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How better reporting can change the way people think about race, crime, and communities

How better reporting can change the way people think about race, crime, and communities

Picture of Mary Lou Fulton
(Photo by Scott L via Creative Commons)
(Photo by Scott L via Creative Commons)

I was driving back to Los Angeles from my Arizona hometown when I heard an NPR story about a political rally with a familiar refrain. If only we could go back to the good old days, America’s problems would be solved.

For years, the “make America great again” theme was repeated in news stories without much of a challenge. What good old days are we talking about? The days when Black people could be killed by police with impunity? The days when unmarried women didn’t have a right to obtain birth control? Or when my mom, a Mexican immigrant and an award-winning teacher, was forced to take remedial English classes because an administrator thought her accent was too pronounced?  

So I decided to take on the assumptions embedded in that political tagline. I wrote a song called “Not Going Back.” It is call-and-response about how the appeal to nostalgia masquerades as a political strategy for rolling back hard-fought civil rights victories and preserving white supremacy.

With people continuing to fill the streets demanding racial justice, I’ve been thinking about how journalism perpetuates racist assumptions through coverage of crime, the police and people of color who are most impacted by the justice system.

There is ample evidence of the racist practices of law enforcement agencies, not only with police shootings but in everyday activities such as arrests and traffic stops. And yet journalists too often treat information from police departments as objective, bolstering their credibility by buying into their accounts of what happened, adopting their language and amplifying their biases. Crime-log reporting based on police news releases is easy content for short-staffed newsrooms, but when crime news takes an outsize role in the daily report, residents are left with false impressions that their community is increasingly dangerous, when the opposite is true.

As the nation confronts how institutions, including the news media, have allowed racism to continue unabated, one way journalism can do better is to re-examine everyday crime reporting practices. Here are some suggestions:

Stop using police terminology in news stories. Vague phrases like “officer-involved shooting” and “deadly force” diminish the responsibility of police. Instead, writers should use more direct and descriptive language such as “police shot and killed an unarmed man as he ran away from two officers outside a fast food restaurant.” Similarly, don’t accept law enforcement terms such as “immigrant detention centers,” which sound like genteel temporary waiting rooms instead of prisons where immigrants can be held for years and where abuses are well-documented. Instead, call them what they are: immigrant prisons or jails.

Don’t publish one-sided police accounts when officers have shot someone or been involved in misconduct. Research has shown that first impressions of a news story are hard to dislodge. Law enforcement agencies have learned it’s to their advantage to shape the news, and most have one or more media relations people with the full-time job of providing rapid-response information to reporters and the public through digital and social media. As CBS News reporter Wesley Lowery has recommended, don’t release a story about a police shooting or abuse if you have only the police depiction of what happened. Wait until you can speak to family members of the person shot or witnesses. 

Stop publishing police booking photos that repeatedly depict Black and Brown people as criminals before they have been convicted. San Francisco recently became the first city in the nation to stop releasing booking photos, citing their contribution to implicit bias that comes from stereotyping. More newsrooms should follow suit and stop publishing these pictures, as Gannett and others have done. “Mug shot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and, in our editorial judgment, are of limited news value,” Gannett officials said.

Follow through on what happens with police who are investigated for killing or injuring people. Research has found that police killings rarely result in officers being charged with a crime. However, law enforcement agencies end up paying large settlements in response to civil lawsuits. In 2019, an estimated $300 million was paid out, and those proceedings provide story opportunities on the investigations as well as any resulting policy changes.

Build stronger relationships in neighborhoods where more arrests are made. Lower-income neighborhoods of color are over-policed and under-resourced when it comes to health, education and social services, which are superior community safety strategies. Avoid labeling neighborhoods as “violent” or “crime-ridden,” and take the time to get to know community organizers, nonprofits, churches and health clinics. I’ve found organizers to be especially well-networked and eager to connect reporters to residents who can provide a different perspective about police practices and what’s really needed for safer communities. Better yet, consider new beats focused on Black communities and equity, as The Sacramento Bee recently announced.

After the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles and protests over flawed reporting about the uprising, I became the founding editor of a community news edition that the Los Angeles Times launched to improve coverage of the central city. A diverse staff brought this edition to life with engaging stories that rang true in the community and won awards. Eighteen months later, the edition was scrapped because it didn’t make money. After that, reporting returned to “normal,” with coverage of urban neighborhoods largely focused on murders and festivals.

Now we’re living through tumultuous times in which we’re all reflecting on our shared responsibility for creating a more just society. Journalists are calling out the links between inflammatory rhetoric and violence against people of color, and holding editors and publishers to account in unprecedented ways. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor resigned after a staff revolt over a headline that “offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement, and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of Black Americans,” according to the newspaper’s apology. In a letter signed by three-fourths of the Inquirer’s journalists of color, they also called out the everyday newsroom practices and beat assignments that reinforce racist stereotypes.

The Black Caucus of the Los Angeles Times Guild sent a letter to owner Patrick Soon-Shiong with a list of demands. including an apology “not just for the Black journalists on staff, but for the communities that The Times has maligned over the years with tone-deaf coverage that has often inflamed racial tensions.” 

More people are speaking their truths in the streets and in American newsrooms. Real change seems possible, and we’re not going back.

Mary Lou Fulton is a former Los Angeles Times journalist and foundation program officer focused on justice policy reform. She is now an independent writer and musician whose song Not Going Back was named Social Change Song of 2019 by the Renaissance Artists and Writers Assn.

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