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Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Diversity Toolbox

Tracie Powell: Improve police beat coverage

By Sally Lehrman

As founder and editor of All Digitocracy, Tracie Powell keeps a close eye on media and its impact on diverse communities. Powell has not only reported and edited for more than a decade, she also has master's degree in law and served as a legal clerk for the U.S. Department of Justice.

This year Powell is a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University working on ways newsrooms can use predictive analytics to better engage users such as millennials and people of color. In this election year, with the nation deeply troubled by racial and religious divisions, I asked Powell to discuss what journalists' priorities should be. Her comments have been edited here for brevity and clarity.

What do you see as the greatest problem that journalists concerned about diversity need to address right now?

Police and courts coverage. Ever since Ferguson and even before, we've seen these cases where journalists report what the police tell us and the facts turn out to be completely different. We were told in South Carolina that Walter Scott was trying to attack the officer, yet the police shot him in the back. We hear Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was killed in Cleveland, was threatening someone with a gun, and it turns out to be a toy. The police shot him within seconds of arrival without checking out the scene.

Police narratives seem always the same: someone pulled a gun; someone threatened an officer. These narratives are so similar time and time and time again, we really should be more skeptical. Journalists are charged with keeping power accountable, including police and the courts. And yet the police are often able to walk away without consequences.

Why do you feel this particular issue should be a priority?

In the SPJ Code of Ethics, we are instructed as journalists to do no harm. I do not believe it is an overstatement to say that the police reporting coming out of lot of newspapers today violates this charge. In the initial reports, reporters establish a shooting victim's "guilt." By the second, third and fourth reports, nobody pays attention. It's too late. You've already shown this person to be a "thug" and the damage is already done.

The police talked to journalists about Rice's parents. Their narrative was that this little boy came from "bad seed." They were trying to justify killing this little boy based on his lineage. published that story. They didn't ask themselves, "Why are we publishing this story now, in this way?"

Also in the ethics code, our charge is to push beyond stereotypes. We've got to be able to sniff these out. CNN came out with a report about the officers on trial for killing Freddie Gray (in Baltimore) describing Gray's mother as an illiterate heroin addict. We don't know that. We are criminalizing this man who can't defend himself.

What are the broader implications of the kinds of journalistic failures you're pointing out?

We have to be honest and own up to our role in the reasons why police officers are not held accountable. We are being used as an arm of that agency, and that's not our job. We are supposed to be the public's eyes and ears, and we're just repeating over and over what the police say to us. We're allowing people to keep their eyes closed about what's happening.

What practical things can journalists do differently?

Walk the precinct. Knock on doors.

When I was a police reporter, I made it part of my weekly routine to go out to the precinct itself and into the surrounding neighborhood and talk to people. Whether it be business owners or residents, you get to know that community and they need to get to know you.

Double- and triple-check quotes.

If you already have rapport with the people on the street, they're going to talk with you and they're going to trust you. A counter story might arise to what police are telling you.

Most police officers are good police officers, they only want you to be fair. Once they see you out in the community like they are, they have a respect for you. You are able to do those hard stories and they don't expect you to be a mouthpiece for the police department.

Know the sunshine laws in your state and get to know the precinct's records clerk.

I remember in one case I covered for the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle in 1998, Alfaigo Terrell Davis was shot by two police officers 23 times. Because it was such a major shooting they kept all investigative materials secret.

The police claimed Davis was using his car as a deadly weapon. I knew that in Georgia, any time you have an incident involving a vehicle, you have to do a traffic report. That is public record. I asked the clerk, "Could you put the report in a brown envelope and seal it, and I'll be by to pick it up?" I got the location of the vehicle, which direction it was pointing, where the officers were standing, where Davis was located. I was able to go to the deputy chief with a copy, and I said, "Let's talk."

We need to get back to things like listening to the scanner, going into the neighborhood. We may have fewer resources now, but we need to figure out how to do it.


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