Will Bunch: When media rely on what police say, they miss key truths about crime, black communities

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The headline in the self-proclaimed People Paper — the Philadelphia Daily News — spelled it out in black and white on the morning of April 7, 1992: “Cops: Killer Confessed … Police close books on 1988 sex murder of Northeast girl, 4.” The story starts with a graphic, novel-style account of how a young man named Walter Ogrod lured an innocent girl to her gruesome fate, and it highlighted this quote from Philadelphia Det. Sgt. Laurence Nodiff: “He (Ogrod) looked like he had something to tell us. I would characterize him as wanting to cleanse his soul.”

There was one error in that article, though.

It wasn’t true.

As Philadelphia’s current District Attorney Larry Krasner and a judge agreed earlier this month, the evidence is actually overwhelming that Ogrod did not kill Barbara Jean Horn in 1988, and his release after 28 years behind bars backs up his claim that — rather than “wanting to cleanse his soul” — his confession was coerced by detectives who also used a since-discredited jailhouse snitch to finally convict him after two trials.


The contemporary coverage of Ogrod’s arrest 28 years ago and eventual conviction — like so many others falsely imprisoned for decades — is only remarkable because it was so routine: Sensational yet somehow predictable at the same time, surrounded by other crime stories because those stories were easy while the other things happening to cities like gentrification or scam mortgages were hard, and punctuated by the two most insidious words in modern journalism:

“Police said.”

There’s a lot of problems with the “police said” journalism that has typically filled several pages of your hometown newspaper and led the first 10 minutes of local newscasts since the crime-obsessed 1970s, but the biggest one has been laid bare for all to see with videos of police killings such as George Floyd and brutal law-enforcement tactics against the masses who’ve taken to the streets in protest. The reality is that when police say something, they lie … far too often.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen stunning examples of this — the initial Minneapolis police statement on Floyd’s May 26 death claiming that cops “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress” with no mention that officers were kneeling on him and, according to prosecutors, suffocating him; the report on Louisville police-shooting victim Breonna Taylor listing her injuries as “none” when she’d been fatally riddled with eight bullets; or a Buffalo police statement that brain-injured 75-year-old protester Martin Gugino “tripped and fell” even though a news camera showed cops violently shoving him down. And there have been many other falsehoods.

Journalists tasked with covering not just massive protests but this blizzard of police lies and misconduct, which has included violent attacks and arrests of reporters and photojournalists exercising their 1st Amendment rights, have also been consumed with a concurrent problem: Racial inequity and a stunning lack of diversity in our own newsrooms. If you follow the media, you probably know about staff protests and the resignation of the top editor here at The Inquirer, the ouster of a key editor at the New York Times, or the staff revolt at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

There’s two ways to look at this: Newsrooms that don’t reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, mastheads that are overwhelmingly white (and male) in cities that are not, and gross pay inequities are racist — just wrong for the sake of being wrong. But these deeply rooted problems also have much wider social consequences. News organizations that don’t look like or understand the neighborhoods they cover ultimately produce journalism that doesn’t reflect them, either.


I don’t mean to pick on the Daily News, where I’ve worked since 1995 as it morphed into an edition of the Inquirer, or The Inquirer. Both papers have well-deserved reputations — including several Pulitzer Prizes — for covering police brutality or misconduct, but one reason for those awards is that the journalism swam against the tide of “a war on drugs” and urban crime in which the cops and their press officers controlled the narrative, and mostly white editors wrote obsequious headlines.

I spent my first year at the Daily News mostly as a nightside general-assignment reporter, and in the mid-1990s “general assignment” mainly meant covering murders, the more lurid the better. The not-so-subtle vibe of my tabloid newspaper was that policy stories were just OK but murder and crime stories sold papers at the Wawa, what with the human drama of grieving families and heartless thugs. TV news producers — Channel 6’s Action News was often cited as the ultimate example of “If it bleeds, it leads” journalism — were along for the same ride.

With many high-profile murders, in an era that profitable newspapers supported large metro staffs, the Daily News would throw several spare reporters into a “house end,” ringing every doorbell for any tiny detail about a neighborhood killer, or the killed. During my first 20 years in journalism, papers also stationed reporters at police headquarters who buttered up cops with doughnuts in the morning and cold beers at night to solicit the kind of racy (yet false, sometimes) details like those in that Ogrod story. Those practices mostly died out with the massive newspaper job cuts of the 21st century, in which short staffing now leads to over-reliance on police press releases. Arguably making things even worse.

“Journalists are always treating police as not seeing them as participants in a conflict, where they have to cover both sides,” Regina Lawrence, a University of Oregon journalism professor and author of a book on how the media covers police brutality, told me. And yet community members feel their side — on stop-and-frisk and over-policing for minor or non-existent crimes, for example — isn’t being told.

Meanwhile, problems in those neighborhoods like redlining or other racist practices, or issues like food security and lack of jobs — let alone the flip side of over-policing, mass incarceration on a massive scale — got the journalistic equivalent of cut-rate car insurance, bare-minimum coverage.

The bias from a mostly white newsroom cut several ways. I mentioned the Ogrod case at the start of this column because it provided a lot more sensational journalism, in part because the victim was white. The other 13 men wrongly convicted of murder in Philadelphia in the 1980s and ‘90s and freed now in the Krasner era are black, and their initial arrests and convictions didn’t generate such big headlines, just a steady drumbeat of just-the-facts (except not really) coverage of crimes in black neighborhoods that just kept coming without any context.

When people did notice, at least at the Daily News, racial bias in crime coverage, it was usually because a white editor had written a thoughtless headline — horrific wordplay on the murder of beloved hip-hop star Tupac Shakur (“It’s a Rap!”) or a front page with row after row of police-supplied mugshots billed as “Fugitives Among Us,” raising the uncomfortable question of which people were “us” in the People Paper and which were “them.”

The day-in, day-out perception in black and brown neighborhoods that warped journalism was harming their communities was — justifiably — widespread.


A 2018 Tow Center study on trust in local news convened a focus group in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, and crime coverage was the No. 1 complaint. Said one woman: “I mean, I just remember always noticing it on the news, even growing up. Like, the positive stories about, you know, some kid getting accepted to college at the age of 16, like that’ll be 30 seconds. Then, the negative stories, you can go into the kitchen, go to the bathroom, come back, they’re still talking about it.”

On the heels of that study, a coalition that includes Free Press, the Media, Inequality & Change Center and Media Mobilizing Project this year launched an effort in Philadelphia called the Police and Violence Narrative Project, with an ambitious goal of driving journalism toward the stories of how communities see criminal justice and not just how cops see it.

“A journalist is only as good as their sources,” the Free Press’ Mike Rispoli, one of the leaders of the project, reminded me. The idea that reporters need to talk to everyday folks in neighborhoods a lot more, and trust the cops a lot less, is Journalism 101, but Rispoli and other critics acknowledge that’s easier said than done in an internet age that values speed, when the police almost always craft the initial narrative on crimes minutes after they happen.

The tumultuous recent events might finally be an opportunity to change that — both the justified uproar within newsrooms around inherent racism, but also the growing proof about police dishonesty on everything from solving-not-really murders to their own brutality. A former crime reporter, Sophie Haigney, recently published an excellent round-up of these sad sagas, such as the wrongly accused Central Park Five recently portrayed in “When They See Us,” and concluded that smart criminal-justice reporting “can expose fractures in a community, broad societal injustices, the failures of law enforcement. If the story doesn’t get at something beyond what the police said happened, don’t publish it.”

Media critics like Rispoli and Lawrence say there are number of things newsrooms can do, from tackling the fairly low-hanging fruit of ending the publication of police mugshots that can follow a person on search engines, even those later found not guilty, to more involved steps. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer even created a committee that looked at requests from citizens to — sometimes successfully — get their names permanently deleted from past minor-crime articles.

They also agreed that while newsroom diversity is important, it can’t be seen as a magic bullet to overcome decades of implicit bias that so often comes through in everyday decisions about what stories to cover or not cover, which articles make the front page, or the use of cringeworthy language in headlines. Said Lawrence: “It’s not enough to increase the number of black and brown bodies — there has to be a shift in the norms.”

One thing I’ve seen as I close in on four decades working in a newsroom is that too many bosses from the historically dominant white culture in journalism saw hiring young black and brown reporters as a way to give different-looking folks an opportunity to assimilate into their culture, rather than seize the opportunity to call upon the lived experience of people from different backgrounds to forge a new, more inclusive, and better culture. If they had, new organizations might have fostered a healthier skepticism of the police, and a lot sooner.

I’ve never been a boss, but I know there were times, looking back, when I bought into the prevailing narratives on crime in black neighborhoods, and I deeply regret that, and I apologize. I want to be part of a new journalism going forward in America that’s not built around those two tired words but three different ones: “Community members said.”



Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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