, video of Blake’s shooting was brutal evidence that the end was still out of sight.
But for those who know the state’s history, it’s an all-too-familiar story that raises questions not only about policing, but also about how journalists cover police.
Just as the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — new pages in a long saga of police violence against Black Americans – has sparked a national movement to overhaul policing, a second movement has taken aim at the norms of journalism, another institution capable of causing great harm. In newsrooms across the country, journalists of color and especially Black journalists are calling for, among other things, an alternative to “objectivity.” Too often, they say, it’s white editors and readers who determine what counts as objective.
“Journalists have long needed to wake up on this and recognize that we are not objective,” said Martin Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute. The idea that journalists can walk into a story as “blank slates” is, he thinks, “probably one of the worst and most harmful fallacies that journalism has … inflicted upon coverage and people and community.”
Those who defend the notion of objectivity seldom acknowledge that white outlets that presumably view themselves as objective have again and again been plagued with blindspots, left out critical voices and — perhaps unwittingly — facilitated coverups. These flaws have hobbled outlets’ truth-seeking and undermined trust from the get-go.
The false claim comes at a cost, Reynolds said. “We’re not perceived to be objective, and so if we’re still navel gazing around objectivity, then we’re perpetuating the growing lack of credibility that journalism and these institutions have been suffering from for many years.”
Soraya Nadia McDonald, a culture writer for The Undefeated, explained the stakes on a recent episode of the NPR podcast It’s Been a Minute.
“When we think about the press and freedom of the press as an instrument of democracy, we have to think about enfranchising everyone. We have to think about making sure that they do find us credible,” McDonald said.
“If folks look at the newspaper and they look at a website or they listen to the radio, and their conclusion is that these entities are not telling the truth about them and their lives and how their lives are lived … we are failing them.”
Compounding the problem, outlets seldom acknowledge the harm their mistakes have caused, even as their approaches evolve over time. And, perhaps most concerning, some of these same blindspots persist today, along with an untold number of new ones still invisible to newsrooms.
WHERE WE’VE BEEN
The movement to overhaul policing and the movement to overhaul journalism are in many ways parallel, but they also intersect. That intersection, media coverage of police killings, reveals how blindspots can lead outlets to get a story wrong, often with serious consequences.
They say hindsight is 20/20, so I’d like to illuminate some of these blindspots with an old story. This is the story of the killing of Daniel Bell by Milwaukee police officer Thomas Grady Jr. The date was February 2, 1958, but in many ways, it could have been yesterday.
Grady, a white police officer looking to meet an arrest quota, pulled over Bell, a 22-year-old Black man, for a broken tail light. Bell, who had failed his driving test because he couldn’t read well and who had been arrested five times before for driving without a license, ran.
Grady, joined by Louis Krause, another white patrolman, commandeered a car and then chased Bell on foot through a residential neighborhood before shooting him in the back, using racial slurs before and after. Grady then planted his own knife in Bell’s hand. Grady told his superiors that Bell looked like a “holdup man” they’d been looking for and that he’d seen a knife in Bell’s right hand.
Krause told superiors of the slurs and the planted knife, but when they told him to go along with Grady’s account, he complied.
“Police Kill Man Armed with Knife,” read the front page headline of the Milwaukee Sentinel.
It would be easy to see the press as a victim, at the mercy of police who sometimes lie. But, in the Bell case, the papers missed key opportunities to pursue the truth and avoid lending credibility to false accounts.
Among the most basic mistakes was treating lies as fact. The Sentinel’s rival, the afternoon Milwaukee Journal, mostly protected its reporting by attributing its account of the night’s events to the police. The Sentinel, omitting attribution, gave the lie a veneer of truth.
From the start, Bell’s family told police and journalists that they suspected foul play. His sister found his knife in her home, where he was staying, and the family told anyone who would listen that Bell was left-handed. The Sentinel’s initial coverage excluded Bell’s family members completely, while the Journal included their thoughts without any of the evidence they marshalled in Bell’s defense.
In a practice still familiar today, both papers highlighted the victim’s criminal record, half of which is made up of driver’s license offenses, though they offer no reason to believe the officers knew of his previous run-ins with the law.
The outlets also failed to report on relevant weaknesses of the justice system. When witnesses to the killing disputed the officers’ account, the district attorney ordered an inquest. But Bell’s family was not permitted to testify because then, as now, the process did not allow victims’ families or their attorneys to present evidence or cross-examine witnesses. An all-white jury, handpicked by the sheriff, acquitted the officers of all charges. Neither outlet explored potential criticisms of this judicial process.
Likewise, they didn’t explore the law enforcement practices at play, such as whether it was reasonable for officers to respond to a traffic stop by commandeering a car, pulling a gun in a foot chase through a residential area and killing a fleeing man.
The closest either paper came was a statement in the first Journal story from Police Chief Howard O. Johnson: “Taking a human life is a serious thing and our officers are so instructed … Our officers are told to apprehend, to disable, not to kill.” But the Journal did not cite statistics or comment from the police department about the number of prior killings by police officers or the demographics of the victims.
The Sentinel, meanwhile, quoted District Attorney William J. McCauley, who said officers “thought at the time they were pursuing a felon and, as a result, had the right to shoot.” The paper did not explore whether such a right was grounded in law or how it would be reconciled with the suspect’s due process rights.
The city’s Black press, meanwhile, featured factors unmentioned in the white press.
“The basic problem is not just the wrong-doing of the Negro inhabitants, but the placing of young, inexperienced White police officers in this community who seem incapable of the exercise of ordinary discretion, good judgement, and plain common sense when it comes to the question of ‘to shoot or not to shoot’ in the ordinary arrest situation,” read a letter to the editor, signed by “Bubbie” in the Milwaukee Defender.
Another Defender reader, Calvin T. Sherard, wrote that “racial views of a white policeman should be taken into consideration before he is assigned to a Negro community, because a prejudiced officer assigned to the Negro commuity for the purpose of enforcing the law represents a hazard within itself.”
According to a 1979 Milwaukee Journal article, “the shooting sparked some of the city’s first civil rights demonstrations and stirred allegations of police department racism by the black community,” but one wouldn’t know that from the white papers’ initial coverage of the case.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
As Bell’s case illuminates, such blindspots don’t just alienate potential audiences and undermine trust. They also cause outlets to miss the bigger story, and some of these vulnerabilities persist in coverage today.
Journalists still rely heavily on police as the “authority” in crime stories, and many outlets publish single-source crime stories that treat as fact the accounts provided in police reports or police press conferences though attribution seems more common today. Seldom are the words of families of people killed by police given as much space as police and prosecutors.
Outlets often portray victims as criminals by publishing their mugshots or criminal histories. It’s a logical move for journalists facing tight deadlines and shrinking newsrooms, as such practices require less legwork than speaking to families or getting a family photo of the victim. But these everyday decisions fuel an already-rampant implicit anti-Black bias.
“When writing about Black and Brown victims of state violence … their humanity should be uplifted before anything else,” reads a guide from nonprofit racial justice organization Race Forward.
Some outlets are heeding such calls. When Atlanta police officer Garret Rolfe killed Rayshard Brooks on June 12, the Atlanta Journal Constitution opted not to immediately publish Brooks’ criminal record. Instead, editor Kevin Riley explained in an editorial, reporters visited the courthouse and reviewed Brooks’ charges so that they could describe the circumstances of his arrest.
Some reporters are also beginning to treat police accounts with the same kind of skepticism with which they treat other sources. In a 2019 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Alexandria Neason explored a history of police attempting to control the narrative through “obfuscation, omission and delay,” sometimes even going so far as to plant misinformation in the press, as in the 2016 police killing of Joshua Beal.
And journalist Wesley Lowery, author of They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, noted on a recent episode of the Longform Podcast that “the police are not, in and of themselves, objective observers of things. They are political and government entities who are the literal characters in the story … They have incentives.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has also reframed police killings, arguing they are not isolated incidents but rather evidence of a pattern. The federal government still doesn’t track police killings, but journalists have compiled the data themselves to reveal national trends, as in the Washington Post’s “Fatal Force” database, which shows demographic and geographic data for each person fatally shot by police in the U.S. since 2015.
Additionally, more journalists now shine a light on factors too often overlooked in these killings. More than 50 years after Bell’s killing, NPR reporter Eyder Peralta explored the “routine and perils of a traffic stop” in an award-winning investigation of “The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile.” Peralta found that the stop that killed Castile was one of more than 40 he’d experienced in the 13 years since receiving his learner’s permit.
In Milwaukee, the change in coverage is clear. The Journal and Sentinel merged in 1995, and its reporting has since investigated the same systemic problems that went unmentioned in Bell’s case. In 2005, reporter Gina Barton explored the limitations of the inquest process and why many victims’ families feel that the process does not lead to justice. In 2012, she reported that, in 25 years, no inquest jury had recommended charges. She’s even reported on the continued relevance of Bell’s case, half a century after his death.
Barton, now an investigative reporter covering criminal justice issues full time, covered a different police killing of a man named Bell: the 2004 death of Michael Bell at the hands of Kenosha police. Her reporting, aided by Bell’s dedicated father, the investigation by the attorney he hired and squad car camera footage, examined conflicting accounts of the events and noted that, while most murder investigations take months or years, the department ruled Bell’s killing justified within days. Her coverage also highlighted the growing frequency of police killings in the county and described Bell’s family’s push for a new law requiring independent investigations of police shootings.
It’s hard to know the goals of the reporters covering the 1958 Bell’s case, but judging by their coverage, they likely weren’t the same goals that guide Barton today. “I want to hold public officials accountable,” she said. “I want to hold police officers accountable, and I want to promote social justice in terms of criminal justice and policing.”
Here are the practices Barton follows in covering cases of police violence:
- Talk to as many witnesses as possible, including police, victims’ families and bystanders, and look for discrepancies in their accounts.
- Consult footage from body cameras and squad car cameras.
- Consider that police can be mistaken or lie.
- Ask questions of the police and report on whether they answered them. Some of these questions will be things that readers haven’t yet thought about, and this keeps reporting from being limited to what police choose to discuss.
- Investigate whether the incident violated laws or department policies. If it didn’t, report on the laws and policies that permit this. For example, when Barton and her colleague John Diedrich were reporting on the 2005 police beating of Frank Jude, they learned that Milwaukee’s police department formerly allowed officers with multiple misdemeanor convictions to be hired, and that many who allegedly violated laws during their careers were neither fired nor prosecuted. In Daniel Bell’s case, she’d explore whether Milwaukee police had a “fleeing felon” policy that allowed them to shoot, and, if so, whether it applied in this case.
- Investigate the rules that the institutions follow — such as the rules that kept Bell’s inquest jury from learning that he was left-handed — and the consequences that ensue.
- Investigate the histories of the officers involved. Barton pointed to the work of her colleague Ashley Luthern, whose June reporting on the killing of Alvin Cole by Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah revealed this was the third time that Mensah had fatally shot someone in the line of duty in just five years. In the Bell case, Barton said, this would mean exploring Officer Grady’s alleged history of using racial slurs, as well as any prior use-of-force incidents.
- Watch for potential violations of the constitutional rights of people who are arrested or accused, such as when suspects are shot in the back. She noted the 2011 case of Derek Williams, who died in the back of a squad car following an eight-minute struggle to breathe, which was caught on video. Police considered Williams a robbery suspect, but Barton notes that “we don’t have the death penalty in Wisconsin, and even if we did, you wouldn’t get it handed to you for mugging someone.”
A HARD LOOK AT PAST MISTAKES
In August 1979, the Bell killing made Milwaukee headlines again after Grady confessed in a taped phone call. The Sentinel, the same paper that two decades earlier published the officer’s lies as unattributed facts, highlighted the family’s long wait for justice and called for a full investigation of the coverup. Three years later, a federal jury in a civil rights trial awarded the Bell family approximately $1.8 million in damages, an amount later lowered to $1.6 million.
The Sentinel’s 1979 coverage included extended quotes from Bell’s siblings, voices glaringly absent from its original coverage. “Nobody ever asked us how we felt,” Bell’s brother Patrick said. “I think it was wrong. I thought it was wrong when it happened.”
The next day, the Sentinel published an editorial entitled “Expose coverup fully,” which began with a single word: “Vindication.”
“The family of Daniel Bell, who was slain 21 years ago by a Milwaukee police officer and branded a criminal must feel vindicated after the officer admitted guilt and participation in a police coverup of the act,” the editors wrote, calling for a “complete exposure of police conduct.”
“The complete truth still remains the only way to rebuild the confidence (sic) has been eroded by misdeeds of the past,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, a part of the coverup continues.”
What the authors don’t mention is that by credulously printing the officers’ false account with the veneer of objective journalism, the paper participated in the deception. Likewise, by choosing to devote so much of its initial coverage to Bell’s unrelated criminal record, the paper itself branded Bell a criminal.
The editors writing this editorial likely weren’t in charge in 1958 — they may well have not even been part of the newsroom at the time — but it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have looked back at their own paper’s coverage of Bell’s death before penning the editorial. By their own logic, if they found the coverage problematic, admitting it would be the only way to restore public confidence.
But Martin Reynolds isn’t surprised. Journalism organizations have long failed to challenge power systems plagued by white supremacy and racism, he said. “Those in the mainstream … legitimize it through the reporting on it, even when they criticize it. They criticize an institution within the system, but not the system itself.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that journalists think of themselves as among the institutions and apart from the community. “I think we actually should be shoulder to shoulder with community,” Reynolds said, “and that doesn’t abdicate our responsibility. It actually grows our relationships, grows our trust, grows our credibility, our accountability.”
Barton, meanwhile, thinks the staffs of 1958 and 1979 likely suffered from two accountability problems. In 1958, she said, they likely didn’t think of Black residents as potential readers. “I feel like back then they didn’t care. They weren’t looking to have credibility with diverse audiences,” Barton said.
And throughout the decades in question, they may not have seen it as their job to get the story right if the police got it wrong. “I think probably, back then, the mindset is more like we’re just a messenger,” Barton said, while today’s journalism is more focused on recognizing mistakes and figuring out how to avoid those mistakes in the future.
“Ironically that’s kind of what the police are more focused on doing now,” she said, pointing to the “after action reports” in which, after a use-of-force incident or fatal shooting, departments review what happened and what they could have done differently.
Lynn Walsh, assistant director of Trusting News, called the 1979 editorial “a miss.”
“That would be an opportunity to have that conversation and say, you know in the past we covered it XYZ. Here’s why that happened, here’s how that happened, and we regret that,” said Walsh, whose organization aims to “empower journalists to take responsibility for actively demonstrating credibility and earning trust.”
Yes, she said, reporting is limited by the facts available at the time, and stories are subject to change as more facts become available. But the facts available also depend on the questions journalists ask (or don’t) and the people they talk to (or don’t). She’s optimistic that today’s social media may address gaps in both.
“Whatever your feelings are about it, it has allowed us to see more of who our community is. It allows more voices to be heard, and, as journalists, if you are really looking at stories and covering the community fairly and accurately, that should be looked at as a good thing.”
In an Aug. 20 column, Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley pledged to do just that. Citing the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread civil unrest reaching even Wisconsin’s rural communities, Stanley called 2020 “a good year for introspection, for considering how we got here.”
In the column, Stanley pointed to newly released data from Gannett, the paper’s parent company, comparing newsroom demographics to those of the localities they serve, for all of the USA Today Network papers. “Our newsroom must do more to fully serve the varied communities in our city and state with relevant, trustworthy news that informs our democracy,” he wrote, explaining that all newsrooms in the network would commit to demographically reflect their communities by 2025.
“Only by listening can we learn,” Stanley wrote, noting how reporters learned that landlords and developers were illegally dumping waste in Black Milwaukee neighborhoods and that Hispanic workers in Wisconsin food plants were being denied sick pay and forced to work in close quarters as a pandemic raged.
While Stanley mentioned recent reporting on century-old injustices, like the restrictive zoning used to keep Black people from moving into neighborhoods in Milwaukee and across the state, he stopped short of critiquing past coverage.
Three days after that column published, a Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, and three days after that, the paper’s editorial board declared that the shooting should prompt Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature to act on a package of policing measures put forward by the state’s Democratic governor and lieutenant governor.
“We hope the shooting also forces a reckoning: Wisconsin must face up to the chronic problem of over-aggressive policing of people of color,” they wrote. “The truth is, we’ve been here too many times before.”
WHAT MUST CHANGE
At this moment of reckoning, it’s tempting for outlets across the country to make public statements, but Walsh offers a word of caution to anyone looking to demonstrate their dedication to communities they’ve historically misrepresented or harmed.
“I think the first thing, before you just come out and say you’re committed to these communities, is asking internally, ‘What kind of relationships do we have? What kind of work have we done at building relationships in this community?’ … Just to say that you’re committed — you want to say that, but you want it to be true.”
Reynolds agrees. There’s an analogy he likes, that newsrooms can’t just offer “a bouquet of flowers” and hope to gain the trust of communities that lost faith long ago, or perhaps never trusted these outlets in the first place.
“You’re going to need a truckload of flowers and many years of couples counseling,” he said, adding he worries about outlets that try to take on diversity initiatives or trust overhauls without going through their own “therapeutic process.”
“People aren’t admitting that journalism organizations have been perpetuators and facilitators of systemic racism and white supremacy. And that doesn’t mean that we have flag-waving white supremacists in the institutions. It means there’s an ambient racism, and if you’re not going to be real about that, how are you really going to address it?”
In order to make a profound change, Reynolds said, outlets need to ask themselves deeper questions.
“Why did I do that, and how was that appropriate? What must change? But more importantly, why must it change? … Why should we shed these practices of false objectivity? Why is that important? If you can’t answer that question, then the solutions you bring forth to address it will be half measures.”
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