On the nightstand: 8/28/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Carla Murphy and Mary Kuhlman produced an audio report on a survivors’ group in Chicago, Citizens for Change, that works to help victims through crime prevention and trauma recovery, rather than simply relying on the criminal-justice system’s reactive, punitive solutions to crime. (Public News Service)
  • Kelly Davis explains the plight of the mentally ill in jails and prisons through the stories of their frustrated, anguished parents. (San Diego CityBeat)
  • Alexis Sobel Fitts reviews the research that shows how skewed news coverage can influence public opinion about the race of crime victims and those who commit crimes. (Columbia Journalism Review)
  • Gabriel Urza provides an extensive explanation of the Army’s removal of a key member of the defense team for 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Urza didn’t prove the Army intended to interfere with the defense, but based on his findings of how this went down it’s hard to conclude otherwise. (Slate)
  • Andrew Grossman reports on findings of a survey showing frequent turf battles between the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies investigating crimes of violence. (Wall Street Journal)
  • The Marshall Project assembled a comprehensive Twitter list of criminal justice journalists. I’m proud to be included. It also has a list of Twitter accounts following criminal-justice news.
  • On the blog, I applauded New York Times tech-culture columnist Nick Bilton for documenting cases during the Ferguson protests in which Twitter users distorted news of what they saw or claimed to see.

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

Viewed through a straw, with distortions

That will teach me to skip The New York Times‘ normally fatuous Styles section. Nick Bilton, in his new technology-culture column “Disruptions” for Styles (he recently jumped there from the Times‘ Bits blog on the business desk), wrote a fascinating account of how the celebrated citizen journalists on Twitter mangled, either intentionally and not, the news they supposedly reported from the front lines of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests.

I admit, this fits with my world view. As I most recently ranted, anonymous, independent “reporters” on Twitter lack my trust and produce fragmented reports lacking the coherence of true narrative. Bilton makes that point by quoting Brian Stetler on the inherent weakness of battlefield reports, which view the overall action “through a straw.”

Now Bilton adds evidence to support another criticism of it: Inaccuracy. When performed by amateurs who imagine facts to explain what they’ve seen or flat out lie to support their cause, the Twitterstream is worse than confusing and unverified; it’s deceptive.

This, of course, is what we worry about when we talk about trust. Why should I believe what you’re reporting if I don’t know who you are? This doubt can be overcome when multiple people report the same or similar things as they happen. Even then, we need the skills of the journalist — if not the actual journalist himself or herself — to verify that what was seen was what it seemed.

But, then, with the sort of problems Bilton documents, we’re back to not being sure we can believe anything. Especially when fabrications get repeated in an echo chamber and journalists slow to repeat the rumors or actively debunking them get attacked by the Twitter mob.

Here’s a taste of what Bilton found out about the #Ferguson Twitterstream:

Take, for example, one rumor that circulated on Twitter on Aug. 18 about a white pickup truck that was supposedly offering protesters free rides when the police arrested everyone onboard. “They’re just arresting people in this truck for … no reason other than they are there or trying to get home,” wrote @graceishuman on Twitter.

But David Carson, a photographer with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch who was embedded with the police officers who pulled over the pickup, said that police arrested 12 passengers, two of whom had guns, and found a Molotov cocktail in the truck bed.

In another example, Matt Pearce, a national reporter for The Los Angeles Times, noted that a series of tweets on Aug. 17 claimed that protesters had looted a McDonald’s for containers of milk to alleviate eye pain from police tear gas.

But that didn’t happen, either. Mr. Pearce said that the windows at that McDonald’s had been broken earlier by people with children trying to seek shelterfrom tear gas, and that store employees had actually handed protesters the milk.

Just because we point these problems out doesn’t mean Twitter lacks value, or that there’s no place for citizen journalists. I simply use cases like this to keep our skeptic’s glasses firmly in place, and to keep pointing out the irreplaceable value of the professional journalist, trained to verify what we think we’ve seen and heard.

On the nightstand: 8/26/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville do a Q&A with Colorlines writer Carla Murphy about her important work questioning why certain crime victims — namely, young black men — don’t get the help and compassion that other victims get. (Beacon Reader)
  • Dan Barry, one of The New York Times‘ finest writers, strutted his stuff in a profile on Monday of Missouri state police Capt. Ronald Johnson, the fascinating character at the center of the storm in Ferguson.
  • D. Bryan Burghart, a Reno newspaper editor, tells how he came to create Fatal Encounters — after he found it offensive that there is no national database of killings by police. (Gawker)
  • Jessica Pishko tells the story of journalism William Drummond, San Quentin prisoner Watani Stiner, and their strangely intertwined lives, leading to collaboration on a prison newspaper. (Narratively)
  • Adam Serwer places the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in historical context, with an article that looks at what we’ve learned from violent race riots and other protests of the past. (BuzzFeed)
  • Philadelphia Daily News reporter Wendy Ruderman, co-author of an excellent book I reviewed here, took to Facebook to answer charges that she and writing partner Barbara Laker violated journalistic ethics in how they handled sources for their stories and book on police corruption.
  • On the blog, I defended the Times‘ John Eligon for his “no angel” story about Michael Brown, arguing that his critics either didn’t read the story or chose to denounce truth telling that proves inconvenient.

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

What reporters do

The reaction to John Eligon’s story yesterday on the front page of The New York Times shows one truth, at least: Critics don’t need to read an entire story, nor do they need to think much about what that story contributes to a larger conversation about an incident as heavily analyzed as the death of Michael Brown. They simply run a few facts and phrases from the story (that they probably got second hand) through the filter of their choice and then denounce the story.

Through interviews mainly with Brown’s family and others who know the family, Eligon composed a portrait of a young man who was neither the thug caricatured by defenders of Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, nor the perfect-in-every-way youngster that his supporters wish for. He was, by Eligon’s telling, a normal kid with fairly normal ups and downs. And Eligon told that story by doing his job as a reporter: to find and confirm facts about a newsworthy subject.

Does Eligon’s storytelling equate to an argument that Brown deserved what he got? Of course not. Even though Brown’s biography sheds no light on whether Wilson’s actions were justified, they still matter because now we know more about Brown, this person at the center of such controversy. What we do with those facts is up to each of us.

Not wanting to know these facts is an act of willful ignorance. How does that help inform a debate that boils down to thug or innocent victim?

Many of the story’s critics (again, I would guess few even read the full story) seized upon one phrase — that Brown was “no angel” — without noting, or knowing, the words that preceded that: an anecdote about a religious experience Brown told his parents he had involving images of angels and Satan. Eligon’s use of “no angel” to transition from that to the full, seemingly fair summary that follows makes sense in context.

Even the Times‘ normally level-headed public editor skips that context to criticize use of the phrase — because, I guess, people will seize upon two words, regardless of how they were used and the full context in which they were used.

Context and facts don’t always matter when we have bet on one horse to win. Once the bet has been placed, we don’t want nuance or inconvenient truths. We only want to win.

A reporter’s job is different, and Eligon did his job.

On the nightstand: Thursday, 8/21/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Pamela Colloff does it again. A writer I’ve often praised has a new feature in which she skillfully and movingly tells the story of Michelle Lyons. As a reporter and then as a spokesperson for the Texas prisons, Lyons witnessed 278 executions. The first was easy. They got progressively harder. Now she lives with the awful memories, including what she saw victims’ families go through. “One of the hardest things for me to see was how often the victim’s family was let down by the experience, by how quick and easy it was,” Colloff quotes her as saying. “They didn’t walk away feeling like they had in any way been made whole.” (Texas Monthly)
  • Two goodreads on two different kinds of men on the run: John Wolfson’s Atlantic feature “The Escape Artist” tells the story  of Eugene Esposito, a cocaine trafficker who escaped from a 25-year prison term to remake himself into Jim Sargent, a legitimate, successful businessman. Then a DWI arrest made it all come crashing down. In GQ, Michael Finkel writes about Maine’s North Pond Hermit, Christopher Knight. From age 20 to 47, Knight lived off the land — and off a years-long string of burglaries. (Side note to Finkel and his editors: If you write a long magazine feature about burglary, it’s best to know the difference between that crime and robbery.) Finkel spins an engaging narrative as his letters and then visits slowly bring the hermit into human contact of a sort that he’d denied himself for so long.
  • On the blog, I had high praise for the Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier series on that state’s appalling record of botched domestic-violence enforcement.

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

A tour de force

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 6.07.54 AM“Till Death Do Us Part,” the Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier‘s breathtaking, new series on domestic abuse, marks another triumph of the collaborative efforts led by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Before I wade into those details, first things first. To use an abstraction like “domestic abuse” is a disservice to the crystal clarity this story brings to the topic.  I’ll let the writers — Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff — describe what they found, quoting from the muscular, unblinking language included in the series opener after a powerful video clip:

More than 300 women were stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse.

More than three times as many women have died here at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

It’s a staggering toll that for more than 15 years has placed South Carolina among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men. The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.

Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse, a Post and Courier investigation has found.

Couple this with deep-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the place of women in the home, and the vows “till death do us part” take on a sinister tone.

Data, visuals, and old-fashioned reporting back up those words in the seven parts that follow. The eight-month team project covers the legal, social, and human dimensions with depth, toughness toward those who’ve failed, and compassion toward those who’ve suffered: the victims.

Robert Sallady explains CIR’s role:

Till Death Do Us Part was reported by Post and Courier projects reporter Doug Pardue, project editor Glenn Smith, feature reporter Jennifer Hawes, and cops and courts reporter Natalie Caula Hauff. Interns Isabelle Khurshudyan and Sarah Ellis provided data research. The project was reported for TV by Bill Burr of WCIV, the ABC affiliate in Charleston.

The series grew out of a collaboration with The Center for Investigative Reporting, which helped form a consortium with the University of South Carolina and WCIV to jointly produce the project on multiple platforms. CIR’s former editorial director, Mark Katches, helped edit and manage the project. CIR Senior Editor Jennifer LaFleur and her data team assisted The Post and Courier’s Caula Hauff in analyzing and vetting the state and national data.

CIR earlier this year collaborated with Alabama Media Group for a series on the state’s prison system, which I blogged about here and here. If these are examples of what’s to come from this group, accountability journalism — and all of us — have much to be grateful for.

To the team at the Post and Courier, take a bow. This is what journalism is meant to be.

On the nightstand: 8/19/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Tracey Kaplan and Mark Emmons profile Dionne Wilson, the public face of the campaign in California to treat certain crimes less harshly under the law. Wilson’s journey from anger to activism on behalf of criminal-justice reform, after the murder of her police-officer husband, demonstrates how some victims discover that healing comes not from revenge but from trying to address crime in more constructive ways. (San Jose Mercury News)
  • Mary Schmich tells a story about the importance of storytelling in victim healing. Olympic hockey star Sarah Tueting explains how a nanny’s assault on Tueting’s baby led to frustration and disappointment, at how the legal system handled the case and then how others judged her as a parent. But, she tells the National Organization for Victim Assistance, she has learned that it’s up to her to take positive lessons from the experience — first, by taking charge of how her story gets told. (Chicago Tribune, reg. req.)
  • Robert Zullo digs into problems with an anti-violence program whose founder had some fiery things to say about the bureaucratic intransigence that caused him to walk away. David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and its National Network for Safe Communities wrote a fascinating book, titled Don’t Shoot, about his tactics and their use in many cities nationwide. In that book he describes a number of similar reactions from turf-conscious police (and the opposite, visionary police who use it because it works). (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
  • Manuel Roig-Franzia is lead writer of what journalists refer to as a write-through: a narrative on the events in Ferguson, Missouri  (as of the August 16 publication of this story), told in a way that explains what is known so far about the shooting of Michael Brown, but with literary power and grace. (Washington Post)
  • In another example of on-the-ground reporting in Ferguson, Seth Freed Wessler (we’re Soros justice fellows together) talks to students, parents, and teachers at the school where Michael Brown graduated last spring. What they have to say about police relations, danger, and education sheds new light on the story. (NBC)
  • Katy Waldman focuses on a near-death experience involving a crippled airplane, but her story on new science about memory and PTSD has implications for victims of violent crime as well. (Slate)
  • Lauren Collins tells a great yarn about a British woman whose long-estranged boyfriend was an undercover agent who went too far in the hunt for violent animal-rights activists.  After fathering a baby with her, he drifted away once it became clear she was no longer so involved in what he was investigating. (The New Yorker)

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

On the nightstand: 8/17/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

  • Dave Tobin makes the point in his story about the abduction of two northern New York Amish girls that local police cultivated good relationships across cultures, which helped in the investigation thus far. The same can be said for Tobin’s sensitive, insightful reporting on the normally private Amish people. (Syracuse Post-Standard)
  • Jon Schuppe writes about smart policing that eschews the tactics that have backfired so badly in Ferguson, Missouri, and instead targets people responsible for violence without targeting entire communities. Though he hypes these tactics as “new” (they’re not, really), this otherwise serves as an intelligent response to the policing debate of the moment. (NBC News)
  • At The New Yorker‘s website, Sarah Stillman gives a fresh take on what fuels community rage in places like Ferguson in clashes with police. It’s not just the militarized overreaction, and not just the stop-and-frisk aggressiveness of cops, but also that poverty carries an especially heavy burden in our justice system in the form of unaffordable fines. This springs from her work on this June story.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about “the politics of changing the subject” — how black protests about police behavior typically turn into “moral hectoring of black people” about supposedly caring about black-on-black crime. (The Atlantic)
  • On the blog, I offered some (I hope) not-so-routine thoughts about crime journalism and crime victims after reading a fairly routine crime story.

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

A modest proposal

The story in this morning’s local newspaper was like so many other crime briefs. As I read it, I had the same feelings I imagine most others would have: disgust, mainly. But then I had a question that I doubt many reporters ask in such cases.

First, the basic facts: A former teacher pleads guilty to the sexual trafficking of a minor. He had pimped out a 15-year-old on Backpage.com. The child told authorities she sold her body 10 to 15 times daily. (The story doesn’t say how long that went on. No matter what the answer to that question, the real answer is “too long.”) The defendant faces a mandatory-minimum sentence of 10 years.

No matter what you think of our criminal justice system or whether sex trafficking is taken seriously enough, you can’t read that story without feeling anger toward the defendant. That’s natural. But what does it get us? Frustrated by our inability to change horrific facts, many of us go where our anger and disgust take us: to urge the harshest possible treatment of the accused, regardless of whether it makes anyone safer or deters others. Retaliation is the only thing that can make us feel better, momentarily or, more likely, theoretically.

What if such stories carried, as a matter of course, a mention of what happened to this victim? Instead of only focusing on the person who committed the crime, we could pay some attention to what comes next for the person who was harmed. How is she now? What help has she received since the arrest? What help does she need, and will she be given, going forward?

Maybe prosecutors won’t know the answers to these questions, or victim advocates assigned to the case won’t talk. Maybe the answers aren’t what we would hope for (in other words, we aren’t doing much of anything for her once this case is over).

Regardless, what if journalists asked the questions routinely, and described in our stories what, if anything, authorities revealed about the welfare of the victim? Wouldn’t that shift the attention ever so  slightly? As it moves away from a near-complete focus on the offense and offender, which can only produce one set of reactions and emotions, and toward a balanced inquiry into what has happened to the person we, collectively, took action to protect, perhaps the public’s interests in criminal justice would shift,  too. Perhaps, in other words, we might take greater interest in healing victims, while lowering the emotional temperature when we’re contemplating a just punishment for a crime.

Finally, wouldn’t it put public pressure where it could do some good, on our public agencies to do a better job caring for victims?

And it all would start with a few extra questions asked, and a few extra words added to every crime story.

On the newsstand: 8/15/14

Today’s good reads in criminal-justice journalism, with an emphasis on longform narrative stories on crime and original reporting on crime victims and reforms in sentencing and prisons:

First the Ferguson, Missouri-related stuff:

  • Radley Balko shares the fruits of his reporting and his police sources’ experience on the failures of brute-force policing and tactics (like those used in the hours after he wrote this column) that calm rather than enflame. (Washington Post)
  • Jeremy Peters looks at the debate in two branches of conservative politics over police tactics. It’s a divide on the right that’s been increasingly evident in criminal-justice-reform circles: While some see tyranny in all the wrong places, others see it as it’s classically defined: jackbooted thugs invading our streets and homes. (New York Times)
  • Kevin Johnson, Meghan Hoyer, and Brad Heath dig into FBI data to show what we know, and don’t know, about fatal shootings by police. In the absence of a reliable national list, the reporters walk us through the patterns that can be seen in thousands of killings we do know about. (USA Today)

In other news….

  • A strong series on abuses of sex registries by a trio of Yale law and grad students ends with reform ideas, and a caution about the dicey politics of fixing rules meant for people we’ve been conditioned to hate by years of bad hype. (Slate)
  • Rui Kaneya writes about the subpoena showdown involving Patch.com reporter Joseph Hosey, over a hunt to identify his sources for a series on a sensational Chicago murder. The fight has nothing to do with the defendant’s guilt or innocence, but instead offers a perceived strategic advantage to the defense — all the more reason, in my view, to question interfering with Hosey’s work. (Columbia Journalism Review)

This almost-daily digest compiles and expands on posts I’ve made on Twitter, Facebook, and my other social media feeds. See the buttons on the left rail to follow me on one of those sites, or follow this blog via RSS or email.

A writer and editor on law, crime, and business