Hobbs, a veteran reporter for the Brunswick News, came to a conclusion: “This is starting to stink.”
More than a month later, Hobbs broke the story that would soon make national news of how unarmed Ahmaud Arbery had been chased and attacked by three white men who suspected him of committing burglaries in the area. One was a former police officer who had also worked for the district attorney, raising questions about a conflict of interest for investigators — and perhaps explaining Hobbs’s difficulty in getting the facts of the case.
It is among several high-profile stories that have recently caused newsrooms to reflect upon their relationship with law enforcement — especially reporters’ reliance on official police accounts as they construct breaking news stories about a violent incident or arrest. In several of these cases, cellphone video of the incident offered a dramatic contradiction of the first police accounts.
“The police shoots somebody, and right away the mainstream press reports the police version,” said Mel Reeves, a community activist and editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, which serves an African American readership. “What the police tell you initially is a rumor . . . and a lot of the times it’s not accurate.”
In their initial public statements about George Floyd’s death, for example, Minneapolis police didn’t mention that one of its officers knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes; it noted only that Floyd “appeared to be suffering medical distress.” Louisville police listed Breonna Taylor’s injuries as “none” after shooting her eight times in her home during a March police raid that began with a no-knock warrant. And Buffalo police initially said Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester who was shoved to the ground and severely injured by officers, merely “tripped and fell.”
The initial rush to judgment, based on police framing of the facts, led to the media hysteria surrounding the Central Park Five, the group of young men in New York who were wrongfully convicted of assaulting a jogger in 1989.
This year’s protests of racism and police misconduct have prompted a larger reassessment of the racial dynamics within largely white newsrooms, including how they have historically covered crime and policing in black communities.
While there is value in reporting the police account, what’s irresponsible, Reeves said, “is always printing the knee-jerk response of the cops,” without input from “the person on the street.”
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank for the law enforcement field, argues that police officials usually aren’t lying when they report the details of a crime inaccurately. Police “have learned the hard way: Do not lie. You can’t get your credibility back.”
Instead, he argued, they’re simply under the same time pressures as reporters to distribute information to the public. Meanwhile, new technology — including body and dashboard cams, closed-circuit surveillance, and cellphone video — has made it much easier to discover official lies, reducing their number overall, Wexler said.
Journalists on deadline say they typically have few choices other than police to get them the information they need when a crime happens. They can’t directly reach arrested civilians to hear their side. Defense attorneys don’t always know the details of their clients’ alleged acts and sometimes don’t want to talk, often on the belief that doing so will invite more attention.
As a result, experienced reporters like Hobbs often know there’s more to the story — even if they can’t get it immediately.
In the hours after Floyd died in police custody, Minneapolis Star Tribune crime reporter Libor Jany attended the official news conference about the incident. Soon after, he started getting tips about a video that showed a very different account than the one described by authorities. His initial story included an outline of what happened in the video.
The next day, the police walked backed their first description of what happened, saying it was based on “preliminary” information.
“Most seasoned journalists would think, ‘Let me go to the scene, let me see if I can scare up some witnesses, let me check out the comments on social media,’ and cobble the narrative together that way, as opposed to simply regurgitating the narrative they gave at a press conference or rewriting a news release,” Jany said. “This particular case definitely drove home that point, that we can’t take what they give us at face value.”
But that’s often easier said than done, especially given the realities of shrinking newsrooms and the constant deadline pressures imposed by the Internet. With fewer reporters handling more stories, the reliance on official sourcing may be increasing.
When courts and crime reporter David Ovalle first got to the Miami Herald in 2002, he said a young reporter would always be sent down to the station after a police shooting to comb through huge personnel files on the officers who fired their weapons. “We just don’t have the bodies to do that anymore,” Ovalle said. “Meanwhile, there’s an insatiable need to put stuff on the Internet and aggregate, and feed the Internet beast.”
In Florida, police now blast out their arrest reports in mass emails to reporters, who once had to look these things up themselves and make choices about which to prioritize. “That’s wonderful in terms of transparency, but at the same time, it makes it really easy to just repeat whatever is on the arrest report,” Ovalle said.
In Miami, for example, police in June charged a man with vandalizing police cruisers during a protest. According to the Herald’s first story, he was a member of a group called the “Southern Slaves,” which a police report said “actively recruits people to violently protest the government.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted the first Herald story, calling it “more evidence of organized agitators from a variety of extremist groups.” But a second Herald story dug deeper: Southern Slaves, the paper revealed, is actually a group of aspiring rappers from the same Miami neighborhood who frequent open-mic nights. “We’re not terrorists. We love America. What we don’t love is systematic oppression and police brutality,” one member, Alonzo Martinez, told the Herald.
Some crime reporters argue that, rather than trying to present the first story as the complete account, they approach it as part of a long process of determining the truth. Often, police do not lay out their full cases until months later when it goes to court.
“These high-profile cases, I don’t see what choice we have to not write about it on the front end,” said one crime reporter at a major metropolitan daily newspaper, who spoke anonymously because he did not have authorization from his bosses to speak. “Question things, certainly — did they prove what they’re saying? Did they show the evidence? [But] that doesn’t happen at the first stage. When somebody gets arrested for murder, they’re not going to lay out the evidence. My job, I think, is to say, ‘This is what your police department said they did’ ” — and then stick with the story to see if it’s true.
Nevertheless, some news organizations have started to modify their approach. Some have stopped publishing booking photos; such “mug shot” galleries, editors say, can inflame racial stereotypes and stigmatize innocent people when the photos turn up in Internet searches years later. “In our editorial judgment, [they] are of limited news value,” editors at Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company, said in a statement when the chain eliminated galleries earlier this month.
Another group publisher, AL.com, which covers Alabama, has gradually shifted some of its coverage from breaking crime toward “criminal justice” stories, emphasizing investigations, prosecutions, court proceedings and systemic issues, said Kelly Ann Scott, who oversees the news site. “We’re not all about arrests,” she said. “We’re looking for deeper pieces about how the system is working or not working.”
Some are urging a more radical step: downplaying routine police-blotter stories altogether, on the theory that they lean too heavily on the say-so of police and thus amount to unverified information.
A group of 40 community organizations wants the Philadelphia Inquirer — one of many news organizations grappling internally with staff complaints about racially insensitive coverage — to avoid publishing stories that have the police as the sole source of information. The coalition also wants to create an appeal process for people named in crime stories to have news articles about them removed from the paper’s website.
“The basic [journalistic] principle should be, treat the police like any other source, with the same degree of skepticism as you treat any other source,” said Susan Chira, the editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a digital news site that focuses on the criminal justice system and avoids breaking crime news.
“ ‘Police said’ is not a shorthand for truth,” she added. “You don’t give up your obligation to verify and corroborate” just because the source wears a badge and a gun.