On April 20, the entire world seemed to be watching a livestream from a Minnesota courtroom as Judge Peter Cahill opened an envelope and read the word “guilty” three times, convicting former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
Floyd, a Black man, was killed a year ago on May 25 after Chauvin knelt on the back of his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Floyd’s death while in police custody set off a summer of unrest and protests around a country that was already grabbling with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Floyd’s death also took place just a few months after Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot and killed by police officers while inside her Louisville, Ky. apartment. Mixed in with the pandemic, these sequences of events sparked a flame felt around the world, resulting in demonstrations and protests seen around the world.
No matter what age, color, or gender you are, Floyd’s story resonated with you. A major factor was the video captured on Darnella Frazier’s phone. The then-17-year-old was a bystander who filmed the footage of Chauvin on Floyd’s neck. It also documented Floyd’s final words: “I can’t breathe.”
“It starts and ends with that video,” said Libor Jany, the Minneapolis Star Tribune public safety reporter who broke the story. While many officer-related deaths are “fast-moving encounters,” Jany explained those who watched Frazier’s video witnessed the “prolonged killing of a man.”
“You take that video and compare it to the police news release in the hours after Floyd’s death that claimed Floyd had a ‘medical issue’ before he died,” said public safety editor Abby Simons. “Thankfully, Libor did not simply accept that narrative and dug deeper (and told) what really happened. We did not accept one narrative as fact, and that’s a lesson we take with us into the future.”
But, before we can talk about the future, we have to start on May 25, 2020.
Plan of Action
In the Twin Cities, journalists were hunkered down in their homes, working remotely at the beginning of the pandemic as city lockdowns were in effect.
Jany had just finished up his shift on Memorial Day when he began receiving texts that Minneapolis police had “killed a guy,” recalled Star Tribune managing editor and vice president Suki Dardarian.
Jany headed to the intersection of South 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, the site where Floyd was killed and where the state’s top forensics team were on the scene. Soon after, Frazier posted her video on Facebook, which showed an entirely different story than the police’s initial report.
According to Dardarian, Jany reported on Twitter what he was able to learn from witnesses and other sources, and he posted his first story at 3:30 a.m. on May 26, even then raising questions about the official police version. His story would be updated 115 times over the course of the day.
“People woke up on the 26th to these graphic images,” said Jany. “By that time, I don’t believe any protests had sprouted up yet, but there were rumblings going around social media there were going to be some demonstrations. As things intensified, more reporters got involved. Some were assigned to go out and cover protests. Some were tasked to go back to the scene. Some reporters were running around to the various news conferences.”
Simons said when she saw the video of George Floyd’s death, she knew protests were imminent.
“But I don’t think any of us really anticipated how widespread the civil unrest would be or how quickly it would unfold,” she said. “Our reporters masked and attempted to social distance, although it wasn’t easy amid widespread protests. Some of our photographers had protective gear like vests, but the reporters did not, so we had to stay in constant contact with the reporters on the ground to ensure that they were safe. We’ve since acquired more safety equipment including gas masks and vests.”
Star Tribune editor and senior vice president Rene Sanchez said as soon as the video came to the public light, they knew the story was going to be huge, but they didn’t initially realize the impact it was going to make around the world.
“Many protests were peaceful, but the rioting that occurred required us to scramble on staff safety,” he said. “It was tense and difficult. We’ve had several staff members wounded by rubber bullets or assaults. It has been traumatic for some, and so we have provided more opportunity for discussion and counseling about this kind of coverage. So many of our staff truly covered these events with courage.”
According to Simons, social services reporter Chris Serres was detained walking back to his vehicle following a night when curfew was strictly enforced. He was held to the ground at gunpoint as police searched him, she said, and his tires were also slashed, presumably by law enforcement who admitted they were doing it to immobilize vehicles. Serres is currently a part of a class-action lawsuit with other several journalists against Minneapolis law enforcement agencies.
Hennepin County Courts reporter Chao Xiong said he wasn’t detained while out on the streets, but he described a night when he was in a car with a colleague after covering the protests when officers shot rubber bullets at their vehicle without any verbal warning.
“It shook us up,” he said.
A spreadsheet compiled by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker listed close to 300 incidents of arrests and assaults against journalists at Floyd protests in Minnesota and elsewhere during the summer of 2020. It continues to document such cases at pressfreedomtracker.us/george-floyd-protests.
“We knew that we had to blanket the story, from press conferences to protests to digging into the history of the officers, trying to learn more about George Floyd,” Dardarian said. “But we are blessed with a strong news team with decades of experience who had not only covered other police shootings, but had built a database of police killings of civilians, had investigated police training, misconduct, discipline, and culture. But while we were deeply sourced throughout the community, and while we were experienced at covering demonstrations and tense or violent standoffs, we weren’t prepared for the ultimate rioting and fire that swept the Twin Cities or for the abandonment and destruction of a police precinct.
“We quickly learned we had to keep our folks working in teams. And while they often knew when it was time to move away from the protests, we did have to insist a few times that people leave the scene. We also have a great in-house counsel, who worked with us into the night to help ensure staff didn’t get arrested—or if they were detained, to get them released.”
For the small nonprofit newsroom Sahan Journal, they chose to cover the story from another perspective. According to its website, the news organization is “dedicated to providing authentic news reporting for and about immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota.”
Hibah Ansari joined Sahan Journal as a reporter in June 2020, right in the thick of things. “Our main role during the Floyd protests was to go into the neighborhoods, talk to the business owners, and ask people what they liked to see with justice. A lot of those people knew George Floyd or knew victims of police violence. Personally, I have a special interest in mental health coverage, so during the unrest in south Minneapolis, I was talking to Somalis who had escaped a civil war and asylum seekers from Honduras, who were all coping with their own trauma...we were interested in learning how all of this was directly impacting immigrants and refugees.”
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At the MinnPost, another small nonprofit newsroom, it was a challenge covering a fast-moving story, said editor Andrew Putz. As the story progressed into covering the trial of Derek Chauvin, a lot of the focus immediately went into explaining the criminal justice process to readers, and the sharing the responses from different government institutions.
“We didn’t have someone at the courthouse every day; it would be duplicating a lot of our efforts, and we wanted to provide some value to community, not replicate the news,” Putz said. “A lot of space regarding the trial and verdict went into understanding how this trial was going to work, explaining how sentencing is going to work…we can provide more context to what is going on there, and get reaction among state and city leaders.”
During this time, Putz said they also upped the frequency of their community voices/op-ed page (producing up to 500 pieces) to better reflect the voices of a wider array of Minnesotans, including people of color and other communities that have been marginalized.
The Chauvin trial was the first time a Minnesota case was broadcast live, presenting a rare experience to the public and journalists.
“In a state generally unsupportive of cameras in the courtroom, the court ruled this case would be live-streamed, with the support of the defendants and over objections from the prosecution,” said the Star Tribune’s Dardarian. “That created a whole new landscape for trial coverage, and required us to go well beyond basic trial coverage to offer analysis and insight along with updates throughout the day on all platforms. We offered the livestream as well as clips and highlights of key moments in the trial…We dedicated three teams to the trial: A trial team, which managed regular updates, social media and daily coverage and analysis; a community team to fan out and assess how our community was processing the trial; and a verdict team, to handle any reaction to the ultimate verdict.”
Simons said the entire public safety team stepped up and worked sometimes around the clock. In addition to Jany and Xiong, general assignment reporter Paul Walsh updated the online story during the day while watching the trial, and Rochelle Olson, another general assignment reporter, would live-tweet. The rest of the newsroom also pitched in.
“It was exhausting and at times dangerous, but the team knew the historic weight of all of this and went above and beyond their duties to cover it,” she said. “The police department is quite guarded and does not make it rank and file officers available for interviews on how this is affecting them, so that’s been a difficult challenge. Records requests from the department are also coming in slowly.”
St. Paul Pioneer Press editor Mike Burbach said his newsroom also understood the gravity of covering such a high-profile case.
“It was big news every day, online and on the front page of print. As did others, we livestreamed the proceedings on our website,” he said. “The trial process was familiar, but there was nothing normal about this story. Every day from the first day of jury selection was important. The camera in the courtroom as the jury was selected, as prosecutors made their case and the defense challenged it, added layers of knowledge and potential understanding of what happened. The livestream and the traditional print-style reporting on the trial were complementary and very useful—I say that as both a newspaper editor and a passionate resident of St. Paul.”
The Work Continues
Although the Chauvin case is the first time in Minnesota history that a white officer was convicted of killing a Black civilian, for some, it is not enough as long as the current policing system is in place.
Mel Reeves is the community editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in the state of Minnesota. Describing himself as an activist and a journalist, Reeves said his publication has “a finger on the pulse.” Witnessing how the community and the world reacted to Floyd’s death did not surprise him.
“We’re not coming from a mainstream media perspective,” he said. “We always knew these injustices existed, and we want justice…we can’t go back to business as usual. We can’t go and talk to the police; that’s not something we do. They are the problem—that’s the perspective we’re coming from. It’s much deeper.”
He continued, “I understand people want to use this moment as optimism, and I believe there will be optimism one of these days when we’ve had enough as a society, but there’s no reason to be optimistic unless the system changes.”
In fact, just as the Chauvin trial was concluding, a 20-year-old Black man named Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop in nearby Brooklyn Center. The officer, Kimberly Potter, resigned and was charged with second-degree manslaughter.
This past year also caused newsrooms to look inward and examine their own past coverage of the Black community and other communities of color. At the Star Tribune, a new role was created in response: assistant managing editor for diversity and community. A 20-year-veteran of the newspaper, Kyndell Harkness started in that position last October. There was no official job description when she took over, she said (“I’m building the plane as I fly it”), but she will be a guide in many parts of the newsroom.
“It’s all about the inside game,” she said. “How we do things internally with hiring, recruiting, and retention; how to make this place a great place to work and create a good system for career development; how to make this a place where you feel comfortable and safe enough that if you see a headline that doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to raise your hand and tell them it’s not okay…it allows for our coverage to be better.”
But Harkness acknowledges it’s going to take work. “It’s a lot of dismantling behavioral changes and teaching people how to see it by paying attention to more audiences and understanding that audience compared to the one they’re picturing in their brain…when we put things out in the world, it should be through the lens of our community.”
At the Pioneer Press, Burbach said he was interested in reporting on the repair work in the communities as they move forward.
“Not just in hearts and minds, but down in the weeds of policy and practice,” he said. “Where are the points of discretion in our systems that don't serve us well? What are the organizing principles and assumptions that work against liberty and justice for all? How do we understand them? What, as a community and a nation, do we do about them?”
Local newsrooms may have a chance to answer those questions. Two weeks after Chauvin was convicted, his attorney filed a motion for a new trial. The three other officers who were involved with Floyd’s death are scheduled to be tried in August (it will also be livestreamed).
“As we’ve covered the story, I think we’ve learned or re-learned that we always need to listen closely to the community, hear their questions, reflect their pain,” said Sanchez. “We have seen anew that prioritizing accountability coverage is a must…another trial looms, and we intend to aggressively cover policing and the broad racial reckoning that has erupted from this case for a long, long time. Now is the moment for us to show why local journalism matters, over and over again with our coverage.”