The Minnesota journalists of colour changing the way policing is covered in America amid the Derek Chauvin trial

Journalists in state are on cutting edge of covering race and policing after struggling with big questions about doing it right

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 02 April 2021 23:35
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<p>MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Attorney Ben Crump (C), surrounded by family of George Floyd, speaks to media gathered outside the Hennepin County Family Justice Center after a pretrial hearing for the four former Minneapolis Police officers charged in the death of George Floyd on September 11, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Crump is representing George Floyd's family. </p>

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Attorney Ben Crump (C), surrounded by family of George Floyd, speaks to media gathered outside the Hennepin County Family Justice Center after a pretrial hearing for the four former Minneapolis Police officers charged in the death of George Floyd on September 11, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Crump is representing George Floyd's family.

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Last August, amid massive civil rights protests following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, a group of protestors in the Minneapolis suburbs destroyed a piñata with the likeness of reporter Liz Collin, an anchor at the local WCCO TV station.

They were there because it had only recently been publicly disclosed that Ms Collin is married to Bob Kroll, the outspoken former head of the Minneapolis police union, who was a campaign speaker for Donald Trump and once called Mr Floyd a “violent criminal.” Even though, according to WCCO, Ms Collin didn’t directly cover Minneapolis police, she had previously reported on high-profile incidents involving the police and people of colour in the Twin Cities, like the death of Philando Castile. (The Independent reached out to Ms Collin for comment.)

Journalists across the Twin Cities condemned destroying the likeness of Ms Collin, but the incident speaks to a deeper tension running just underneath the surface of George Floyd’s death. There is a deep relationship between law enforcement, the media, and how the public at large conceives of policing, and critics say mainstream and liberal media outlets often vastly downplay the extent of systemic racism and exclude all but the most attention-grabbing non-white voices and stories.

It’s a tension that has never been more present than now as reporters from around the world converge on Minneapolis for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer charged with murdering Mr Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes last May. But a cohort of journalists of colour and indigenous backgrounds in Minnesota are pioneering new ways, and upholding long standing traditions, of coverage that goes deeper than the familiar, ostensibly neutral “both sides” framing of common news stories, and gets at something much harder to pin down: the truth about racism in America.

Among those projects is a new initiative called Racial Reckoning: The Arc of Justice, a collaboration between the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations (Ampers), the Minnesota Humanities Center, and KMOJ, a popular African-American radio station in Minneapolis.

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A team of journalists who are Black, indigenous, and people of colour have been covering the Chauvin trial daily on the radio as it unfolds, plus producing weekly updates in Spanish, Somali, and Hmong to reach the Twin Cities’ diverse immigrant communities, as well as the roughly 240,000 people listening statewide. Other media outlets can request free use of their stories.

Georgia Fort grew up in the Twin Cities and is the lead reporter for the project. She says that the mainstream media is often disconnected from the Black communities it storms into when it reports on police brutality cases, and tends to mostly rely on government sources like police and local politicians. Their perspectives are important, of course, but Ms Fort says a built-in bias for official accounts rarely conveys the lived experiences of those at the heart of the story.

“You get a whole community who feels ignored and unheard, and who feels gaslit, because their experiences are not being shared,” she said. “We saw that bubble over this summer.”

Joel Glaser, the CEO of Ampers, says the project’s unofficial motto is “nothing about us without us.”

“Everybody brings their own perspective and life experience to a news story,” he said. “You can try to be culturally aware, but you haven’t walked in their shoes.”

Others, like Mel Reeves, community editor of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a long-running Black paper in the area, are taking an explicitly activist approach to covering the story of George Floyd.

Mr Reeves is part of a deep social justice legacy in America’s African-American press, which runs from the present back to 1800s figures like former slave Fredrick Douglass, who founded the abolitionist North Star newspaper, and Ida B. Wells, who did groundbreaking reporting and advocacy to stop the lynching of Black Americans.

“I’m an activist, more than anything else. I’m writing so that people can change some things at some point,” Mr Reeves told The Independent. “We’re writing to Black people, people of colour, poor white folks.”

He thinks that all media outlets, especially large mainstream ones, which are often largely owned, produced, read, and funded by well-off white people, should also be thought of in straightforwardly ideological, class-based terms.

“They’re not objective,” he said. “Neither are we. We tell it from the bottom. They tell it from the top.”

Another community-oriented journalist taking a similar approach is independent reporter and photographer King Demetrius Pendleton, who is sometimes nicknamed BlackCNN and has experience covering policing in the Twin Cities.

At the start of the trial, he wrote candidly about the dismissal of juror number 76, a Black man who spoke in court about systemic bias against Black people in the justice system before being excused from the trial, prompting fierce condemnations from activists.

“Having previously served his country in the Army, Juror #76 was good enough to participate in the country’s wars, but he was not considered good enough to serve a civic duty to determine whether or not an unarmed man, calling for his Mama, telling Chauvin and the other police officers that he could not breathe for at least eight minutes and 46 seconds, is guilty or not of murder,” Mr Pendleton wrote in a reflection on the jury selection process. “Dismissing a man like Juror #76, raises serious questions about our justice system. This experience will sit with me for a long time.”

Other outlets, like Minnesota Public Radio, have experienced journalists of colour leading their George Floyd coverage as well. The station has created a number of in-depth investigative podcasts about racism and policing, such as “In Front of Our Eyes,” about the Chauvin case, and “74 Seconds,” about how police shot Mr Castile. (I was an intern at MPR during university in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t work for any of the projects or journalists described in this article).

Sahan Journal, an immigrant-focused digital outlet in the Twin Cities founded by Somali American journalist Mukhtar Ibrahim, has taken the uncommon step of opting out of daily coverage of the highly watched Chauvin trial. Instead, according to Mr Ibrahim, the executive editor, it’s prioritising a more holistic strategy.

“Instead of covering the day-to-day proceedings of the Chauvin trial, Sahan Journal is focusing its coverage on the people and communities who are most affected by what will happen,” Mr Ibrahim said on Twitter ahead of the trial. “I wish news organisations in Minnesota could have collaborated on the coverage of the Chauvin trial. They could have left their egos aside to combine their resources, share content, and produce more impactful coverage outside the courtroom.”

There are also the numerous people who have used their smart phones to capture everything from Mr Floyd’s death to the massive protests that followed, as well as outlets like Unicorn Riot, a decentralised reporting network based partially in Minneapolis, which is known for its extended livestreams of protests.

According to communications scholars, adopting a more pointed, holistic way of reporting on racism and policing is important because for many people without direct experiences with these subjects, the media is all they have to form their understanding.

Danielle Kilgo, a professor of journalism, diversity and equality at the University of Minnesota, says media coverage of civil rights protests often focuses so much on violence or anger, particularly if it’s expressed by people of colour, that it obscures the deeper issues about why people are in the streets in the first place and often makes the public less supportive of social movements.

There’s an old, crude media adage, “If it bleeds, it leads”. Coverage of the large, multi-racial, overwhelmingly peaceful protests in the wake of George Floyd’s alleged murder often zeroed in on burning buildings or clashes between police and demonstrators.

“There’s more emphasis on the potential for violence, people being divided, than there is a thorough discussion of people who have died of issues with police violence and brutality, the substance,” Ms Kilgo said. “When that is the trend, and this is what it looks like, and we have all these stereotypes that have been reinforced for centuries in the news media, it helps contribute to this division in public support.”

This type of framing is what University of Wisconsin journalism and communications professor Douglas M McLeod has identified as the “protest paradigm”. He said it often morphs into the official account of any social movement in the minds of the public and elected leaders, flattening meaningful context into a reductive frame of reference.

“The same scenes get repeated over and over again, which kind of multiples their impact to the point where violence becomes the narrative, and then it gets picked up by opposition groups, and reified in terms of a label,” Mr McLeod toldThe Independent. “You heard in a lot of the discourse surrounding the Capitol building invasion the opposition saying, the what-about-ism, ‘The other side, well look at what they were doing to encourage all the violence that was taking place this summer.’”

But before journalists of colour in Minnesota were leading the way about how to move beyond this sort of shallow reporting, they were struggling with these same questions about objectivity, depth, and representation themselves.

At the Minneapolis StarTribune, the Twin Cities’ most prominent paper, its journalists of colour were contending with being under-represented within the newsroom while being called upon to cover graphic violence against people who looked like them outside of it. 

Kyndell Harkness, a veteran photo journalist, said things eventually reached a breaking point last summer. A managing editor, Suki Dardarian, reached out to her and asked how the Black journalists in the newsroom were faring at such an intense moment.

“That would be the first time that that occurred,” Ms Harkness said. “Being the journalist that I am, I was like, ‘I don’t know, let me ask.’”

She realised that many of her colleagues were struggling, and soon they got together to write an open letter to management faulting the paper for its “systemic centering of whiteness” in its coverage and its hiring decisions.

Ms Harkness was eventually named the paper’s first ever editor for diversity and community.

The moment also inspired journalists of colour inside the newsroom to create private channels where they could talk with each other and share their experiences, which Ms Harkness credits for making the job more manageable, and also inspired white staffers to comfort their colleagues at traumatic moments, such as the recent shootings of Asian-American women in Georgia.

“Lots of eyes have been open since the summer about what that burden looks like,” she says. “As a journalist of colour, when you have people who don’t look like you who are checking in to make sure you’re ok and being good citizens of our newsroom, that makes a difference. Then you don’t feel like your only avenue is to go on Twitter and just scream.”

Other high-profile news outlets, like the New York Times, have struggled with messy, public conversations about how to honour the experiences, opinions, and personal safety of the paper’s journalists of colour with the paper’s editorial stance and social media policies.

Jeffrey Bissoy, is a former reporter at MPR who grew up 14 blocks from where Mr Floyd died, after he and his mother immigrated from Cameroon. He went on to found Plugged, an app that connects companies with Black talent. He says he was inspired to start the project after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor so he could help media outlets and other institutions find ways to make themselves look more like the communities they serve.

“You have to build relationships with them,” he told me. “You have to be present. MPR News and a bunch of other news organisations learned this after the police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis [in 2015]. Many of those news organizations showed up to North Minneapolis, and North Minneapolis residents were like, get out of here. You’re coming in for the first time.”

Now as the trial progresses, this cadre of reporters has a few recommendations for the media as it comes to Minneapolis, and the millions of people who will form their understandings about this community from the reporting that they see.

The first is to understand that there is far more going on than just a trial.

“This is not a new issue, but every time, for whatever reason, a case fits the parameters or someone, usually now, this is what happens, someone gets footage of it and puts it online, that’s when mainstream media wants to pay attention,” Ms Fort, the Racial Reckoning reporter, said. “Now the Black community is being re-traumatised by seeing another unarmed Black person being killed on live TV. So mainstream media, what they can do better is stop only focusing on the high-profile cases, and focus on some of the cases people don’t even know about.”

There’s also the fact that despite the central role Mr Floyd and information about his life has played in media coverage and the courtroom, he’s not the one on trial.

Mr Bissoy, the Plugged founder, says it’s also important for people to remember communities of colour are not exclusively defined by suffering and violence, even if that’s most commonly when some media outlets decide to cover them.

“You come here when we’re grieving, but not when we’re expanding and innovating and celebrating,” he said. “That’s the mindset that needs to shift to tell unique stories.”

At the StarTribune, Ms Harkness and others have decided they won’t even publish photographs of Mr Chauvin kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck. The circumstances of the case are weighty enough, she told me, and blasting that image over and over again can harm readers and begins to obscure more nuanced questions.

Coverage of the trial so far, including that of The Independent, has focused intently on the minute dynamics of each day in court, rather than big-picture forces that created the case in the first place. Why did George Floyd need to use a counterfeit $20 bill, or struggle to kick an addiction to opioids like so many Americans? Why was he worried he would be at risk of Covid if he went to jail? Did racial bias play a role in the decision of multiple officers to kneel on his back and neck while he was unconscious in handcuffs?

But the system is not on trial, much as these questions are salient ones. Just one man is: Derek Chauvin, and the verdict will come down to narrow questions of how he applied police training and what medical evidence suggests Mr Floyd died from. Whatever a jury decides later this month, that likely will not provide closure to the millions of people who protested against racism after Mr Floyd died.

“The narrative of policing and courts allows us to pretend there is order in our world: There are clear good guys, clear bad guys, and, hopefully, a tidy resolution—the bad guy gets caught; the victim, whether dead or alive, gets some semblance of justice,” journalist and critic PE Moskowitz has written.

A truly inquisitive press, professor Kilgo argues, will keep probing deep questions rather than focus on sensational violence like a trial about a knee to the neck, or a protest with a burning police car.

“The trauma and the injury from racism is just as sensationally atrocious,” she said. “People die from it every day. Whether it’s an internalised health outcome or another shooting. There’s all kinds of ways that this plays out in the lives of people of colour. Find the sensationalism in that and balance it out so you can really educate the public about what’s happening.”

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