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A Turn for the Better
The Journal Sentinel’s latest series on law enforcement avoids the mistakes of past work – and readers are better served as a result.


More like this please.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened up my Sunday Journal Sentinel and saw Gina Barton’s latest Watchdog report on the criminal justice system – this one on deaths in police custody.

 

I think Barton has done important work over the years. Investigative reporting on law enforcement can be among the most thankless of jobs in journalism.

 

At the same time, I’ve been highly critical of some of the newspaper’s ventures into this topic – most notably its ham-fisted coverage on mistakes in police crime statistics, which I wrote about here and here.

 

(To recap quickly: The paper asked for police administration comment the day before the story ran – which meant it had no way to investigate and assess the legitimacy of Police Chief Ed Flynn’s explanation of the errors as a technical glitch. Additionally, significant data points that would put the findings into perspective were missing. The tone implied a deliberate attempt to cook the books while lacking the kind of evidence necessary to support such a sensational charge. And a subsequent examination of the issue by Bruce Murphy at Urban Milwaukee suggested there was even less to the subject than would meet the eye.)

 

Barton’s series “Both Sides of the Law” a few years back on officers with criminal convictions was definitely a worthy topic, yet, as I noted at the time, that treatment was flawed in significant ways, too.

 

As I’ve read through the latest series, I’m frankly gratified to see those flaws aren’t repeated.

 

Barton’s analysis is on point. The tone of the piece is measured. It sticks to reporting what can be demonstrably supported, rather than relying on insinuation and implication.

 

It looks beyond personalities to systemic flaws. That’s not to say that journalists shouldn’t name names when it’s clear that responsibility lies with an individual actor for a wrong that needs correction.

 

But by the same token, to cast an individual – Flynn or anyone else – as the villain when the facts point to a more complicated and nuanced conclusion is sloppy journalism at best, journalistic malpractice at worst.

 

And these latest stories air conflicting information in a way that seems balanced and fair to all parties. An example is coverage in the first installment of the phenomenon of so-called “excited delirium” – the putative cause in several death-in-custody cases.

 

I’m disappointed, though not surprised, that neither Flynn nor District Attorney John Chisholm agreed to be interviewed for the series. Both of them similarly declined comment to the newspaper for the “Both Sides of the Law” series – which, as I wrote at the time, I believed was a mistake on their part.

 

Barton’s report, in contrast to the crime data series, extended much more courtesy to the officials: It noted that the newspaper had presented to the DA’s office its findings and “a detailed list of questions several months before publication.”

 

Again, I think the officials were mistaken in choosing not to be interviewed. Perhaps previous flawed coverage justifies the silence in their minds. But it doesn’t in the long run serve their interests, or the interests of the public.

 

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