CAMP 2015: Covering race, police and communities

JAWS CAMP 2015 l

By Lisa Maria Garza, 2015 JAWS Fellow

(L-R) Investigative Fund Fellow Carla Murphy, Washington Post reporter Cheryl Thompson and National Public Radio correspondent Cheryl Corley discuss strategies that go beyond citing police reports to find deeper stories that explore the link between racism and law enforcement. (Photo by Lisa Maria Garza)

(L-R) Investigative Fund Fellow Carla Murphy, Washington Post reporter Cheryl Thompson and National Public Radio correspondent Cheryl Corley discuss strategies that go beyond citing police reports to find deeper stories that explore the link between racism and law enforcement. (Photo by Lisa Maria Garza)

Journalists who cover race and police issues in America tend to parachute into communities, focus on the loudest voices and ignore the real issue of racism, panelists discussed Saturday at JAWS.

In the aftermath of the Freddie Gray shooting, worldwide media played on loop a clip of black people looting a CVS store in Baltimore as it burned to the ground during street protests that showcased obvious tension with police, panelists and attendees said.

“No one showed the picture of people coming the next day to clean the CVS,” said Susy Schultz, outgoing JAWS vice president and Community Media Workshop president at a session titled “Covering Race, Police & Communities.”

Schultz’s organization, Community Media Workshop at Columbia College Chicago, has developed best practices, tips and advice for reporting on race and police issues, which are available online.

The session attracted an overflow crowd, which sat on the floor and spilled into the hallway. In covering the fatal officer-involved shooting such as in the cases of Michael Brown and Walter Scott, mainstream media tends to follow a standard formula of coverage, the panelists said.

They said that reporters and photographers are parachuted into a scene of public unrest, looking for an angry resident to interview or to capture an emotional image that goes viral. That tactic is similar to the way reporters cover wars, the panelists said, while journalists instead should strive for “peace reporting.”

“We need to tell a story other than grieving mother with her hands up,” said Cheryl Corley, a National Public Radio correspondent. Ask yourself, “How can I make this story real?”

To enhance stories, she uses the “Corley S” system, which involves using sound, scene, sensitivity and simplicity to make complex situations understandable for her audience.

She advised reporters to talk to people in the community before talking to official sources during coverage to get the real story on the ground, Corley said.

In some neighborhoods, the media is as discredited an institution as the police, said Carla Murphy, a fellow at The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Reach out to trusted residents, preachers, activists or even the neighborhood mom to develop sources within the community, Murphy said.

Cheryl W. Thompson, a reporter at The Washington Post, said, “Go into communities before big stories happen, so people don’t think they’re being used.”

So far this year, police officers have shot and killed more than 750 people in the United States, according to a Washington Post database tracking law enforcement shootings.

“We need to do a better job reporting how police interpret the law on the street,” Murphy said.

Reporters should always ask, “How does race play into this?”