Janell Ross is a reporter for The Washington Post’s The Fix.
At the start of any job, it’s best to understand not just the rules but also the purpose they serve. Years ago, my guide in the work of covering alleged crimes was a plain-spoken Texan who owned a ranch, played a guitar and often arrived in the newsroom clad in cowboy boots. His instructions often sounded like a solemn, slowly dispatched code about the difficult work of writing about crime.
What he had to say: In Texas, accusations of the most serious crimes could, in fact, lead to death. Reporters had an utter obligation to relay what police and prosecutors said happened, make the source of that narrative clear, contemplate and insert a variety of language identifying that which was unproven, uncertain or unclear. That language should remain until the reporter’s own work — real, get-the-facts reporting — could justify its removal.
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This, he said, is how the presumption of innocence was conveyed to the public and how a philosophical — but essential — concept in American criminal justice is made real. The media rank among the most powerful checks against the march toward the wrong conclusion. And, perhaps to reinforce the gravity of this work, he also strongly recommended that every reporter witness, at least once, an execution carried out by the state of Texas.
That really wasn’t unreasonable. Stories about crime, along with logs of activity in city hall, school board disputes and storms, rank among the most-read contents of any local paper. A bigger, national version of the same is true of almost every television news program. And because of this, the details of the most awful tragedies that befall families each year or alter the lives of individual crime victims also represent a kind of entertainment.
These stories are a source of intrigue. They can amount to cautionary tales, putting a reporter’s work on the front page of a newspaper for days or even months on end. They can transform local reporters, police and prosecutors into major players on far bigger stages.
There are temptations for reporters, and for the media as a whole, to move past the get-the-facts-and-admit-what-is-unclear stage and to adopt law enforcement’s voice of certainty all too soon. If reporters simply let the important work go, they suddenly have all the time in the world to track down grieving and stunned family members on either side of a crime’s human equation and to provide the sordid details that keep readers interested.
As journalists begin to work for an increasing number of outlets, on television or online, the pressure to unearth new facts grounded in reporting has not kept pace with the drive for lurid detail. And quite frankly, even the journalists who maintain sufficient skepticism and attempt to seek the facts may still do the accused, the victim and the public a disservice. Journalists are not immune to the many variants of conscious and unconscious bias.
We can try to be conscious of the ways in which what we do or don’t have in common with our subjects skews our understanding of the truth. And we can lean on the discerning eye of an editor with biases of their own. This is work that, when taken seriously, is very hard. But it is also very important.
As Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” so clearly conveys, any reported story built solely from unexamined information that some might say is spoon-fed by police and prosecutors almost always becomes complicit in advancing not the presumption of innocence, but of guilt.
While there is much that the documentary does not answer — there is an uncomfortably large volume of critical and messy detail the filmmakers make no attempt to integrate into the series — the story does leave viewers with an unsettling conclusion.
Though Steven Avery, the twice-convicted man at the center of this series, may not be one of them, people can be wrongfully convicted in this country. It seems that this happens most often because of who they are and what they do not have. That is the humbling truth about how our system works.
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