When the nation watched George Floyd call for his mother and take his last breaths from beneath a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis, it ignited a wildfire across the country, calling for a reckoning on lethal policing.
For journalists, it started a national conversation on how best to cover police, how to stay safe and how to identify our role as journalists in preventing the next Floyd from making headlines in our own local newspapers.
“Make sure you keep digging, make sure you’re grounded in your communities and understand policing,” said Leroy Chapman Jr., The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editor in chief. “In dissecting how it happens, you get to, ‘What can we do better? What are the elements that lead to this sort of tension?’”
There was a national spotlight on Atlanta when an image from protests hit newsreels, showing a police car burning in front of the CNN building. Less than two weeks later, 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks was gunned down by an Atlanta Police Department officer on June 12, 2020, in a Wendy’s parking lot, less than one month after Floyd's death.
Chapman said volunteers from The AJC newsroom stepped up to cover protests, even though it was often outside their comfort zone. Some journalists would cover business by day and then go out at night to cover protests.
“We had a roomful of dedicated journalists raise hands to say, ‘Let's go out and cover this and do right by our community,’” he said.
Afterward, they discussed how best to cover policing and police violence.
“A lot of newsrooms had to think about a couple of things,” Chapman said. “The initial reporting that came out of the George Floyd case essentially did not reflect what the video reflected. So, we understood and knew that there was a moment in that case where police were not forthcoming with the facts. And, in fact, a strong argument can be made that not only were they not forthcoming, that initial reporting was probably intentionally misleading.”
Don’t let the speed of the news cycle dilute the facts.
Chapman emphasized the importance of looking beyond official accounts and gathering video from the scene in cases of police violence.
“I know how that sounds,” he said. “I mean, we're a newspaper, and that’s something that we should always do. But the speed and pace of news gathering sometimes will put us in a position where sometimes the only thing we have is the first official reporting, and that’s not going to change.”
While he said the news cycle’s pace might initially bind the first news story to the first official report, continue following up with witnesses, video and other documentation.
“Truth is always much more full than an initial accounting,” he said.
Transparency is critical when initial reports are disproven.
Chapman said it is essential to be transparent with readers throughout the reporting process. Tell them where accounts are coming from, promise to keep digging, and correct any information as it comes to light.
“I think the obligation, in the beginning, is that we are giving our audiences the account from police, and we just have to be clear that this is what police say,” he said. “We also have to deliver on this promise to our readers, too: We're going to keep following it.”
Develop relationships in communities.
It is imperative to develop relationships in the communities you cover, which will also prove invaluable when challenging the official account, Chapman said.
“Make sure that you have enough of a relationship with communities that you cover where people will raise a hand and tell you, ‘Well, I was there, and I saw this. You need to look into this or that,’” he said. “If you're going to be a crime reporter, make sure that people see you. You’re visible. People know how to reach you.”
He said that many people could be a witness and gather documentation of an event.
“In this day and age of social media, in this day and age where everyone has a camera in their pocket, lots of people can bear witness,” he said. “And if people have relevant information to hand you, they can rather quickly give you a different perspective that might challenge an official accounting.”
Police investigations can take time, and new information can contradict initial accounts.
Just like journalists gather available information quickly to paint the most accurate picture possible, the initial accounts from police may also be inaccurate for reasons that do not stem from dishonesty.
“There are times when police don't get it right, and there are times when the police account is stemming from them getting the account from the wrong people,” he said. “There are times when there are disputes and when police get to the scene, they have a hard time distinguishing between an aggressor and a victim. Unraveling that may take time.”
While reporters should question the official account, they should also not assume that police will be dishonest.
“A young reporter shouldn’t walk in thinking that police are automatically dishonest. That will be a wrong approach, affecting your news gathering if you walk in with such a wrong assumption,” he said.
Understanding policing will help reporters ask the right questions.
Although policing is part of a national conversation, it is a local matter. In the Atlanta metro area, Chapman said, there are many police departments with various jurisdictions, and each one is different.
“They’re led by different people, and the human element and the culture and the organization of all of them are different,” he said.
He said that covering policing requires an understanding of how the job works.
“Ground yourself into the process of policing because, most of the time, it’s difficult,” he said. “It’s layered and complex, and the more you understand about it, the more questions you can ask where wrong information won't get out, and you can pressure test what police say as an official account, as well.”
Journalists should work toward prevention in covering policing.
Chapman said there can be indicators in a police force that an incident of police brutality may be on the horizon, and journalists should call out those early indicators to prevent deadly police violence. He pointed to Ferguson, Missouri, as an example. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was among those covering the unrest that followed the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in August 2014.
“When we saw the elements of Ferguson and good reporting from a lot of news agencies … You pulled back and saw, ‘Wow, perhaps this was inevitable.’”
He said that when police operations are set up in such a way that they are “less partners with the community and more occupying force,” a similar situation might be inevitable. The AJC looked at some of their own communities to see whether there were similarities.
“The police force was largely white, and the community was predominantly Black, and that imbalance created some tensions there, too. So, some cultural issues and competencies were probably missing,” Chapman said. “Almost none of the police officers lived there in this place, but they policed it, and, because of that, there was a disconnect that you can, now, looking back at that, recognize.”
He said that often cases of deadly police violence involve an officer or department that has faced discipline without accountability.
“Something that we can do is point out instances where police have not done an adequate job of policing themselves,” Chapman said. “It’s making sure, with all the tools the media has, that there is adequate self-policing of police problems, officers are held accountable, that those problems are not left to fester and that people are being vetted properly,” he said.
Staying safe while covering police violence and protests.
A visual journalist from The AJC newsroom, Alyssa Pointer, a young Black woman, was detained by police during protests because officers did not initially distinguish her from protesters. A white male journalist vouched for her, Chapman said.
He said that the poise and professionalism with which she handled the detainment made Chapman proud and showed her toughness.
The detainment prompted conversations about making their press credentials more obvious, but they were advised that this could make them targets of disgruntled civilians.
“We take a tremendous risk when we have to cover things like that because you just don’t know how they’ll go,” he said. “So that's my job, to make sure everyone’s safe. But we also, of course, owe it to our communities to cover it.”
Ultimately, he said he believes their reporting helped the community understand the heart of the issues that led to protests.
“I think that our community afterward understood the frustrations better. This city is steeped in civil rights — the home of Dr. King. He had a famous quote about riots being the voice of the unheard, and we got a little of that because we wound up talking to people that we hadn't really spoken with before about the issue of police violence,” he said. “Folks who organized some of those protests — ones that were peaceful and not chaotic and violent at all — wound up leading some dialogue in this town.”
Alyssa Choiniere is an Editor & Publisher contributor. She is a journalist based in southwestern Pennsylvania covering a variety of topics including industry news and criminal justice.
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