Newsrooms confront the 'police say' problem

CNN's Van Jones reacts after authorities in Chicago released body camera video that shows 13-year-old Adam Toledo being shot by officers on March 29.

Posted: Apr 16, 2021 9:01 PM
Updated: Apr 16, 2021 9:01 PM

A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

The podcaster and cultural critic Toure tweeted on Thursday, "We interrupt our coverage of the protests of the police murder of Daunte Wright which interrupted the trial of the police murder of George Floyd to bring you coverage of the police murder of Adam Toledo."

"Police murder" is obviously a very charged term, but it reflects the emotions of this time. And his description of the news cycle is indisputable. In Minneapolis, the defense in Derek Chauvin's murder trial rested its case on Thursday. Ten miles north in Brooklyn Center, where Daunte Wright was killed, another curfew was declared in a bid to limit late-night protests. And in Chicago, the release of bodycam footage in the Adam Toledo case left a city on edge.

These tragedies have also spurred new conversations in newsrooms and on social media about the "police said" problem. Law enforcement authorities are important sources, but imperfect ones, just like every other type of source.

"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,'" WaPo's Paul Farhi and Elahe Izadi wrote last summer.

The long-standing reliance on police accounts -- call it the Official Narrative -- is under scrutiny, and for many good reasons. Video keeps contradicting, or at least undermining, the Official Narrative.

"At bare minimum," NYT reporter and CNN analyst Astead Herndon wrote Thursday, "body cams repeatedly prove police are an untrustworthy journalistic source and it would seem that any media narrative reliant on 'police said' must be coupled with the context of what we also know -- police lie."

Defector deputy editor Barry Petchesky tweeted: "A very subtle but meaningful distinction reporters could employ when citing sources who regularly lie is to, instead of writing 'police say,' use 'police claim.' Some measure of doubt is implied, and it's well-earned."

Cop beat reporting 101

But these are very hard habits to change. "There are ways that journalists are taught to do a story -- and to be objective requires marshaling the judgment of other experts," professor Nikki Usher told me. "From that framework, it is hard to imagine a more authoritative source than police. How do you not quote a basic civil institution? It's like ignoring the president. You 'have' to quote the authority because they both make and verify the news."

Usher, who has a book titled "News for the Rich, White, and Blue" coming out in June, said "unfortunately those institutions and people who are always quoted have more power than those who are never quoted -- it's all knowns vs. unknowns -- and the knowns are known because of their power and appearance in the news." She concluded: "How do you dismantle literally 200 years of beat cop reporting?"

Handling horrible video with care

When the video of a Chicago officer fatally shooting Toledo was made public, news outlets wrestled with tough decisions about what to show and what not to show.

A prosecutor originally said that Toledo had a gun in his hand when he was shot, but the video disproved that. Police now say the gun was in his hand less than a second beforehand.

The video is crucial -- but also excruciating to see. The same frame-by-frame scenes can be interpreted several different ways. "In my opinion, tragic as it was, the shooting was reasonable," Charles Ramsey said on CNN's "AC360" Thursday night.

Most broadcast outlets paused the tape before the moment Toledo was hit, sometimes airing the audio of the shot but not the video. Some websites were criticized for having the graphic video on autoplay when users clicked articles about the case. Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit newsroom, posted two versions of a news story -- one that said "NO VIDEO IN STORY" and the other with the video...

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