Way back when, David Simon was a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He wrote a book called Homicide: A year on the killing streets of Baltimore, which should be read by any aspiring police reporter.
That book formed the basis for a TV series, Homicide: Life on the Street, which was one of my favourite shows in the 1990s.
But Simon — best known these days as the creator of The Wire – now laments the state of police reporting in his home town.
On Feb. 17, when a 29-year-old officer responded to a domestic dispute in East Baltimore, ended up fighting for her gun and ultimately shot an unarmed 61-year-old man named Joseph Alfonso Forrest, the Sun reported the incident, during which Forrest died, as a brief item. It did not name the officer, Traci McKissick, or a police sergeant who later arrived at the scene to aid her and who also shot the man.
It didn’t identify the pair the next day, either, because the Sun ran no full story on the shooting, as if officers battling for their weapons and unarmed 61-year-old citizens dying by police gunfire are no longer the grist of city journalism. At which point, one old police reporter lost his mind and began making calls.
No, the police spokesman would not identify the officers, and for more than 24 hours he would provide no information on whether either one of them had ever been involved in similar incidents. And that’s the rub, of course. Without a name, there’s no way for anyone to evaluate an officer’s performance independently, to gauge his or her effectiveness and competence, to know whether he or she has shot one person or 10.
It turns out that McKissick — who is described as physically diminutive — had had her gun taken from her once before. In 2005, police sources said, she was in the passenger seat of a suspect’s car as the suspect, who had not been properly secured, began driving away from the scene. McKissick pulled her gun, the suspect grabbed for it and a shot was fired into the rear seat. Eventually, the suspect got the weapon and threw it out of the car; it was never recovered. Charges were dropped on the suspect, according to his defense attorney, Warren Brown, after Brown alleged in court that McKissick’s supervisors had rewritten reports, tailoring and sanitizing her performance.
And so on Feb. 17, the same officer may have again drawn her weapon only to find herself again at risk of losing the gun. The shooting may be good and legally justified, and perhaps McKissick has sufficient training and is a capable street officer. But in the new world of Baltimore, where officers who take life are no longer named or subject to public scrutiny, who can know?
In this instance, the Sun caught up on the story somewhat; I called the editor and vented everything I’d learned about the earlier incident. But had it relied on the unilateral utterances of Baltimore’s police officials, the Sun would have been told that McKissick had been involved “in one earlier shooting. She was dragged behind a car by a suspect and she fired one shot, which did not strike anyone. The shooting was ruled justified.”
That’s the sanitized take that Guglielmi, the police spokesman, offered on the 2005 incident. When I asked him for the date of that event, with paperwork in front of him, he missed it by exactly six months. An honest mistake? Or did he just want to prevent a reporter from looking up public documents at the courthouse? (Attempts to reach McKissick, who remains on administrative leave, were unsuccessful.)
Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit — these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information. And in a city where officials routinely plead with citizens to trust the police, where witnesses have for years been vulnerable to retaliatory violence, we now have a once-proud department’s officers hiding behind anonymity that is not only arguably illegal under existing public information laws, but hypocritical as well.
There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.
Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn’t anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.
I didn’t trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that’s the point. In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it.
New York University j-prof Jay Rosen made the following point in a Tweet:
Has anyone ever said that bloggers and citizen journalists can do police reporting of the kind David Simon did? http://is.gd/lm46 Get real.
My last Tweet got misread. Simon should get realer. He makes a big show of saying bloggers aren’t at police HQ but who ever said they were?
Rosen’s main point (we jousted a bit in tweets and DMs) is that no one is saying bloggers and citizen journalists will replace professional journalists — especially not any time soon. And he’s right — No significant media analyst that I can easily find tonight is saying participatory journalism will replace the work of pros.
For more on that, read this Neiman Journalism Lab post from December: Citizen media: Not there yet.
My personal concern is that this isn’t a business-as-usual recession, that it is hitting older media forms such as television and newspapers that are already feeling the effects of long-term problems, the new issue of ascending new media forms — and with all problems compounded by a collapse in ad revenues.
This seems to be particularly pronounced in the U.S, where newspapers have sought bankruptcy protection if they haven’t actually shut down. But there have been significant job losses in Canada since the fall, with the promise of more to come.
I’m left wondering how many jobs will come back when the revenue does (and we don’t know when that will happen and to what degree).
Not only the number of jobs, but the type of jobs. Newspaper journalism, at its best, is like being a chef. Online journalism can be more like working in fast food.
The time to dig is the great luxury of newspapers, and also the great expense. Gary Kamiya made the following point in a Feb. 17 Salon article:
What is really threatened by the decline of newspapers and the related rise of online media is reporting — on-the-ground reporting by trained journalists who know the subject, have developed sources on all sides, strive for objectivity and are working with editors who check their facts, steer them in the right direction and are a further check against unwarranted assumptions, sloppy thinking and reporting, and conscious or unconscious bias.
If newspapers die, so does reporting.
As news organizations reduce their newsgathering costs, something’s got to give. In a city such as Baltimore, you won’t have four or five cop reporters at one newspaper. You’ll have one or two — if that.
Mind you, some people think that’s a good idea, as it will hasten the day of all-digital delivery.
Until that happy day arrives, I saw a recent post on a journalism email list where one Eastern Ontario newspaper will have a whopping four reporters to cover a community of 130,000 people after some cuts that occurred in the weeks before Christmas.
Those reporters will have very little time to think or dig. The depth and quality of reporting will suffer.
Hopefully there’s a nascent citizen journalism community there, otherwise, I can’t see that community being truly, deeply informed.
And as for the watchdog function there alluded to by Simon? Yesterday’s news, baby.