Columbia Journalism Review

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  • How New York journalists overcame barriers to prison access and opened the world’s eyes to the horrors of Rikers

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    The media’s access to prisons is replete with roadblocks, which vary from state to state and can be as extreme as blanket denials to journalists. U.S. courts have found that journalists have no more right to access prisons than the general public does, and much of their reporting requires navigating complicated relationships with prison officials. Despite these challenges, dogged reporting from New York journalists covering the Rikers Island jail complex made it impossible for the public and officials to ignore injustices in the prison, which Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in March to shut down.

    Journalists face numerous barriers to prison access, which varies from state to state

    New York journalists' reporting on Rikers exemplified how to overcome many challenges to access

    Reporting on prisons is in the public interest


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Journalists face numerous barriers to prison access, which varies from state to state

    One of the first complexities journalists face in their reporting on prisons is different access policies across states. The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) developed a state-by-state media access policy resource after finding that several states “offer few guidelines for granting or denying media requests, simply leaving it up to ‘the discretion’ of whoever is in charge.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) even suggests reporters “try personally appealing to the head of the department” when they are unable to navigate the complex and often arbitrary policies. SPJ’s Jessica Pupovac interviewed a Wall Street Journal criminal justice reporter who compared prisons to “a fiefdom” with a “feudal system” in which “the warden is at the top.”

    Pupovac’s toolbox on prison reporting outlined other discrepancies between states. For example, some states permit face-to-face interviews with inmates “but reserve the right to terminate such conversations at any time,” while others may reject nearly all requests. An Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson even admitted to Pupovac in 2012 that he does not “remember any times” the department has “granted access in the last year and a half.” Other prisons require that “any sources from within the prisons” be “hand-selected by staff.” According to “peer-to-peer educational platform” GenFKD, state-by-state access policies “appear to be arbitrary considering they can be based on previous legislation, administrative regulation, individual cases or a combination thereof,” and that there are only a handful of places with “due process for media to complain if they are denied” access.

    The law, however, generally does not guarantee any sort of journalist access to prisons, though journalists have successfully sued for that access. In a 2013 Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) cover story, Beth Schwartzapfel wrote, “The courts have repeatedly held that journalists do not have any rights of access greater than that of the general public. Of course, they have no fewer rights of access, either.” One Chicago journalist threatened a lawsuit “hom[ing] in on that right to equal access,” as prison officials had granted access to school and church groups, along with the prison watchdog group John Howard Association prior to then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn issuing “blanket denials to journalists seeking access to the state’s prisons.” Illinois’ Department of Corrections eventually granted access, and one of the reporter’s lawyers reasoned that it was because the department “knew that to give access to John Howard and not the media raised a significant equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

    But the challenges do not end even when a journalist is granted access. Journalists must “navigate a complicated relationship with correctional administrators whose goals and needs are often at odds with their own,” and, as Pupovac told CJR, “Openness, and transparency are ‘the exception to the rule.’” GenFKD noted that reporters also often “take statements from officials as truth without investigating further,” and “prisoners and guards alike will be dishonest and mislead regularly.”

    Former Los Angeles Times corrections reporter Jenifer Warren told CPJ that when journalists can’t get access through prison officials, they should follow “the paper trail,” noting that “prisons are functions of state governments, and state governments keep all sorts of records.” Warren also noted that though the media may not have access to current inmates, reporters can “interview former inmates,” “talk to people who just got out, people on probation and parole, and their friends and family.” And according to GenFKD, “Though corrections officials can make it hard to talk to inmates, they can’t make it impossible. Inmates are allowed to write letters, and most have access to phone calls if reporters are willing to pay hefty fees.”

    New York journalists’ reporting on Rikers exemplified how to overcome many challenges to access

    Many of these tactics were effectively employed by New York journalists reporting on the Rikers Island jail complex, which Mayor de Blasio has vowed to close, potentially within the next 10 years.

    New York magazine writer Jennifer Gonnerman’s long-form feature about Kalief Browder, who was incarcerated at Rikers, was a Pulitzer award finalist. Browder spent three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was 16, nearly two of which were in solitary confinement. He was pressured to plead guilty as his trial was repeatedly delayed, and he was eventually released without a trial because his accuser left the country and the prosecutor was therefore “unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.” Browder took his own life in 2015 after having attempted to do so “several times” during his time in Rikers. Gonnerman’s work brought national attention to Browder’s case, with former President Barack Obama citing his case in a Washington Post op-ed he wrote in 2016, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy specifically citing Gonnerman’s reporting in a Supreme Court opinion. According to The New York Times, she was also credited with increasing public attention “on the plight of younger teenagers at Rikers” that led to the eventual plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers “to a dedicated jail for youths in the Bronx.”

    In her reporting, Gonnerman interviewed Browder, who had already been released, as well as his lawyers and family. She also relied heavily on court filings, transcripts, and a report by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. These reports were instrumental in corroborating Browder’s story, such as when he recounted officers beating him and telling him that he would be sent to solitary if he went to the medical clinic rather than back to bed. The group of guards had lined Browder and other inmates “up against a wall, trying to figure out who had been responsible for an earlier fight,” and Browder recounted that though “he had nothing to do with the fight,” the guards beat him and the other inmates. Gonnerman reported that “the Department of Correction refused to respond to these allegations, or to answer any questions about Browder’s stay on Rikers.” But she was able to substantiate his story by noting that Bharara’s report “recounts many instances in which officers pressured inmates not to report beatings.”

    The New York Times’ Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have also covered Rikers extensively. Their 2014 reporting -- in conjunction with court reporter Benjamin Weiser -- that the city had omitted “hundreds of inmate fights … from departmental statistics” was referenced by Bharara when he warned that his office, as the Times reported, “stood ready to file a civil rights lawsuit against” New York City over conditions at Rikers. The Times obtained a confidential report that showed that the data was incorrect in those statistics and that the warden and deputy warden “had ‘abdicated all responsibility’ in reporting the statistics and that both should be demoted.” Bharara’s office eventually joined an existing class-action lawsuit against the city for brutality at the complex. Reflecting on their “high-impact journalism,” Winerip and Schwirtz wrote that it was “remarkable” that they were able “to see the results of our reporting almost immediately.”

    In an earlier landmark report on rampant brutality at Rikers, Winerip and Schwirtz also noted that a “dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city’s Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence” at the prison “hidden from public view.” Nevertheless, they uncovered “details on scores of assaults” through both interviews and by “reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records”:

    The Times uncovered details on scores of assaults through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence.

    The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.

    Rather than simply report on the secret study, which “included no names and had little by way of details about specific cases,” Times reporters obtained “specific information on all 129 cases and used it to take an in-depth look at 24 of the most serious incidents.” In addition to many anonymous interviews with “inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail,” Winerip and Schwirtz interviewed officials like Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and the president of the correction officers’ union, Norman Seabrook. While reflecting on their reporting, they noted that “once we started publishing articles, insiders saw we were serious and came forward to help. Many of them could have lost their jobs if their names were published, but they were able to point us to documents that had been covered up, and to people who were in a position to speak honestly and openly.”

    Winerip and Schwirtz’s reporting also demonstrated the need to not take officials’ words or reports at face value. Schwirtz talked about their reporting in another article, writing that “inmates can be, or be seen as, unreliable, and the correctional bureaucracies are often not forthcoming,” so he and Winerip had “to be creative.” They got help from prisoners’ “wives and girlfriends,” who passed information from their partners to the reporters, to report on brutal interrogations. They also used letters inmates wrote to the Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, and the group’s lawyers then put the inmates in contact with the Times. Schwirtz and Winerip also spoke to inmates on the phone and were able to visit four of them. The State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision did not provide the “names of correction officers” with whom the reporters could speak and issued “only a short statement suggesting that allegations of abuse were under investigation.” 

    Reporting on prisons is in the public interest

    Reporting on prisons and incarceration is a matter of intense public interest and can expose real injustice, waste, and corruption. SPJ’s Pupovac noted that “what happens behind prison walls affects us all.” Taxpayers must pay for “an annual budget of more than $74 billion” to run U.S. prisons, and incarcerated people eventually re-enter their communities. Yet in CJR, Schwartzapfel noted that “compared to other areas that siphon significant public resources, such as healthcare, prisons get vanishingly little media attention.” Schwartzapfel also noted that “more than 600,000” incarcerated people “eventually go home” each year, and their experience in our prisons “has profound consequences for the society they return to”:

    [I]t is hard to overstate the importance of covering prisons. For starters: 95 percent of prisoners—more than 600,000 people each year—eventually go home. What happened while they were inside—whether they received job training, adequate healthcare, or learned positive life skills, or whether they were embittered, recruited into a gang, or made connections in the criminal underworld—has profound consequences for the society they return to. And the ripples extend far beyond the prisoners themselves: Almost two million children have a parent in prison—to say nothing of inmates’ parents, spouses, and siblings. Half a million correctional officers work behind the walls.

    There are entire organizations dedicated to investigating incarceration in America. The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer-winning nonprofit news organization, uses “award-winning journalism, partnerships with other news outlets and public forums … to educate and enlarge the audience of people who care about the state of criminal justice,” as well as to “create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.” Organizations like the Marshall Project and reporting by journalists, such as those investigating Rikers, overcame barriers to prison access and shined a light on unacceptable conditions, helping spur positive change.

  • Media Critics: CNN’s Use Of Pro-Trump Surrogates Undercuts The Network’s Journalism

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW LAWRENCE

    Media critics say CNN’s use of paid pro-Trump surrogates has undercut the network’s journalism and the “goal of informing its audience.”

    After the third and final presidential debate, Trump surrogates scrambled to spin Donald Trump’s statement that he may not accept the results of the election, putting forward a litany of absurd claims. On CNN, that role was filled by the network’s roster of paid contributors who were specifically hired for their willingness to defend Trump.

    New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen criticized the “candidate surrogate” system CNN invested in during this campaign cycle, explaining that CNN’s “Surrogates are unwilling to defend Trump, so they change him into a man more defensible.” He added that because CNN’s Trump surrogates frequently attempt to mislead the network’s audience, CNN has “wasted our time, undermined the work of their journalists, and made the election-year discussion more opaque [than] it would have been if they had never invited these people on set.”

    The Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti similarly wrote that having the Trump surrogates on-air to spin the widely condemned remarks made by Trump during the debate “overstepped CNN’s reporting and undercut its purported goal of informing its audience”:

    The consensus headline from the third and final presidential debate was Republican candidate Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting the 2016 election results. It was a stunning rebuke of American political norms from the nominee of a major political party, and it quickly dominated coverage online Wednesday night and in major print newspapers Thursday morning.The Associated Press’ lede said Trump is “threatening to upend a fundamental pillar of American democracy.”

    At CNN, however, confusion initially reigned. The network’s journalists expressed shock at Trump’s comments within seconds of the debate’s conclusion. “One of the most stunning things I’ve ever heard in a presidential debate, ever,” said Jake Tapper, the network’s chief Washington correspondent.

    […]

    But pro-Trump contributors attempted to muddle this point during a panel discussion after the debate, when viewership was likely highest. Their baseless speculation that the election might somehow be rigged overstepped CNN’s reporting and undercut its purported goal of informing its audience. The comments, which drew stern rebuttals from other CNN on-air talent, highlight how the network’s pursuit of the appearance of objectivity in 2016 has distorted its final product on television. It also provides a clear example of how the channel’s model puts CNN journalists in the awkward position of fact-checking CNN contributors in real time.

    Uberti concluded: “CNN pays pro-Trump contributors to provide it with a shinier veneer of objectivity. But it’s become all too clear in recent months that this mission actively harms its journalists’ pursuit of the truth. The news organization must clarify where its real priorities lie.”

    CNN’s reliance on Trump surrogates to provide defense for a “candidate who doesn’t exist” has come under increased scrutiny over recent weeks, with their decision to hire former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who was still receiving payment from the Trump campaign, as a paid political analyst.

    Media Matters’ Carlos Maza highlighted CNN’s Trump surrogate problem, noting how surrogates refuse to answer legitimate questions about Trump’s positions and controversies and instead point unrelated discussions that devolve into personal attacks.

     

  • Journalist Who Interviewed Trump Sexual Assault Accuser In July Discusses Why The Media Waited To Cover It

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The story of Jill Harth’s allegations of sexual assault against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has finally gained traction in the media after months of reticence. Reporter Lucia Graves, who wrote about the story for The Guardian in July, attributes this troubling phenomenon to a media tendency to fully acknowledge sexual assault stories only when it comes from the man being accused, not when the source is the female accuser.

    Stories about Jill Harth’s lawsuit against Donald Trump began to surface as early as April 2016, but the mainstream media outlets CNN, Fox News, ABC, NBC, and CBS failed to examine the story at that time. Mainstream outlets only started to acknowledge the story in October, when a leaked video showed Trump bragging about sexual assault on a hot mic.

    In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review's Pete Vernon, The Guardian's Graves explained that the problem with the media’s coverage of sexual assault stems from a “tendency to think of sexual assault as ‘he said, she said,’” pointing out that even when many women can corroborate the accusations, “we don’t hear it until the formula is ‘he said, he said.” In other words, media fail to actively report on the story until it the words come directly from the man’s mouth. Graves listed the onslaught of testimonies from other women who accused Trump of sexual assault and commented that “it’s so remarkable that Trump had to literally say every single one of those things to another man, and people had to hear it recorded before people believed the story that has been out there for months.” From the October 13 interview (emphasis original):

    Were you frustrated your story didn’t receive more attention?

    Extremely frustrated. I think that a lot of reporters, a lot of places in journalism, are maddeningly tone deaf on this issue. I think there’s a dismissiveness, generally, that is upsetting.

    I was also upset that, when the story came out, I received zero media requests about it. Even the radio segment that I was booked on didn’t really want to spend too much with me on it because it “hadn’t gotten traction,” as the host put it.

    Why do you think people are willing to listen now in a way that they weren’t during the summer?

    Because a man said it. Because Trump came out in leaked video and said, in so many words, that sexual assault is something that he does regularly. He was bragging about it on the record. And that is what it took.

    It wasn’t any woman saying it; it was a powerful man running for president saying it that got people to take it seriously, which is remarkable. It’s the same thing that happened with Bill Cosby. When you had not just one woman accusing him of rape, you had many, many accusations out there. But it took a male comedian standing up on stage, and joking about it with other men, for people to get mad and take it seriously.

    So what do we, as the media, need to do better to address these issues when they come up?

    The first step is an awareness about what we’re doing. I think we have a tendency to think of sexual assault as “he said, she said,” and we throw up our hands. But, in fact, many times it’s not “he said, she said,” it’s “he said, and she said, and she said, and she said,” and we don’t hear it until the formula is “he said, he said.”

    So just being aware that that is the formula for what our society needs to hear these stories is a good first step. I don’t have a prescription.

    [...]

    What should we learn from this?

    I think we should be really clear that what it took for these stories to be heard was Trump, essentially, admitting to every single one of them. There are three main patterns that we see now. We have two accounts of sexual assault; both of them are very similar and involve a tour of Mar-a-Largo and pushing the woman involved up against a wall. We have the kissing women on the lips as a form of introduction, two different reports of that in The New York Times. We have the barging into beauty contestants when they’re naked, sometimes teens. Every single one of those things we now have audio of him admitting to doing. I think it’s so remarkable that Trump had to literally say every single one of those things to another man, and people had to hear it recorded before people believed the story that has been out there for months.

  • Why Is Reuters Avoiding The Facts About The Smear Campaign Against Planned Parenthood?

    Blog ››› ››› RACHEL LARRIS

    A Reuters article on a recent Planned Parenthood legal victory in Utah gave equal weight to both discredited claims by Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert that Planned Parenthood had violated fetal tissue laws and the truth: Planned Parenthood Association of Utah had not violated the law.

    Last August, Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert instructed the state’s Department of Health to stop distributing federal funds to Planned Parenthood Association of Utah (PPAU), citing videos produced by the anti-choice Center for Medical Progress (CMP) -- Media Matters’ 2015 Misinformer of the Year -- that used misleadingly edited footage to baselessly accuse Planned Parenthood of engaging in illegal activities. In September, PPAU sued the state for blocking its funding and argued that the governor’s attack was motivated by his position against abortion. On July 12, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision, allowing PPAU to continue to receive funding for STD testing and sex education programs.

    As reported by The Salt Lake Tribune, the 10th Circuit concluded that “the governor's personal opposition to abortion could likely be demonstrated as a motivation for blocking Planned Parenthood's funds.” The court determined it was “undisputed that at no time has [Utah’s Department of Health] complained about the services provided by PPAU” or alleged that PPAU was misusing the funding. The court also noted that none of the multiple state and federal investigations into Planned Parenthood yielded evidence of illegal activity and that “no evidence was found to support the CMP videos’ claim” of illegal actions. Moreover, the court explained that Gov. Herbert had already admitted that PPAU was not engaging in illegal behavior (citations removed):

    During the press conference on August 17, 2015, Herbert acknowledged that the events depicted in the video “may not have happened in Utah.” And in opposing PPAU’s motion for preliminary injunction in the district court, Herbert made more specific admissions. To begin with, he admitted that the CMP videos involved other affiliates of Planned Parenthood and not PPAU. Herbert further admitted that “there is no evidence, or even accusation, that PPAU has ‘colored outside’ of any lines, including because PPAU does not participate in any program that provides fetal tissue for scientific research.” … In addition, Herbert admitted that the accusations made by CMP in the videos regarding Planned Parenthood and its other affiliates had not been proven and indeed were false.

    Yet despite the court’s conclusion that claims in CMP’s videos were unproven and false, Reuters framed CMP’s claims as “he said/she said” rather than relying upon the facts found by the court:

    In ordering the cutoff, Herbert, an abortion opponent, cited secretly recorded videos provided by the Center for Medical Progress that allegedly showed out-of-state Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of aborted fetal tissue.

    Planned Parenthood has said it did nothing wrong and that the videos were heavily edited to distort their content.

    In contrast to Reuters, other media outlets directly described the falsity of CMP’s videos and claims. The Salt Lake Tribune wrote that “the videos … were determined to be inaccurate and misleading,” while The Associated Press noted both that multiple investigations have cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing and that a Texas grand jury indicted CMP’s founder and his associate. Even the local Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City, Fox 13, reported that “the videos have been widely discredited as noted by the court decision calling them ‘unproven and in fact false.’”

    Media Matters has extensively documented the deceptive edits and misleading claims made in all of CMP’s videos. In February, a federal judge also found the videos “misleadingly edited” and said they included “unfounded assertions.” And since CMP put out the first video nearly a year ago, numerous media outlets have repeatedly demonstrated their deceptive nature.

    In March, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative report showing that the unreleased footage from CMP revealed CMP’s founder “coaching” answers from a supposed “documentary” testimony and trying to “plant phrases” in the mouths of targeted individuals.In May, the Columbia Journalism Review wrote that CMP founder David “Daleiden’s video footage and commentary did not reveal any attempt to profiteer [from illegal activity], and his editing sensationalized the evidence that he actually had.” The Washington Post’s editorial board also concluded that “as we now know, those videos are bunk, neither accurate nor reliable” while The New York Times’ editorial board wrote that CMP’s “charges against Planned Parenthood were completely bogus.”

    Given that CMP’s allegations have been so thoroughly disproven it’s beyond time for all media outlets to stop relying on false balance and just use the actual facts: The videos were deceptively edited in order to lodge false allegations against Planned Parenthood.

  • Columbia Journalism Review Dismantles Daleiden’s Claim That He’s A Journalist

    CMP Videos Merely Prove Daleiden Was “Masquerading As An Investigative Journalist, With The Aim Of Damaging Planned Parenthood”

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN

    Starting in July 2015, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of deceptively edited videos, baselessly alleging that Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue. This smear campaign was so fraudulent it earned CMP and its founder, David Daleiden, the title of Media Matters’ 2015 Misinformer of the Year. Although right-wing media baselessly insist that Daleiden is a journalist, in a May 12 report for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Ted Anderson concluded after “a close analysis of his video footage and his actions” that the work produced by Daleiden “doesn’t qualify as journalism on legal or ethical grounds.”

    Daleiden and his lawyers have argued that CMP’s work is journalism because it “uses the same undercover techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades.” Right-wing media have consistently carried water for these claims.

    Anderson thoroughly dismantled this argument and debunked Daleiden’s attempt at “pleading journalism” to cover his illegal and fraudulent activities. Citing a previous investigation by the Los Angeles Times -- which he participated in -- as well as several legal precedents, Anderson argued that Daleiden was not a journalist and merely “produced an intentionally emotional provocation that led to an investigation of smoke where there was no fire.”

    This latest debunk reaffirms statements and findings by journalists, a judge, and a grand jury and proves the only wrongdoing Daleiden “documented was the alleged fraud that he engaged in as an anti-abortion activist masquerading as an investigative journalist, with the aim of damaging Planned Parenthood.

    In one example, Anderson explained that Daleiden's description of CMP's work on its website didn't originally include the words "investigative journalism." He noted it was only after the deceptive videos garnered public attention that the term “suddenly appeared on the homepage” when Daleiden “altered the stated purpose of the organization.” According to Andersen, this means that it is unlikely "Daleiden would have qualified as a journalist" during CMP's so-called investigation. 

    From the May 12 CJR report:

    More problematic for Daleiden is that no privileges protect journalists who break the law to get the news. Before entering the private meetings he filmed, he signed nondisclosure agreements with the National Abortion Federation that prohibited audio and image recording. Further, 12 states, including California, require the consent of all parties when recording audio or phone conversations. In making the secret recordings, Daleiden has been accused of violating both the nondisclosure agreement and the California consent law.

    [...]

    Daleiden’s ethics, and particularly his choices in editing the videos, raise other questions. An undercover investigation, like any inquiry that hopes to qualify as journalism, has an obligation to present information that doesn’t necessarily fit into a preconceived thesis. In the videos that Daleiden published on his website, he failed to show the audience key sequences, such as the time he attempted unsuccessfully to get one of his targets drunk in an effort to elicit damaging or inappropriate statements. He touted one video as the “harrowing story of harvesting an intact brain from a late-term male fetus whose heart was still beating”—even though outtakes show that he edited out statements indicating the fetus was dead before the brain tissue was removed.

    [...]

    A real “citizen journalist,” as Daleiden calls himself, could have created a truthful story using information he found in his investigation: the size of the fetal-tissue market, the amount of money Planned Parenthood charged private medical-research companies for samples, the types of activities that are deemed illegal and why, and thorny ethical issues involving subjects like embryonic stem cell research and patient care in clinics. He might have mentioned that the fetal-tissue market has been around for nearly a century and has led to major medical advancements. And he could have done all this while also representing the voices that decry the very existence of the tissue trade. But Daleiden did not pursue that story, just as he didn’t use undercover cameras as a last resort. The story he went after didn’t even require those James Bond techniques. Instead, he produced an intentionally emotional provocation that led to an investigation of smoke where there was no fire.

  • This 1968 Report Highlights Exactly Why Reporting On Race Is Still A Disaster

    Fifty Years Later, The "White Perspective" Still Dominates Media Coverage Of Race, Racism, And Violence

    Blog ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    In 1967, responding to a number of riots in black neighborhoods of cities including Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago, President Lyndon Johnson convened an investigatory commission to figure out how and why the riots had occurred.

    Seven months later, the commission published the informally named Kerner Report, spotlighting how institutional and explicit anti-black racism, police brutality, concentrated poverty, and political disenfranchisement had come together to spark the riots.

    The report also strongly criticized major media's shoddy coverage of the riots, warning that a "significant imbalance" between reality and news reports of the riots was exacerbating the schism between the country's "two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." The report concluded:

    Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough. The painful process of readjustment that is required of the American news media must begin now. They must make a reality of integration--in both their product and personnel. They must insist on the highest standards of accuracy--not only reporting single events with care and skepticism, but placing each event into meaningful perspective. They must report the travail of our cities with compassion and depth.

    Fifty years later, mainstream media continues to be defined by the "white perspective" that the Kerner Report hoped to challenge. And the media circus that surrounded the protests against police brutality in Ferguson, MO, in August 2014 and Baltimore, MD, in April 2015 shows how little has changed in the broken way the mainstream media talks about race, violence, and systemic inequality.

    Exaggerating The "Scope And Intensity" Of Protests

    The Kerner Report criticized media coverage of the 1967 riots for exaggerating the "scope and intensity of the disorders," which created "an impression at odds with the overall reality of events":

    ... there were instances of gross flaws in presenting news of the 1967 riots. Some newspapers printed scare headlines unsupported by the mild stories that followed. All media reported rumors that had no basis in fact.

    [...]

    This is not "just another story." It should not be treated like one. ... Reporters and editors must be sure that descriptions and pictures of violence, and emotional or inflammatory sequences or articles, even though "true" in isolation, are really representative and do not convey an impression at odds with the overall reality of events.

    Following Michael Brown's high-profile death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, and Freddie Gray's death while in the custody of Baltimore's police department, protests over the use of excessive police force and racial discrimination erupted. Though protesters clashed with police at times, the demonstrations largely consisted of civil rights leaders, activists, politicians, and residents coming together to mourn the injustices and raise awareness of the circumstances.

    TV and print media flooded their coverage of the Baltimore and Ferguson unrest with incendiary imagery, misleadingly casting the demonstration sites as war zones. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News rolled videos on loop of Baltimore buildings ablaze, police cars destroyed, and protesters in gas masks. Print newspapers led their front-page coverage with "fiery images of angry protesters attacking police vehicles, looting and burning buildings ... police in riot gear and tense moments between law enforcement and demonstrators," according to American Journalism Review. Online publications continuously posted incendiary pictures showing lawlessness and destruction.

    (Photo courtesy of American Journalism Review)

    But the sensationalized images that dominated cable and print media coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson painted a misleading picture of the crises there. As many commentators noted, the scenes in Baltimore and Ferguson were significantly calmer and less sensational than media watchers would likely have realized. ColorOfChange.org warned reporters covering Ferguson that "stories coming out of many major media outlets [painting] a picture of total lawlessness ... could not be further from the truth." The Daily Show also mocked the breathless media coverage of disorder in Baltimore.

    Baltimore resident Danielle Williams also called out this type of selective reporting during an on-the-street interview with MSNBC's Thomas Roberts, saying "when we were out here protesting all last week for six days straight peacefully, there were no news cameras, there were no helicopters, there was no riot gear, and nobody heard us. So now that we've burned down buildings and set businesses on fire and looted buildings, now all of the sudden everybody wants to hear us."

    Media also often printed exaggerated headlines that were unsubstantiated by the article body. An April 2015 Economist article describing the Baltimore protests was headlined "It's Chaos" and said the demonstrations were "best described not as a riot but as anarchy."

    But the article noted that "few protesters or people [were] fighting the police or hurling stones" and that "people standing around [were] mostly taking photos on their phones." What was first labeled as "anarchy" was then chronicled as "groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies ... staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars."

    Likewise, a Wall Street Journal article was headlined "Arrests in Baltimore as Freddie Gray Protests Turn Violent." But the piece mostly hyped what was otherwise non-violent protesting, including an "impromptu 'die-in'" and "a small group [throwing] cans and plastic bottles in the direction of police officers."

    Newsrooms covering Baltimore and Ferguson also disseminated misinformation that often originated from local city and police department officials. On April 27, 2015, The Baltimore Sun reported that a mass police presence had been pre-emptively convened near a Baltimore mall because of a "flier that circulated widely" among students online advocating a "purge," referencing the 2013 movie The Purge that dramatized a night of lawlessness and anarchy.

    After Baltimore students finished school and headed toward the mall, they were greeted by police in riot gear. Because of the purge rumors, the police allegedly shut down the subway and blocked buses from leaving, leaving hundreds of students on the streets unable to get home. A violent clash ensued. Baltimore Police Department Capt. Kowalczyk said the police would identify and arrest "lawless individuals with no regard" for safety.

    But the purge rumor was immediately disputed. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) tried tracing The Baltimore Sun's account of the flier's distribution and said the evidence was "murky at best." FAIR noted how the Sun's shaky reporting ended up "creat[ing] a perception of actual danger that the proffered evidence doesn't substantiate." Mother Jones poked holes in the police's narrative that they responded to a "rumored plan" of students executing a purge, noting that "many of the kids, according to eyewitnesses, were stuck there because of police actions" -- not because they wanted to fight.

    Such shoddy reporting does more than run counter to journalistic ethics and best practices. Back in 1968, the Kerner report said the commission was "deeply concerned that millions of Americans, who must rely on the mass media, ... formed incorrect impressions and judgments about what went on in many American cities." 

    Ignoring Systemic Inequality Behind Unrest And Protests

    The Kerner Commission also harangued media for failing to investigate how systemic and institutional racism contributed to the riots:

    The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro's burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.

    [...]

    The media--especially television--also have failed to present and analyze to a sufficient extent the basic reasons for the disorders. ... [C]overage during the riot period itself gives far more emphasis to control of rioters and black-white confrontation than to the underlying causes of the disturbances.

    In 2014, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation analyzed over a thousand national and local newspapers articles and cable television news transcripts to determine what percentage of race and racism coverage was "systemically aware" -- meaning it "mentions or highlights policies and/or practices that lead to racial disparities; describes the root causes of disparities including the history and compounding effects of institutions; and/or describes or challenges the aforementioned."

    The study concluded that "most of the mainstream media's racism content is not 'systemically aware,'" finding that "about two out of three articles on race and racism failed to include a perspective with any insight on systemic-level racism." It also concluded that "very rarely" did media "feature prominent, robust coverage of racial justice advocacy or solutions."

    Media coverage of the events in Baltimore and Ferguson similarly failed to investigate the role systemic inequality and institutional racism played in creating unrest, denying audiences the ability to understand those news events in context.

    A second Race Forward analysis examined media's race coverage specific to the Ferguson protests, seeking to determine "how much attention [race is] actually getting in the coverage."

    The study found that media overwhelmingly failed to contextualize the Ferguson protests in a broader discussion of racist policing practices. The Race Forward report found that although nearly half of the articles included "terms such as 'race,' 'racial,' 'racism,' 'racist,' and 'diversity,'" "only 34 of 994 articles analyzed led with a minimally systemically aware perspective."

    During a contentious interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, explained how this kind of reporting skewed understandings of the protests in Baltimore:

    ADAM JACKSON: The fundamental problem with the coverage of these stories is that it's mired with racist subterfuge, because to talk about the violence that's going on in Baltimore, and not talking about the systemic inequalities and racist policing practices that have led us to this point, it posits a situation where we're talking about either high violence in our communities or racist police when ... the task should be to fix both.

    Following unrest in Ferguson after Darren Wilson was not indicted, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans noted that cable news coverage of Brown's death had largely avoided a broader discussion of systemic issues like "poverty, urban gangs, aggressive drug enforcement and more":

    [T]ackling a difficult story about race in a panel debate format doesn't serve the issue and distracts from the serious questions at hand. It only serves television news networks' need for conflict among well-known opinionators.

    Trying to talk about systemic racial issues during a crisis is always much harder.

    Lack Of Diversity In Newsrooms And Reporting

    The Kerner Commission also attributed media's distorted race coverage to a lack of diversity in the newsroom:

    The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.

    [...]

    If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of cities and problems of the black man -- for the two are increasingly intertwined -- they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.

    The lack of newsroom diversity is just as germane and dire in 2015 as it was nearly 50 years ago. In 1967, "fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business" were black, according to the Kerner Report. In 2015, 4.74 percent of newspaper employees were black, according to the latest data from the American Society of News Editors. Since 2000, the number of black journalists in newspaper newsrooms -- including supervisors, copy editors, producers, reporters, and photographers -- has dropped 52.3 percent.

    Some media leaders have sought to justify, or at least explain, these dismal numbers on newsroom diversity. Former Slate editor David Plotz said the recession caused newsrooms to go into "survival mode" and prioritize "saving ... jobs" over ensuring diversity. NYMag.com's Ben Williams said, "It's well-established that, in part due to economic reasons, not enough 'diverse' candidates enter journalism on the ground floor to begin with. So the biggest factor in improving newsroom diversity is getting more non-white male employees into the profession to begin with."

    But these arguments and others that invoke a so-called pipeline problem are "hollow," in the words of the Kerner Report. "The number of minorities graduating from journalism programs and applying for jobs doesn't seem to be the problem after all," Alex Williams wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015. According to his study, non-white graduates who "specialized in print or broadcasting" were 17 percent less likely to be hired by print and broadcast journalism organizations than non-minorities. "The problem," he wrote, "is that these candidates are not being hired."

    The Media As "Instruments Of The White Power Structure"

    The Kerner Report determined that the sweeping failure of media's race coverage in the 1960s had fostered a far-reaching sentiment of "distrust" in the black community for the media:

    [Persons interviewed] believe ... that the media are instruments of the white power structure. They think that these white interests guide the entire white community, from the journalists' friends and neighbors to city officials, police officers, and department store owners.

    Fifty years later, similar distrust of mainstream news media persists. A September 2014 survey by the American Press Institute found that 75 percent of African-Americans thought the press accurately portrayed African-American people and issues "moderately," "slightly," or "not at all." The authors posited that the "news ecosystem itself" -- one where the black community has scant access to black-centered news sources -- "is uneven, potentially creating uneven perceptions."

    Another survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that nearly 60 percent of African-Americans "say that news coverage of blacks is generally too negative." Conversely, 75 percent said coverage of whites was "too positive" or "generally fair." And a majority of African-Americans said the "amount of coverage news organizations give to race relations" is "too little."

    The media's flawed race coverage has real consequences. The Kerner Report warned, "If what the white American reads in the newspapers or sees on television conditions his expectation of what is ordinary and normal in the larger society, he will neither understand nor accept the black American." Today's flawed reporting continues to pose an obstacle to educating broader audiences about the realities of racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic inequality. 

    It Doesn't Have To Be This Way 

    The media hasn't always provided such skewed coverage of race, racism, and violence. During the 1950s and 1960s, the press played a key role in bringing to light the systematic discrimination of black Americans, helping to galvanize widespread reform.

    As detailed in Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff's book The Race Beat, a history of reporting during the Civil Rights era, Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist sent by the Carnegie Corporation to the American South, reported in the 1940s that the plight of black Americans could be improved only if white Americans in the North became aware of their struggle. Consequently, Myrdal wrote in the book An American Dilemma, "the future of race relations ... rested largely in the hands of the American press" exposing these racial crises.

    As the civil rights movement swept the nation, the press listened. Roberts and Klibanoff explained that the way the white press reported on race conspicuously improved over the next two decades, with newspapers opening new bureaus in the South, assigning full-time staff to cover the movement, and hiring black reporters. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a prominent civil rights leader during the time, told the authors, "If it hadn't been for the media -- the print media and television -- the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song."

    But when the demonstrations turned violent in the latter half of the 1960s, the authors write, the improvements in coverage slipped away. Whereas "white journalists" reporting on civil rights in the South "were threatened by white mobs and found safety in black neighborhoods," the journalists investigating rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965 "fled black mobs" and reported on the strife "from a distance, from outside the ghetto looking in." As the riots raged on, according to the book, black people saw the news "portray[ing] the militancy of black power" and "'simplistically' focusing on the violence and mayhem of the riots" without examining the underlying problems, leading to the problems detailed by the Kerner Commission and the way the media continues to report on race now.

    Fifty years ago, the Kerner Report urged the American media to begin the "painful process" of fixing its racial justice reporting. The fact that its criticisms are still so pertinent, and the historical example of responsible reporting throughout the civil rights movement, point to the need for higher standards in accurate, appropriate, and inclusive race coverage.

  • Las Vegas Review-Journal Follows Union Leader In Whitewashing Romney's "47 Percent" Comments

    Blog ››› ››› SALVATORE COLLELUORI

    Two days after the widespread publication of Mitt Romney's controversial declaration that 47 percent of Americans are "dependent on government," the largest newspaper in Nevada, a swing state in the 2012 election the 2012, has thus far failed to cover the story. Additionally, on September 18, the "Swing States Project" at the Columbia Journalism Review noted that another important swing state publication -- New Hampshire's Union Leader -- had also failed to cover the Romney comments.

    A story published yesterday by the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out that the New Hampshire Union Leader -- New Hampshire's largest newspaper by circulation according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations -- had failed to cover Mitt Romney's comments that 47 percent of Americans will support Obama "no matter what" and that they are "dependent upon government."

    While the Union Leader still has not published a news story on the topic, it did publish an editorial defending Romney's comments explaining that it was obviously a "statement of campaign strategy, not policy." From the editorial:

    Naturally, the media portray this as Romney not caring about half the country. Absurd. It was a statement of campaign strategy, not policy, and every single national political reporter knows that.

    In contrast to the Union Leader's limited attention to the issue, the Review-Journal -- Nevada's largest newspaper by circulation -- has not published anything on the subject at all, according to a Media Matters search of Nexis records and the Review-Journal website. In fact, despite not mentioning the comments once in its news or opinion sections, the Review-Journal has published two unrelated stories on Mitt Romney since Monday -- including a story discussing a private fundraiser Romney was planning on having in Las Vegas this Friday. 

    While 41 swing state newspapers made the Romney comments a front page story, the Review-Journal has mentioned it only once in an online-only blog post by opinion columnist and former publisher, Sherman Frederick, who, unsurprisingly, defended Romney for his "admirable truth-telling." Unfortunately, it seems that similar to the Union Leader, over 200,000 print subscribers of the Review-Journal can't count on their hometown paper to report a story with national implications if it doesn't look good for its preferred candidate. 

  • CJR's Salmon: New York Times "Budget Puzzle" skewed in favor of the rich

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    On Monday, I explained a few problems with the New York Times' attention-grabbing "Budget Puzzle," which encouraged readers to try to address short- and long- term budget shortfalls through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. One of those problems was what appeared to be a subtle bias against taxing the wealthy in the Times' description of estate tax options.

    As it turns out, Felix Salmon of the Columbia Journalism Review had some similar problems with the Times' approach:

    The too-hard part comes on the tax-hike side, where the options are far too limited. For instance, you have two choices when it comes to taxes on capital gains and dividends, both of which cap that tax at 20%. Can't I opt to raise that tax to the same level as the income tax? Even the deficit commission does that.

    Similarly, for the payroll tax, the most you can do is raise the ceiling so that it covers the same 90% of all income that it covered at inception; you can't raise it any further than that, or abolish the ceiling entirely.

    Most importantly, the options for new taxes are extremely constrained.

    I'd also love to see the option of a wealth tax, which could raise a lot of money from those most able to afford it.

    In my post, I noted that the Times did a poor job of explaining to readers the consequences of various options. According to Salmon, those consequences would generally be much worse for the poor and middle class than for the wealthy:

    In general, the NYT options on both the spending-cut and the tax-hike side tend to hit the poor and the middle classes more drastically than the rich; what's missing here is the option to implement something much more progressive, in both senses of the word. It's a missed opportunity, and a shame.

    As I noted on Monday, one of the biggest problems with the Times' approach was that it short-changed the importance of economic growth, both by focusing on the budget deficit rather than the struggling economy and by failing to give readers any indication of the impact their choices would have on growth. To his credit, David Leonhardt -- the Times reporter behind the "budget puzzle" -- devoted his column today to the importance of economic growth in reducing the deficit.

  • CJR to Media Research Center staffer: "You had a duty to be above board"

    Blog ››› ››› KARL FRISCH

    In a rather ironic chain of events, Media Research Center's Clay Waters inadvertently "outed" himself as "Sam Tyler" in the comments thread of a Columbia Journalism Review post on Facebook privacy.

    After posting back-to-back identical comments -- first as Clay Waters and then as Sam Tyler -- the MRC staffer fessed up:

    oops, outed myself! at least now I'm free....

    Posted by Clay Waters on Fri 14 May 2010 at 01:39 PM

    It wasn't long until CJR's Ryan Chittum weighed in (emphasis added):

    Clay,

    I think that there can be a need for pseudonymity (unfortunately) on the Internet. But my first instinct is that you had a duty to be above board with who you are here. You're paid to criticize the so-called liberal media by a right-wing advocacy group, Brent Bozell's Media Research Center.

    I would never comment on your site--or anybody else's--under a false name.

    I have previously outed an Obama administration flack for sockpuppeting on here. I don't think this rises to that level. But I don't think it's kosher, either. Do you think it'd be cool if somebody from Media Matters came on here and did that?

    Anyone else have any thoughts?

    Posted by Ryan Chittum on Fri 14 May 2010 at 06:02 PM

    I sort of feel bad for Waters. Looking at what MRC and NewsBusters consider to be good media criticism, I'd want some anonymity, too!

  • A few more notes on Mouthpiece Theater

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    CJR's Megan Garber continues her excellent coverage of the "Mouthpiece Theater" debacle with an explanation of why the "it was just an experiment" defense falls flat. Garber:

    Should Milbank and Cillizza-whose "experimental" journalism involved the duo dubbing themselves "two of the biggest maws in Washington" and treating politics as if it were alternately a sport/a game/a spectacle/an object of mockery-really be applauded for the reductive insult-to-all-involved that was "Mouthpiece Theater"? More to the point, was the series really embracing the kind of experimentation we want to see defining news's future?

    No. And: no. Experimentation may well be what will guide us out of the desert journalism is currently wandering; still, Hey, we were just experimenting! cannot be a blanket defense for the blanket abandonment of journalistic ideals. Which, in the end, is what "Mouthpiece Theater" was. In journalism, as in everything else, there are principles that must transcend platform-messages, as it were, that must transcend medium. Among them are: intellectual honesty, a commitment to information, and a fundamental seriousness of purpose. And that's so even when it comes to satire.

    There's much more; check it out.

    As Garber notes, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, after criticizing the execution of Mouthpiece Theater, wrote "Milbank and Cillizza should be applauded for embracing the spirit of experimentation underlying [the series]."

    Alexander was, at times, refreshingly blunt in his assessment of the videos. "Critics justly panned it as sophomoric," for example. And "There was so much wrong with 'Mouthpiece Theater' and the way The Post handled the controversy that it's hard to know where to begin."

    But his assessment also left a lot to be desired. He continued the Post's description of the videos as satire that went too far. I don't buy it. What were Chris Cillizza and Dana Milbank "satirizing" when they called Hillary Clinton a bitch and described a wife suing for divorce from a cheating spouse as a "bitter woman from hell"?

    Alexander -- like Milbank, Cillizza, and the Washington Post spokesperson who first commented on the controversy -- seems to think "satire" means simply "jokes." That isn't what "satire" means. This is:

    1. the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.

    2. a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.

    So, again: What human folly or vice were Cillizza and Milbank holding up to scorn, derision or ridicule? None. They skipped the "human folly or vice" part and went straight to scorn, derision and ridicule.

    What Milbank and Cillizza did wasn't satire that went too far. It was mean-spirited insults. There is a difference. Saying that they simply went too far in their satire lets them off the hook. It isn't a legitimate defense; it's spin.

    Speaking of letting them off the hook: Alexander suggests Cillizza's only flaw in this debacle was hanging out with the wrong crowd:

    The basic concept was flawed. Milbank might have pulled it off as a solo act. His Washington Sketch column can be biting and funny, and his occasional accompanying videos are creative and entertaining. It's his job to voice opinions. But Cillizza is different. He writes straight news on The Fix, his popular Post politics blog, and his stories appear on the news pages. Teaming with Milbank created a branding problem for him and The Post. It left readers confused about his true role -- reporter, commentator or comic? -- and about The Post's standards. Cillizza acknowledged this "somewhat discordant marriage" on The Fix after "Mouthpiece Theater" was killed.

    Alexander did not mention that Cillizza, not Milbank, was the one who attacked Chip Pickering's wife as a "bitter woman from hell." In fact, Alexander didn't mention that comment at all. Alexander is not alone in that -- I don't believe either Cillizza or the Post has ever acknowledged it. All parties seem content to let people believe Milbank's "bitch" comment was the only misogyny contained in the video. That is, perhaps, understandable coming from Cillizza and the Post -- they are, after all, concerned about the damage done to the branding of "The Fix." But readers might have expected better from the Post's Ombudsman.