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
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
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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