Justice in America Episode 15: Crime, Justice, and the Media
Josie and Clint discuss the power and pitfalls of crime reporting with Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post.
News stories about crime are found in every local paper or evening newscast nationwide. But stories about our criminal justice system are much less common. So how does the way the media report on crime affect our perception of it? How should local and national media report on our criminal justice system? What obstacles are journalists and outlets facing? And, as a media consumer, what should you be aware of when you’re reading stories about crime and criminal justice? On this episode, we’ll be tackling all these questions and more! We talk to Wesley Lowery, National Correspondent with the Washington Post. We also have a special guest featured in this episode: Pam Colloff, from the New York Times and ProPublica.
Check out Wesley’s terrific work with the Post. And you can find his book here.
Pam Colloff’s amazing work can be found here. You should definitely read her story about Joe Bryan, a man who is serving a life sentence for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. It is phenomenal.
What I learned about journalism after 27 years in prison, by Kerry Myers, is a good read.
Shifting how journalists talk about people in prison, by Andrew McCormick, from the Columbia Journalism Review
Prison Policy does a good job of highlighting good criminal justice journalism. Check out their most recent list here.
And, as always, check out The Appeal! There’s some great work happening on this very website.
Justice in America is available on iTunes, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.
Our email is email@example.com
Wesley Lowery: What we see is that a lot of incidents, especially as they involve crime or the police, much less police action, all the coverage happens at the very beginning of the story when almost none of the full information is available and very little is ever done at the end of a story when in fact you can start making kind of analytical statements and figure out what was really the root of this or what? It’s really discouraging and beyond that we’re also seeing, and part of this is because of the decimation of our local media, a lot of these incidents aren’t even getting written about at the front end and that really scares me.
Clint Smith: What’s up everybody? I’m Clint Smith.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works.
Josie: Thank you everyone for joining us us today. You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, you can like our Facebook page, you can just find us at Justice in America and please subscribe and rate us on iTunes, we always love to hear from you.
Clint: We opened the show with a clip from our guest, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Wesley Lowery. Wesley is a National Correspondent with The Washington Post, author of the book They Can’t Kill Us All and a dear friend of ours. Over the past few years, Wesley has been a leading voice covering policing and police brutality. He’s going to join us to talk about our topic today which is the media’s coverage of criminal justice issues.
Josie: So we’re very grateful for all of you who have listened this far and we hope that we are bringing some new perspective. But, even if we have managed to do that, we’re playing some tough odds here. After all, you spend about an hour of your week listening to us, and the other hundreds of hours of your week you spend doing other things. And, we’d be willing to bet at some point during your week, you are exposed to other news or information about the criminal justice system.
Clint: It could be a short news story about a horrible crime that is making the headlines. It could be a segment on the local evening news or just a headline in your local paper or it could even be another story about Bob Mueller. Or maybe it’s just like another episode of Law and Order SVU, shout out to the marathons. The point is, we are exposed to crime and criminal justice media a lot. All the time.
Josie: So today we thought we’d do something a little different, which is give you our thoughts on how to think about all of this information—what questions to ask, what to look out for,and what is missing from the media and criminal justice landscape. We hope that we can encourage you to have a more discerning ear when you hear these stories.
Clint: And because we’re talking about misconceptions pretty much all day today, we’re going to skip the word of the day. I know, its tragic, for those of you in despair, you’ll just have to wait breathlessly until next week for a new one. Alright, now, criminal justice media.
Josie: Right. So, let’s start out by telling you what we believe which is that that a lot of the criminal justice coverage out there leaves a lot to be desired. And to be clear—that’s not a reflection on media writ large, or journalists, or any of that—there are just a lot of impediments to covering the criminal justice system, and that is particularly true if you’re a local reporter.
Clint: First off, each local criminal justice system is a complicated mix of norms and procedures and statutes and relationships that are extremely difficult to untangle. And that’s separate from the other layer of complication, which is criminal law. Most journalists don’t have law degrees, and some of this stuff requires background. Plus, there is a lot happening all the time. Some offices are seeing around half a million cases a year. And that’s just cases. Multiply that by all the moments and points of contact between an arrest and the sentence, and we’re talking about an impossible amount of information for any person to follow closely.
Josie: Yeah, it’s a lot and if you haven’t heard, in a lot of places local outlets are starved for resources. Lots of local journalists are covering more than ever with much, much, much less. Often, these big stories about the criminal justice system, take time and money that these reporters simply don’t have. This is one of the benefits of national reporting, like what we do at The Appeal.
Clint: Go to theappeal.org.
Josie: And then there’s this other thing which is that this is a really opaque system. Very, very, very opaque. There’s no comprehensive public database of information about police and prosecutors and what they do all day. Journalists often don’t have access to the tools that they’d need to do any type of complex analysis about what happens in these police departments or in these prosecutor’s offices. Often, the public isn’t privy to relevant internal information—like, for example, a police officer who is suspended or fired due to misconduct. But they also can’t even find out exactly how many people of color the office prosecuted last year.
Clint: And one last thing about the obstacles that journalists are facing, and again, this is especially true for local journalists. Local law enforcement is often a critical ally and a source if someone is trying to tell stories about a community. And that’s especially true when reporters are being asked to cover more ground as funds and resources dry up. There are rarely reporters dedicated singularly to the criminal justice system in local outlets. They might cover crime and the criminal justice system. They might cover jails and schools and transportation. They might cover everything. Either way, chances are that there’s actually a good reason for wanting them to maintain at least a decent relationship with law enforcement.
Josie: All of these things together result in some distinct and often concerning patterns in crime and criminal justice coverage. Again, often that’s because the DA’s office or the local precinct just doesn’t have the resources or the incentive to be accountable that, say, the Department of Justice might. Pam Colloff, a criminal justice reporter who works at The New York Times and ProPublica is one of the most incredible voices in the field covering local criminal justice right now. Here she is talking about some of the obstacles she’s faced trying to report on local stories.
Pam Colloff: One of the most difficult issues I think any journalist faces in reporting on the criminal justice system is simply getting the information that you need. If you think about the fact that at least 95 percent of cases end in plea deals, there’s no sworn testimony in open court and so there’s a lot of murkiness as to the facts of a particular case. The cases that remain, even when they’re headed to trial, you usually have a prosecutor who won’t comment except maybe to give a few pat sound bites, you have a defendant who’s been advised not to talk to the media, who’s often incarcerated, you have investigators and witnesses and victims’ family members who’ve also been told not to talk to you. And so you’re at a tremendous disadvantage trying to get any information and especially any information that might be different than the prosecution’s narrative. Then when the trial happens, uh, in, in my experience, what I’ve seen, is that what a jury hears, what happens in the courtroom, is about 10 percent of the story, right? It’s sort of like an iceberg and there’s so much more context and nuance and information that you’re not getting, but usually you’re under a tight deadline and you’re having to work with the information that you have. So I think that lack of information is one of the most difficult things.
Personally, I’ve just in the past year, I’ve been writing about a case here in Texas about a man named Joe Bryan who was convicted of his wife’s murder. And this is a very, very old case, there’s untested DNA evidence in the case that the DA refuses to test. And because the DA and his assistant prosecutors won’t speak to me or to any media about their thought process on this, we don’t know why it is that they are blocking DNA testing or why it is that they still believe that this man is guilty despite overwhelming evidence, as I presented in my story, that he did not do this crime.
I think there are all sorts of problems that we can point to as far as the way that media covers the criminal justice system. But I think we need to be really careful about recognizing the fact that right now we have such a depleted force of reporters out there in America doing this reporting who are doing their jobs everyday with fewer and fewer resources, often without mentors or any sort of mentorship going on, and who were just flying by the seat of their pants having to file a story by five or six in the evening and who haven’t been armed with the resources or the time, uh, that they really need to delve into these stories deeply and to think about them critically. And so I want to be careful when we’re critiquing media coverage to be cognizant of the fact that part of that problem is a resource problem and that what we need to do is to reinvest in local journalism and to help those reporters do the reporting that we need them to do.
Clint: There’s a lot of great reporting out there. People like Pam and Wesley and so many others, including phenomenal local reporters, who we can’t forget, are great at covering this stuff. But there’s also, and it’s gotta be said, a whole lot of bad coverage. So this is the part where we tell you what’s wrong with how so much of media covers crime and criminal system First things first, it’s pretty obvious but still it needs to be said, coverage of the criminal justice system often focuses almost exclusively on the most shocking and and heinous and salacious stories.
Josie: This, of course, makes sense, and again, is not a knock on journalists. These are the stories that entice readers. You know, the worst serial killer, the craziest kidnapping. In America, true crime is an entire industry. But it seems that what has resulted from that is a history of reporting that focuses a very large chunk of its attention on a very very small number of cases.
Clint: Also, local coverage tends to lack important context. I’ve seen countless stories of someone who, released pre-trial, committed a crime while out on bail. There aren’t stories, of course, about the people who don’t. Which makes sense, since following the rules isn’t exactly grabbing anyone’s attention. But rarely, if ever, does the news ever even give a sentence to how the one bad case fits in the bigger picture.
Josie: So another point of context that’s usually missing: any reference to our mass incarceration system. America has a gargantuan criminal justice system, the biggest in the world, and millions of people every year spend time in jail or prison or are under some form of correctional control. And yet, much, of course, not all, but much, of criminal justice news exists almost like in a vacuum.
Clint: Mass incarceration happens through millions of tiny infinitely small moments that happen in countless courtrooms and jails every single day. When reporting on those cases, especially in the most punitive jurisdictions, it would make sense to make note of all of these systemic realities. How can we understand what happened to Michael Brown without understanding the history of housing segregation in St. Louis?
Clint: How can we understand what happened in Charlottesville without understanding the history of white supremacist violence in this country? The list goes on and on.
Josie: And journalists have to be the ones telling those stories. You know, there’s one more issue with media coverage-
Clint: And it’s an important one.
Josie: And it’s that in so many stories every day, law enforcement and prosecutors control the narrative. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how media is biased against law enforcement, and I think Clint would agree with me that we both disagree with that.
Josie: But certainly on the national level journalists are increasing the demand for accountability over these past few years. But historically and to this day, especially locally, law enforcement has really been able to drive the story.
Clint: Over the next week or so pick up your local paper and turn to your local news station and be on the lookout for stories covering crime, policing, courtrooms, prisons, etcetera. It’s almost shocking how often the only people interviewed are members of law enforcement. The persistent fear of crime that exists in America stems from a narrative shaped by thousands of sheriff’s departments and prosecutor’s offices and police stations. Pam Colloff has actually tackled this problem in a whole subfield of criminal justice journalism—forensic science. Her work has focused on dismantling the quote unquote “science” that prosecutors and police promote as infallible. Here she is discussing the patterns and issues she’s seen throughout her career in how media covers our criminal justice system.
Pam Colloff: Many reporters who show up to cover a trial will hear someone who identifies him or herself on the stand as a forensic expert and that person often uses forbidding sounding jargon to sound authoritative and they talk about their extensive credentials and I think for the average reporter, who doesn’t have a background in hard science or forensic science, this can be extremely intimidating. I know I have felt that myself. But at the same time it’s really important, like so many things that we hear in the courtroom, to not take it at face value.
And so I had the luxury to spend an entire year, thanks to ProPublica and The Times, looking at one particular forensic discipline called bloodstain pattern analysis. And in the course of that year, I learned that some quote unquote “experts,” who the courts have deemed experts, have actually only taken a 40 hour class, a one week class in this forensic discipline. And that was really eye opening to me to see that. I then had the opportunity to take the class myself and to spend the rest of that year calling up scientists and interviewing scientists about their opinions about whether there really was science behind this forensic discipline. And to make a very long story short, the conclusion I came to at the end of that year was that this really should not be in courtrooms and bloodstain pattern analysis should not be in courtrooms and that it should not be something that a jury uses to decide guilt or innocence or to decide whether someone should spend the rest of his or her life in prison.
Most reporters do not have the time to do that kind of reporting and to really investigate what an expert is saying and who that expert is and what his history has been. And so you can see now ProPublica and The Appeal and some other organizations are starting to put together, like The Innocence Project, some resources for reporters so they can be more critical of a quote unquote “expert” when they hear that person in the courtroom. But it’s still very, very difficult I think for the average beat reporter to really look critically at testimony like that.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve found in doing the reporting that I do, is that so often the narrative is controlled by the prosecution and by law enforcement. And one of the things that I have to spend a lot of time doing is trying to do the sort of contextual reporting or sometimes after the fact reporting after a trial occurs to put all the pieces together and figure out what actually happened. And one of the things that’s been hugely beneficial, I’ve found, is not just to cover a case when it’s heading to trial or in trial, but even to wait some period of time, often after the conviction occurs, and then to revisit some of the main players in the case when things have sort of cooled down. And you can get so much more information that way and often you find a much richer and more complicated and less black and white story than what was presented in court.
Clint: So, here are a few things that you should keep in mind when you read or listen to stories of crime and criminal justice.
Josie: So the first thing is do not be fooled or distracted by the stories about leniency.
Josie. No. You know, we said earlier, we give this enormous amount of coverage to people who got light sentences. Brock Turner, for example, became a household name when he served just three months in jail for sexual assault. And the judge who sentenced him was recalled earlier this year, making him the first judge in 80 years to be recalled in an election. There was understandable outrage about the fact that the system seemed to be giving Brock Turner a break when he had done something so heinous. But that being said, Brock Turner is very rare. And while sexual assault is more likely to be ignored by law enforcement, most crimes are simply not. We did not get this mass incarceration system we have by being too lenient.
Clint: People are sentenced to dozens of years over small infractions regularly. In 2015, for example, a 17 year old in North Carolina took a naked picture of himself on his phone. The prosecutor in the county charged him as an adult for quote, “sexual exploitation of a minor,” even though the minor was himself. That same year, a 23 year old man in Florida violated his probation by driving with a suspended license. The judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison. Six, zero. For a suspended license. Both of those cases got some local media coverage, which ultimately led to dropped charges for the boy in North Carolina and a reduced sentence for the man in Florida. But it was a comparatively quiet level of attention.
Josie: So here’s another tip, when you are reading stories about crime or criminal justice or watching TV or listening to something you should always try to identify the authority. When a story only quotes law enforcement sources or recites law enforcement narratives as fact without external confirmation, that should set off some alarm bells in your head. This is particularly true in situations where a person has been injured by law enforcement or died while in police custody. And we see this often. Just over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of cases where law enforcement’s explanation of an in-custody death was recited by news outlets as total fact before it became clear that police had lied. Eric Garner is one tragic example of that.
Clint: Of course be aware of articles using terms like “thug” or “felon” or “con” to describe a defendant or editorializing without a basis. But also be aware of the passive voice. Oftentimes, misconduct by a law enforcement officer or prosecutors is framed in a way that seems to almost absolve them of their wrongdoing. The term “officer-involved shooting” is just one example of a puzzling tendency to obscure the facts of situations involving the police. If I shot someone tomorrow, it wouldn’t be described in the local news as a “Phd candidate-involved shooting” and officers should be held to the same standard as everyone else. Look for an identifiable “who” and a clear “what” when there are indications of government actors acting improperly.
Josie: And our last point is a really important one: don’t get trapped by fear. By that we mean that it is important to be vigilant and it important to be cautious but America is not in the middle of a crime wave. Crime is very geographically specific of course and some places are plagued by more crime than others. But for most people in America, they are safer now than they have ever been. Fear mongering has become sort of this integral part of so much of law enforcement’s narratives in many places. And police and prosecutors and other law enforcement officials really want people to think crime is bad and right around the corner. But the data says the opposite. Crime rates fluctuate by the year of course, but data trends pretty clearly show that America is safer today than it was 10 or 25 or even 50 years ago.
Clint: So, once again, here’s Pam Colloff, with advice on how to take in information about this system, and what you, as a reader, should keep in mind.
Pam Colloff: I think it’s important whether we are a reporter covering the criminal justice system or a private citizen who’s consuming media about the criminal justice system to keep in mind that the narrative is always much, much more complicated than what is often presented in the media or in the courtroom. And to really look at everything that is presented with a critical eye, whether that’s an expert witness testifying or the way that a defendant is characterized in court. Um, something that I think about a lot is, you know, we could take the case of Michael Brown, who after he was shot and killed was described as quote unquote “no angel,” um, and we that narrative run through so many of these shootings of young black men that have happened in recent years. Uh, that is a really poisonous narrative and one that is really, really damaging and so I think we need to be careful as both reporters and readers and viewers to think about that when we see information like that. Who’s putting that information out there? Is it accurate? And again, and again, I’ve seen, even with defendants who are guilty and have committed heinous crimes, that there’s so much more to the story and if you can find out what that person was like before the abuse they suffered or before the mental health crisis that they went through or before the addiction that took hold of them, that you’ll see a much more complicated picture. And as a reporter, I’m always trying to look for that picture.
Clint: To talk to us more about what it means to cover the criminal justice system as a journalist, we will be joined by Wesley Lowery, author and National Correspondent for The Washington Post. Stay tuned.
Josie: So we’re here today with Wesley Lowery, who’s a National Correspondent at The Washington Post, who has done some incredible work at The Washington Post covering prosecutors and police and is part of the team that in 2016 won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting at The Washington Post for their project “Fatal Force” which looked at police killings in the United States. Where are they happen, what the circumstances were and what sort of the national landscape of police brutality looks like. So thank you so much for joining us today.
Clint: He’s also The New York Times best selling author of-
Josie: Oh, that is true. Yes.
Clint: Oh They Can’t Kill Us All, published by Little, Brown.
Josie: That is true.
Wesley Lowery: Keep going, let’s go, what else do you got? What else do you guys know about me? (Laughing.)
Clint: He’s got a fantastic beard.
Josie: (Laughing.) He’s also from my favorite state: Ohio.
Josie: So thank you for joining us Wesley.
Wesley Lowery: Thank you for having me guys.
Clint: Let’s start a little bit with your sort of origin story in journalism. So we’re thinking a lot about how people in media cover criminal justice and the extent to which they are successful, unsuccessful to, to the extent that they accurately reflect so much of the landscape of what the history and the complicated socio political realities are and to what extent they might contribute to misperceptions around the issue. And so we’re thinking holistically about this and I’m curious both, how you came to journalism and how you came to report specifically on issues of race and criminal justice?
Wesley Lowery: Certainly. So I kind of have the blessing and the curse of always having wanted to have the job that I have now and always knowing this was what I was going to do or what I wanted to do and not actually having very many backup plans or plan B’s. You know, I worked for my middle school newspaper and then my high school newspaper and then my college newspaper and much to the detriment of all of my transcripts forever. Skipped all of my classes to work at my newspapers. I really wanted to be a political reporter. That was what I got into this to do. It’s what I thought was fun and sexy and I remember coming up in college watching the campaign reporters who covered like the rise of President, Obama for example, and seeing them tweeting from the rallies because that was like the new cool technology at a time, that they could, they could post, you know, what the candidates were saying in real time and thinking that that’s what I wanted to do. After I got to college, I did internships at The Boston Globe and then at The Los Angeles Times I did the six month fellowship and in both of those places, spent a fair amount of time doing breaking news, cops reporting, courts reporting. I, still at my desk, have the program from the funeral of a man, um, Jose de la Trinidad who was shot and killed by the police in Los Angeles and this must have been 2012, 2013. It was one of the first police shootings I ever covered and it was a case where, you know, this man had been shot and killed. I get ahold of the widow the next day and she’s saying, you know, ‘I, I think he was shot in the back, he was trying to surrender’ and then I end up finding the witness and she’d watched outside of the window and so it was one of the first times that it kind of showed me the weaknesses in the initial reporting sometimes. Right? And I was, I was the initial reporter and I was the person in that first day writing up what the police said, ‘Jose was killed yesterday and he did these seven things’ and then on day two talking to a family member who now complicates that narrative a little bit. Now week two finding an eye witness who really complicates the narrative. Right? And then ultimately the autopsy coming out relatively proving that no, the initial police narrative wasn’t true. And so that was, I still, I guess, I keep that funeral program at my desk still and have throughout my career because I still think about, you know, it was one of the first times that I saw how journalism in this space could illuminate a story and it could apply pressure to official narratives where maybe they aren’t true. But I did all that and then I got hired back at The Boston Globe to cover local politics, to cover, uh, at the time that mayoral race in 2013 and then upcoming governor’s race and a Senate race and still got pulled into a bunch of breaking news. The Boston Marathon bombings happened, then Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots murdered some people and so I was involved in covering that as well.
Wesley Lowery: He got convicted of the one, we can’t liable anymore, right? He’s, he’s gone.
Wesley Lowery: But in 2014, early 2014, I moved down to Washington DC to cover Congress for The Washington Post and I showed up with like a suit and a half that didn’t fit. Showed up on the hill to cover national politics, had no idea how Congress worked. I still don’t really have any idea how Congress works and-
Josie: Neither does Congress.
Wesley Lowery: No. If they even work.
Wesley Lowery: And so I did that for a session of Congress from February 2014 through, it was the kind of Summer recess in August and then I went out, I remember, I had gone out to cover the 2014 midterms, I’m out in Michigan covering some Senate race, and I get back on a Monday and the editors in the room are walking around that there’s some type of unrest or something’s happening in a suburb in Missouri. There’s a police shooting and maybe a gas station got burned down and we have to figure out what’s going on and so me, again, being smart enough to identify the important stories and then try to weasel my way into them, started walking around and going, well I could call Claire McCaskill and maybe the Senators from Missouri know what’s going on? Or I know the people at the NAACP, maybe they’re going down there? And finally editor said, ‘Well, could you just get on a plane to Missouri?’ Like he’s just like, ‘Go down for a day. We need to get somebody there. We don’t have,’ and this is now three days after Michael Brown has been killed. Right? And I’m like, ‘sure,’ like go to the airport, get on the next airplane to St. Louis thinking I’m going down for two or three days and ultimately end up spending three months in Ferguson.
Josie: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about Ferguson because I think this was before I knew you, and this is I think how I first became aware of your work was just the intensity with which you covered Ferguson and how you sort of became part of the story because you were arrested and spent some time in jail in Ferguson. And for a lot of journalists I know, this was just such an important moment in trying to decipher what your job is here and how you’re going to tell these stories. Because I mean I can’t think of another clear example of the human impact that something like this has on a community. The impact that it has been having on a community even before Michael Brown died. So can you talk a little bit about how Ferguson sort of changed or reinforced how you saw your job and what your own sort of experiences with being singled out and actually being subject to criminal charges?
Wesley Lowery: I think that one of the fundamental questions facing any journalist is how we relate to power and how we interact with power, right? So many of the decisions we make subjectively are about power, our own power, the power that we write about and then how we relate in our adjacent seat of power, right? Do we want to be close to it? Do we want to be standoffish from it and what that looks like. And the thing about the story in Ferguson is that the story is, and I think the story of criminal justice broadly, is fundamentally about power. You have people who are subjected to a government power, government violence and whether or not they are empowered to provide feedback to that, to make changes to it. And so what we saw in Ferguson here, was by the time I get there, it’s August 11th. Michael Brown was killed on August 9th, I arrive August 11th. So it’s been two days and then ultimately myself and another reporter are arrested, or the first two have of what ends up being dozens of reporters who during these protests get arrested, but we get arrested on August 13th and so there’s a little timeline. But as we arrive and as I arrive, what you see is hundreds of people, at times thousands of people who are in the streets and they are furious, right? That this man has been killed. The teenager has been killed. His body has been left in the street. People have seen photos or they’ve seen videos of it. The police have put out a two sentence statement saying there was an altercation in the car and an officer killed this man. There’s no explanation given whatsoever. They are various witnesses coming out, providing all types of different accounts of what happened or what else didn’t happen. And the powerful people, the government, right? The police felt no obligation to explain what had happened. And so here you got a whole community that had been traumatized. I mean literally there were looking at the body of a dead teenager outside of their home. They’re receiving no explanation for why it happened and receiving no promise that there one day will be an explanation of it, that this whole story was in a lot of ways, about who has the power to kill you and can you demand an accountability for it? For me, I thought as a journalist, as a reporter, my job in terms of my skepticism and where I apply pressure and where I apply cynicism isn’t to apply it to the powerless people. It’s to apply it to the powerful people right? That we saw reporters and lines of reporting that were about digging up any traffic ticket Michael Brown had ever gotten before or did he talk back to his mom once or was he, did he smoke weed sometimes? And look, and I think it’s important for us if we’re going to be writing about someone to have a sense and understanding of who they are and I would never argue for sugarcoating those things, but my job as a reporter is to apply pressure to the powerful people, dead teenager is not the powerful person. It’s the police officer holding the gun, and so that was how I saw my job in Ferguson. You know, I ended up, I ended up spending about three months on the ground there doing stories about the kind of birth and origin of what became the kind of broader Black Lives Matter movement, spending time with Michael Brown’s family and the family pastor and the local activists and writing kind of dispatches from there. Writing about the businesses after there was another round of unrest after the officer, Darren Wilson, wasn’t charged in that crime and then afterwards ended up being, you know, I always say that I thought I was going down to Ferguson for about three days. I spent three months on the ground there and then for a while the line I’ve used is that and then ended up spending three years covering policing. I’m actually in year four so I have to figure out a new line, but it really became a focus because what was so clear to me was the depth to which the story was fundamental and foundational to us as a society, right? That you have communities around the country where the government has lost its legitimacy, where there is no trust in power and then that is always going to create a tension and that’s always going to create a conflict and how can I, as a relatively powerful person, as someone who has the, who can marshal the resources and the attention of The Washington Post, as someone who, if I put a story on the front page of the newspaper, that story is landing on the Oval Office desk every morning. How can I marshal that power for these otherwise relatively powerless people? And so that’s kinda how I think about my job.
Clint: That’s a good point. How do you think about the idea of like what objectivity or subjectivity or balance looks like in journalism? I think we’re in a fascinating moment where so many reporters who all we would have known previously of them are there by lines they now have Twitter right? And so we see a different part of journalists or reports personality and the way that they think about the world than we previously would have, right?
Josie: And who they interact with, right? You see who people are friends with and who they spend their time with and you can kind of deduct from that.
Clint: And that, you know, the presence, this is becoming a series of questions in one, but and the presence of social media and that, you know, I’m thinking to your previous point about some of the coverage of Mike Brown in the sort of infamous in New York Times, first paragraph, which was like “Michael Brown was no angel” and how that’s a sort of microcosm for a much larger phenomenon in the way that these major media institutions have often covered black people and people of color who had been killed at the hands of the state or who have been killed in other various ways. And it’s fascinating to watch as something like social media empowers the public to respond differently to that sort of thing. And I’m curious how you’ve seen the existence of social media change the way that people think about this work or what the nature of their jobs is as reporters or as media institutions and how you think about yourself sort of within that ecosystem?
Wesley Lowery: Certainly. You know, I’m not someone who necessarily believes in journalistic objectivity. I don’t think it exists. What I know about journalism and know about media is that to get to any article, to any story, to any podcast episode to whatever, whatever the output is, there was a series of subjective decisions that had to be made. The first of which was that this was a story worth covering in the first place and what is the story to me might not be a story to you, might not be a story to Clint, might not, and so all this is foundationally subjective and I think knowing that is important. You know, you noted that the change we’ve seen in media, even just a few years ago when I got into this in 2011 or 2012, right? You might not necessarily know what a reporter looked like, what their face was, that a mugshot was something that was preserved for a columnist right? And when you make, you know, in your retirement and job, when you became someone who got to have opinions about things, then your face went in the newspaper. But social media, we know what all of our favorite or least favorite reporters look like. We know who they hang out with-
Clint: We know what songs they like, we know what gifs they use-
Wesley Lowery: All of these things about them in a way that’s personal, right? And what we know is that there are people whose reporting I read because I like the same sports teams as them and therefore follow them, right? Or people whose reporting I don’t read because I unfollowed them because I got mad about their bad Kanye West take. You know, that we do in fact curate even our own journalist experiences based on a bunch of biasing factors, right? In good ways and bad ways. Again, I think most of these things are good, right? Because I think that it was never true, it was always a fallacy that there was some type of journalistic voice of god, some ideal objectivity that, um, if you follow all the right rules, any two reporters would always write the same story. What is the thought behind that? And we just know that that’s not true. No, but you raise an important point about the kind of democratization of news that we no longer exist in an ivory tower where we get to decide what the news is in a given day. You know why do we know the name Michael Brown and why do we know the story of that Michael Brown, how many Michael Brown’s are there in the United States of America?
Josie: How many have been shot by the police? Probably know there was-
Wesley Lowery: In fact another Michael Brown was killed in 2014 by the police. Why do we know this story? And it would be lovely if the answer was because of a crusading journalist who went and told it. The reality is it’s because a bunch of black people walked out of their houses and started recording on their phones what was happening, right? Now they are in a sense journalists. They were doing a journalistic deed there, but we know about the story and the story received the coverage it did because of kind of the democratizing effect of the way the news works that people forced us to pay attention. We see this also in now the feedback mechanisms, right? We no longer have a veil of ignorance about how people are perceiving the work we’re doing. You know, there’s infamously, there was the, you know, “Michael Brown was no angel” line in the profile of him that ran the day of his funeral. But even before that, I remember as I was getting on the plane because his funeral was maybe August 19th or 20th, I was getting on the plane down there August 11th and on that day the trending topic was #whentheygunmedown and it was this conversation about what photo of me will they use if I get killed by the police versus another photo, right? So it was people posting the photo of them in like a college party next to the photo of them with their diploma, right? When they gun me down what photo do you think the police are going to use or what photo do you think the media is going to use? Right? These conversations about how people are presented and how stories are being told and exposes the subjectivity to it. Now we all have two or three different photos that tell very different stories about us depending on which one is used and-
Clint: And it seems like it’s also transformed the way that media uses those images. Right? Just anecdotally, I’m thinking about the way I’ve seen these things covered since. I see a lot more graduation photos then I used to and and I, it feels impossible to disentangle that from the fact that no media apparatus wants to be the group that’s dragged on social media for being insensitive, for being racist, for, you know, consciously or unconsciously.
Josie: And I think even thinking about Trayvon and like the images they showed of Trayvon and thinking back to how he was such a little kid like he, his face was young and he seemed like such a young kid and every, it was remember of him flipping off the camera? That one picture was like everywhere and how I knew, I didn’t have sort of the perspective at the time to articulate exactly, to see that for what it was entirely. I was like, they’re definitely using these pictures in a certain way, but now it’s just so much I think especially post Mike Brown, sort of the impact that that has on people and the intentionality of searching for those pictures, using those pictures, those are the ones you pick out is so much clearer to me than I think it was in 2013. Just, you know, what I think about sort of the beginning of this conversation about this.
Clint: Just as you said Wesley, I think it also exposes the fact that like none of this was ever objective, right? Like someone was always, there was always a person with a certain set of experiences, a certain set of ideas, who was making a decision about what photo you run in the paper, about what language you use in the paper. And so, so I think that the sort of mythology of objectivity in journalism has, at least in many of the circles that we run in his kind of begun to evaporate away to some extent.
Wesley Lowery: And even what you prioritize in terms of how you cover something. I remember reading some old wire coverage of the Birmingham church bombings and wire services work a little differently because at the time and they are feeding updates and so everything kind of stacks, but I remember how in some of the final write throughs, one of the big focuses of the story was the unrest and now so many people are in the streets and they’re upset and they burned three cars and these four little girls had been murdered in a church by a bomb. Right? And it’s this thought of like alright how do we even prioritize how we tell the story and where we apply pressure, right? What are the questions we’re asking and what’s our day two story, right? Are we dispatching out to go figure out why the person who’s been killed deserved it or we dispatching out to apply pressure to who was this police officer and what was happening, you know? And again, and those are all subjective decisions. And beyond that, it’s the question of do we devote the resources to continue ongoing coverage? To what stories do we, the collective media deem important enough for our attention?
Josie: So to that point, I wonder what you think about the advantages that being a national, you know, even being on the ground in Ferguson for three months, you don’t have the same sort of considerations that someone who’s working for the local dispatch does.
Wesley Lowery: Sure. I think that there’s, when we have this debate in journalism all the time about this, right? The nationals versus the locals and who’s best positioned to tell the story and who should be doing it and who should be leading the way and there’s a nostalgic bias we all have, myself among them to say, ‘well, of course the local reporter is the right person to do this and they know way more than I do’ and that you know, we and we get why we do that and feel that way. And especially at a time when so many of our local outlets have been so just completely ransacked and pillaged by the economy that we want to show that support. But I do think there’s a really interesting balance between the role of the local outlet and the national outlet in the kind of media ecosystem. Right? I believe really firmly in what I consider like a mosaic theory of journalism. In the past it was the sense of crusading journalist would go out and they would get quote unquote “the story,” right? I would be able to get every piece of it. I would get Darren Wilson on the record and I will get Michael Brown’s mother and I would find the smoking gun document and the witness and the, well, what we know is that that’s not how the media works, right? A hundred reporters get on a story and I get this little piece of it and someone else gets this little piece of it and then some day in the history books someone is going to site everyone and actually tell the full story of what happened. Right? And so because of that, because I fundamentally believe that that’s how these stories get covered best, when everyone is running at them and everyone gets different pieces of it, I see an important role for everyone here. I do think that there is. I think sometimes we want to assume the best case, which is that a local outlet will have had relationships in these communities, would have been building them over time, would be well sourced, would know the intricacies, but what we forget is that local media outlets are institutions themselves, that very often perpetuate the very things that we’re talking about. Right? There was a lot of amazing reporting that was done after Michael Brown was killed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other local outlets, The Riverfront Times and others, but all of that reporting could have been done the day before Michael Brown was killed. Right? I’ll never forget this remarkable piece. It was a front page, Sunday story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the months after Michael Brown was killed about diversity in northern St. Louis Police Departments. How all these departments were all white policing these all black departments. Now, all of that was true before Michael Brown was killed. Right? But that story did not exist before that. Right?
Josie: And you didn’t, I mean, to an extent, I understand why, right? Like after Michael Brown was killed and national attention is on this place, you have sort of the ability to tell bigger stories where the consequences that you might suffer from telling those stories are worth it in a way that they’re not always worth it if you’re writing a story about like a local law enforcement group and you have to live in that town and you have to be continuing to report on them for the next ten years. You know, the incentives to kind of tell the story that law enforcement wants you to tell, at least a lot of the time, make a lot of sense to me.
Wesley Lowery: They do and I think that the disincentives do not, if you don’t live in some of these communities, if you don’t live in Ferguson, well it doesn’t matter. I’ll never forget, um, when I was at The Boston Globe covering, I was covering local politics, but I also did metro shifts and so I would go out to the shooting of the day or the stabbing of the day and whatnot. I’ll never forget one of my first times going out in Roxbury, in Boston, which is one of the historically black parts of the city and it’s a shooting, or whatever the crime of the day is and I’m walking around, I’m talking to people and this old guy comes out and he’s just screaming, ‘You’re from The Globe? F you!’ I’m like, what’s going on? And he was upset about an article The Globe had written about a loved one of his in the eighties. So before I was alive and he had waited twenty years for a Globe person to even be back in his neighborhood again to yell at them. And I fortunately got to go, ‘Well, hey, that does sound really screwed up. We shouldn’t have done that. I had nothing to do with it. So. So I agree.’ But, and then we could move forward and have a relationship and start and he was like, ‘Alright, well now that I said that, here’s the information you need,’ but I’ll never forget that because it reminds me about how so many of these communities only see us around certain stories and we come in and we extract the things we want and need and the quotes and then disappear back to our side of town and how there’s not necessarily always an accountability measure there. Right? When I land in Ferguson, Missouri, I don’t even know how to spell Ferguson. I spelled it wrong like in my first Facebook status from there. Right? But I didn’t have any crumbled relationship with the residents of Ferguson because my relationship was actually starting at zero. There was nothing. I never harmed them. I’d never failed them. I had never exploited them. While a local reporter, a local outlet might not be starting at zero, usually is not starting at zero because they either have a track record of doing important work that has helped improve and undo inequities or they’ve helped maintain and further those inequities. You know, not everyone’s starting from zero there. Beyond that though and to the point you raised about the relationships with local law enforcement is important and again, I think it goes back to power a little bit as well. I think that journalists by our nature prioritize the accounts of powerful people. If the police say something happened, we value that higher than the guy on the street corner saying nothing happened. If the prosecutor says this thing and powerful people know how to wield that. The police come out and give statements long before they even really know what happened very often because they know that that will become codified and become the version of this story. And so I think for us, one of the things we have to do as members of the media is one, I think the national media does have a responsibility that, look, when I call the police chief, they almost always return my call. Not because they like me, right? But because what’s The Washington Post‘s doing? Why are they, why are they poke? And I think we have a responsibility sometimes to make those calls and to take a harder stance and a harder line because we know sometimes our colleagues who might really have to rely on these folks to do their day in and day out jobs might not have the ability to do that in the same way. And I think that we at a place like The Post can set the agenda for other papers and outlets nationally. Right? That when we embark on a big project, when we say this is important, when police shootings are important or unsolved homicides in minority communities are important, or how officers use arbitration to get their jobs back after they’ve been fired. When we decide something’s important, we see a trickle down where a lot of other outlets copy the projects that we’ve done and that’s what we want to do because it-
Josie: You’re providing cover in a way.
Wesley Lowery: Of course.
Josie: Yeah. I mean I wonder, I mean, I guess to that same point, I think about Laquan McDonald and how, I don’t remember if it was a journalist or an activist who actually FOIA’d the video of his shooting.
Wesley Lowery: It was, it was a journalist.
Josie: It was a journalist right?
Wesley Lowery: Yeah Jamie Kalven, and then there’s another journalist who did, I got a lot of the records, Jamie Kalven got the actual video.
Josie: But it was like he FOIA’d it like 12 times, you know, it’s a ridiculous amount of FOIAs that he actually submitted to get this video, that sort of resource heavy work, you know, doing the FOIA appeals, sending it in the 11th time that, like a lot of local reporters don’t have that time, that level of resource that other people do. So it’s, you know, we were talking earlier on this episode just about the sort of the setup of how easy it is for law enforcement to keep information from you and how much time it takes to try to get it out of them.
Wesley Lowery: Of course. It’s very difficult in part like you said because of the resources and it’s not just, it’s not just money, although money is part of it. I just asked for a trial transcript in a homicide case in Sacramento from 2010 and to get the transcript it’s like $500. Well, I can, if I had to pay that money, I could, right? The Washington Post could, we could deal with it. I probably now will find other avenues of getting the transcript. Right?
Wesley Lowery: But if it came down to it I really could do that. Does The Sacramento Bee have $500 to get every murder trials transcript for cases where they couldn’t be there in the courtroom themselves? Well, no, probably not. Beyond that, when you’re charged with covering everything that’s happening in the city every single day, there’s the mental resource of can you even remember to follow up on that case from two weeks ago? Much less the case from yesterday, much less the case from two years ago. That so much falls through the cracks in these cases. And I, you know, this is one of the things this year, my colleagues and I are working on a big project called “Murder with Impunity” and what we’re looking at is how certain people’s homicides don’t result in an arrest and how you have whole communities around the United States of America who live within relative impunity, right? The most violent crimes they are victims of never see justice and we’ve looked at this and in the most recent iteration of this was a piece we did about domestic violence and the murders of women by their intimate partners and as a big part of that reporting, what we did was we had to go through all of the local coverage of all of these homicides to try to determine did the police ever name a suspect and if so, was this person an intimate partner? And what has horrified me throughout this project and was underscored by this piece, but it’s how many relevant details of these extremely serious crimes never enter the public record. The majority of reporting that gets done on any incident happens when the least amount of information is available, right? If there’s a murder tomorrow, every news outlet will write about that murder tomorrow, but tomorrow what’s not available is the search warrant affidavits and the witness statements and the evidence. If everyone waited until after the trial, everyone would actually have a full picture of what had happened. Right? And what we see is that a lot of incidents, especially as they involve crime or the police, much less police action, all of the coverage happens at the very beginning of the story when almost none of the full information is available and very little is ever done at the end of a story when in fact you can start making kind of analytical statements and figure out what was really the root of this or what? It’s really discouraging. And beyond that we’re also seeing, and part of this is because of the decimation of our local media, a lot of these incidents aren’t even getting written about at the front end. And that really scares me. You know, my uh, great grandfather on my father’s side was a sharecropper in North Carolina and he had been murdered by the land owner whose land he sharecropped and I can find, I have it, the local media coverage of this murder in the early 1900s right? Of this poor black guy who gets killed by, there are murderers in major American cities that happened today, there are murders in Chicago and Milwaukee and Cleveland and St. Louis that could happen tomorrow, that will get less coverage-
Josie: Right, right. Than your great grandfather’s murder.
Wesley Lowery: In the early 1900s, at a time when we know how seriously or not the authorities might have taken a murder like that.
Josie: A couple months ago I was looking at death penalty cases in Arizona and there are literally people who are sitting on death row who were sentenced to death, who their trial never made the paper. The fact that the state could kill you and it would not make the local paper is wild. Especially given what that entails. You know the, the fact that when someone is actually being sentenced to death, we look into their whole history and we’re telling like a fuller story of them and that story is actually never told publicly.
Clint: Yeah. I’m interested generally in this idea of the way, in the role that history is playing, in the way that we’re thinking about these issues. So I think in the last four years since Black Lives Matter, there has been, not coincidentally, many scholars, many journalists and many activists who have been writing and thinking publicly about the intersection of criminality, of white supremacy, of capitalism, of all of these sorts of intersecting, sexism and patriarchy, all of these intersecting forces and how they shape our contemporary landscape of inequality and my sense is that that has also seeped into the media. Where journalists, not all journalists for sure, but more journalists are writing with a greater sense of historical and sociological literacy then has happened before and you are certainly, you are as well read on the history of white supremacy and all of these other factors as anyone and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you’ve seen, to what extent you’ve seen journalists engage more rigorously with this scholarship and how it informs, speaking for yourself, the way that you think about these issues and the way that you’ve seen it potentially change the way that some things are covered as compared to how they may have been covered before?
Wesley Lowery: I think that it’s really important for us as journalists, as writers, to recognize that no story exists in a vacuum. That every story exists in a context with the contemporary context and historic context, and I think that very often, you saw this even just with the coverage of police shootings throughout Black Lives Matter, right? The very beginning there, it was a constant obsession with the specifics of a given case, right? That all that mattered in Ferguson was were Michael Brown’s hands up or were they down or were they halfway up or what? And it was, I mean, there were millions of articles written about this, you know, and digging through every little nuance and piece of this, right? When what we know now and, and knew, should have known at the time, was that well look, it isn’t important to litigate the story to some extent. There was this much bigger story, right? That the complaints of the people in the street were valid. They were talking about civil rights abuses, they were talking about the way that police interacted with them with arrest, with warrants, with nights in jail. Right? And that all of that context explained why all of these people believed what they believed about what had happened in that incident. Right? And so that you couldn’t accurately tell the one story without telling the other one, right? That there is a desire very often, I think, from the national media to condescend to the people of Ferguson. ‘Why are you guys so upset? I mean his hands weren’t even really up. And what’s wrong with you and don’t you know what the witness said?’ And I read this report and it’s, and what I think our job is and should be is to listen to the people of Ferguson because what they’re saying to us isn’t, ‘No, no, no. We’ve been subjected to abuse after abuse after abuse’ and-
Clint: State sanctioned abuse.
Wesley Lowery: Yes and every single time an objective observer has come in and probed that what we have found is that yes, the black people are not lying to us. They’re telling us the truth. Right? You know, I think about the big projects that I’ve gotten to work on since then, right? Our “Fatal Force” project in 2016 ongoing that sought to chronicle how many fatal police shootings were happening because the federal government doesn’t even keep information on that, which is insane and remains insane. That grew out of the protest, black people in the street saying, ‘The police are killing us all the time. It’s a crisis and we are receiving this more than everyone else.’ And and guess what happened? We tallied up all the police shootings, we did all this analysis of it and the upshot was well all the black people in the street were telling the truth. The police were killing way more people than they said they were killing and black people were being disproportionately killed.
Josie: Can we talk about that for a second?
Wesley Lowery: Yeah.
Josie: Because you guys, your team won a Pulitzer for this and I mean it was sort of one of the most immense kind of feats in journalism as of recently to be able to tell the stories about these very local stories. And like you said, I don’t think many people realize this, there is not a database where you find this information. There’s not sort of a regulated way of keeping it. All the ways that they tell these stories are not the same jurisdiction to jurisdiction. So when we talk about sort of the obstacles that you have to face telling these, you know, in criminal justice journalism, one of them is like who’s watching the watcher, right? And it’s you guys, but that’s a big feat when you’re actually having to track down thousands of details about thousands of shootings.
Wesley Lowery: It’s horrifying the more you know about criminal justice data, how much we do not know.
Wesley Lowery: I’ll never forget during an interview with Kamala Harris, she used to be the Attorney General of California, and we’re talking about policing reform or something, but she said, she goes, ‘you know, so much of our policing and criminal justice relies on emotion and anecdote. Very little of it relies on data.’ You’ll have, if you live in a small town, there’ll be a terrible grizzly crime, right? A murder or rape. And so the town will hire 19 new police officers and build a new fence. Well, arguably, statistically that’s the only murder that’s going to happen this decade in this place. So much of how public safety interacts with the public is about our emotions and our feelings of safety and very often void of any actual analytical discussion of what makes us safe. What doesn’t make us safe? Are we actually facing some threat? We, you know, and this goes back to like it’s a big constitutional governance of America problem and issue, but we’re the only major world power that governs itself and governs its public safety via 18,000 individual militias. There was no real centralized control of how the police function, how they operate, what their hiring and training standards are, what their discipline standards are, and so because of that, you know the Department of Justice once a year calls 18,000 police departments and says, ‘hey, it’d be really nice if you told us all of these things, how many people you’ve killed, how many people have been killed in your jurisdiction.’ But the reality is all of our criminal justice data coming from the Department of Justice is voluntary reporting. It lacks detail, lacks nuance and so-
Josie: Lack honesty.
Wesley Lowery: Correct. Right? And so it falls to these journalistic outlets to do the work of piecing together a portrait of what’s happening around the country. And again, I’m glad that we are doing that work at The Post and other outlets have done great work along these lines as well, but it shouldn’t be this way. The government should be doing this work. We shouldn’t, we shouldn’t this year have had to, you know, we wanted to do this project on neighborhoods that have homicide impunity. And we had to ourselves go to all of these police departments and go line by line through every homicide and figure out where it was and who the victim was. The reality is in a country where we have analytics about everything, the fact that we know so little about the such crucial public policy points is really discouraging.
Clint: We just talked about 18,000 different, you know, essentially municipal militias and their own police departments and all of the people, the thousands and thousands of people who’ve been killed by police every year. But I’m interested, you know, one of the things about reporting, and one of the things that’s been so great about your reporting over the years is that it’s granular, right? If you’re, it’s both thinking about the macro, but also saying like who is, anecdotes can be dangerous in the ways that they allow us to misunderstand or potentially mischaracterize a larger set of statistical phenomenon, but they can also be, as we all know, really important in understanding the human toll that this takes. And I’m curious for you as a reporter, like what is it like to make that call to someone whose child was just killed and what is it like to make that call to a police chief who you’re going to challenge, you know, the, that entire departments account of what happened. And I ask that because I know in the moments where I’ve had to do that as a reporter and a researcher I think, again, when you look at the bylines and use see the quotes, you’re like, oh, you know, you don’t even think twice about it, but when you do it yourself, it can be scary or it can be unsettling or it can be-
Clint: What do you say to someone whose child was just killed? How do you find the balance between probing but also being sensitive to the fact that, you know, they just had an immense loss?
Wesley Lowery: So the point you made about an anecdote I think is very important. One of the things we’ve tried to do with these projects, both the homicide project and the police shootings project, was that when we told stories and told the individual stories, we wanted to make sure that those stories were reflective of the broader reality. So we didn’t build a database of police shootings to find the five worst police shootings. Now when we found those cases, we certainly probed them and asked questions, but for us it was important that we had kind of a statistical integrity, right? That what are our top level findings and how do we find anecdotes and stories that illustrate those truths? Right? And so that’s something that we spent a lot of time in the conceptualization stage figuring out what is the right case for us to look like, to make the broader point that we’re trying to make? It is really hard. It is really difficult, you know, because I spent all 2018 writing about homicide and the homicide victims, right? And spending time with families of people who’ve lost loved ones and received no justice, families of people who believed the police have been negligent in their efforts and you take on in some ways the secondary trauma. To do that job correctly or to do the job of the reporter correctly, you have to build a relationship, right? You have to get to the point where people are speaking with you honestly, not in cliche, with depth. You have to be willing to ask difficult follow up questions, but now you take on the burden of responsibly telling that story. One of the things I say is after one of these stories, one of the moments where I can exhale after the story publishes is when the mother or the widow of the person who has been killed posts the story on Facebook because that’s the moment where I know even if they might qualm with one sentence here, athing there, why did you include? It’s the point at which they have now kind of publicly stated, ‘Yes, this is the story of my loved one and it’s been told in a way that I’m going to now share it with other people.’ Because it’s very, it is really difficult. I mean it’s, these are stories that you lose sleep over in real ways because for a lot of people this is going to be the official record for the rest of history of their life and the life of their loved one. Right? A lot of these homicide cases we’ve written about and even in police shooting cases we’ve written about there are times where we go in and there’s been very little coverage. There’s been very little discussion. It’s never been written down who this person was, who their loved ones were. Even really what the family thinks happened in the homicide, right? That a bunch of reporters showed up on day one when they were still grappling with the reality that their loved one was gone. They talked to no one and now I’m showing up a few months later and they’ve now heard from people why they think their son was killed or what was going on. So we’re now inserting into the public record a narrative and a conversation and there’s a responsibility that comes with that. And I do think it’s really important. You know, we were talking earlier about history and the role of history and I think a lot about, not just with homicides, well also the police shootings, I think a lot about what we know about lynchings in the United States of America. And there’s been a lot of beautiful writing and reporting done on that. Especially around the creation of the new monument. But so much of what we know about lynchings in America was not because of the official record, rather it was because of journalists who showed up in these towns and recorded and wrote down and interviewed, right? Our whole historical understanding of this period is thanks to people who wrote these things down. I think that when we think about big city homicide, right? The violence that happens in the hyper segregated parts of our cities, that we have created, that’s going to be part of the story of United States of America post reconstruction, is the creation of hyper segregated black ghettos and then the violence and trauma that black people had to deal with because of that. And there’s this assumption that all this detail will exist in these court records somewhere, you know, if we really wanted to go back. It’s not gonna work that way. The reality is if these details of these stories of these people aren’t being surfaced and recorded, many of them are going to be lost to history and that’s going to harm us in the long term. And so I think about that a lot too, like what’s the responsibility of creating a pathway and a guide for historians, for journalists, for writers, decades or centuries down the line, to be able to understand the world that we live in now.
Josie: One of the things that we’ve been talking about this season more is hoping to challenge people when they hear terms like “felon” or “criminal” or “officer-involved shooting,” all of these sort of narrative crutches that we see daily that influence the way that we’re reading a story, you know, beyond even Mike “Brown was no angel,” what is the actual way they describe what happened. As a journalist who is intimately familiar with these stereotypes and with these stories that are not told, how do you navigate some of the like just simple language word choice stuff that any journalist, you know, ourselves included, have to kind of face?
Wesley Lowery: You know, I think we do fall on these narrative crutches all the time. Right? That we begin to mimic language you’ve already heard in the media or what we think the way things are supposed to be told or it’s supposed to be said. And I think that, you know, for me one of the things I try to like tether myself to is, is what I’m saying clear and is accurate? Like does it have the potential to mislead or confuse or is it clear and obvious what happened? Right? And very often the way to avoid both the types of language and wording that advance the stereotype and adds and sows confusion is to just state explicitly what happened and what did not. Right? You can call someone a felon or you can in a paragraph describe ‘well they were previously incarcerated for this many years for this thing.’ Right? And you could just state what it is you would want to state without having to imply anything with some type of shorthand or signaling or just say what you want to say. Right? I think that that’s really important. This is kind of specificity and simplicity of language. Just say the thing that you want to say because then you can’t be accused of saying something else that you didn’t want to say and I think that that, I think that’s a big part of it. I do think that what we have to be aware of is that we don’t get to just put reporting or writing out into the ether into some vacuum that will, well, ‘I just mean nothing that I wrote was wrong.’ We don’t have that crutch anymore. We have to be aware and we need to be historically literate enough to know the ways that public safety and public safety policy blows with the winds of public perception with fear and the way that our work can be wielded for those types of ends and can do real harm and damage and that puts an awesome responsibility on us to make sure we’re being deliberate about the words we’re using and how we’re using them so that we’re not advancing any stereotypes.
Clint: Just to finish off, we’re sitting around a table. All three of us are black. All three of us are professionally, intellectually, politically, but also personally impacted by so much of what we think and talk about all the time. And I’m wondering for you, just as as a black man covering homicides, covering police shootings, covering things that are disproportionately killing but not singularly impacting black men, how do you manage to navigate the intersection of your professional work and your personal?
Josie: Can I just say real fast at a couple of years ago when the journalists were killed on the morning news, remember the morning news journalists in Virginia? And my husband went to work and they said, ‘We’re going to give everybody sort of like the day off, you know, like it’s a half day because journalists are being killed and like I know that must be really hard.’ And he was like, ‘I’ve been covering black men who are like my age and from my town getting killed. Nobody’s giving me the day off.’ And I always think about that when we think about this question because it’s also your colleagues don’t often realize the weight of that.
Wesley Lowery: Well, remember, I think Janelle Emude was writing about her time at Ebony?
Wesley Lowery: And how there were these moments where she was so happy to be in a primarily, if not exclusively black space. Because when Philando Castile’s killed, she doesn’t have to worry about anyone running up to, you know, there’s kind of this understanding that everyone is going through something and I obviously work in a majority white newsroom where those dynamics aren’t quite there, you know, it is, it does weigh, you know, to be on the black death beat as a black person is a very difficult and at times traumatic space to be in. You do, the people who do this work, myself, but also a lot of my colleagues and friends do it because there is an understanding that maybe this work wouldn’t be being done if it weren’t for people like us doing that. And I think about that a lot. You know, most of the big projects that we work on or even a lot of the big pieces that I work on are projects that I’ve personally pitched and used my internal political capital to get us to do. And I have really great supportive bosses who let us do a lot of those things. But I also know that, all right, if I were to step out of this space, perhaps The Washington Post wouldn’t do a project like this this year and I think it’s important The Washington Post does do this work and so there’s this, this push and this pull about how much any one of us individually, how much I want to actually take on, how much of this like trauma I want to be a vessel for, but then also the sense of like, if not me, if not someone else, you know who else is going to do it? That there is a real privilege to be able to work and write at this level and also to not be personally experiencing, not today at least, these traumas that I’m writing about. But if I recognize and acknowledge that that’s the reality for so many black Americans, right? That so many black Americans because of our policies and our histories of injustice in the United States of America are trapped in communities without income, without industry, without access to public health, that are overrun with crime that then is never met with justice and then face increased levels of police violence, I know that, you know, it’s a privilege for me to not be in that scenario, right? To live where I live in Washington, DC, to be writing for a living the way I am and that as long as that’s true, I think it’s really important for me to try to focus our energy and our attention back on that. To get back to something I said earlier, it changes a little bit depending on the presidential administration, but what I know generally is that at The Washington Post, if I get something on our front page, that story is appearing on the desk of the Commander in Chief, of the President of the United States, of the Speaker of the House or the Head of the Senate, right? What stories do I want to put in front of their eyes? And so as long as I have this platform, I want to focus on putting stories that otherwise would never get there in front of those people.
Josie: I think that’s a great way to end. Thank you so much Wesley for joining us.
Wesley Lowery: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
Josie: That was Wesley Lowery, National Correspondent with The Washington Post. Thank you so much Wesley for joining us.
Clint: And thank you for listening to Justice in America. I’m Clint Smith.
Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Clint: You can find us on Twitter at @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on iTunes. Everything really helps.
Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams and the production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn, location recording by Caroline Covington. Hope you join us next week.