Do News Media Rely Too Much on ‘Police Said’?

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Brunswick, Ga., police offered few details about an African-American man shot to death on a residential street — no suspects, no arrests, not even his name. Reporter Larry Hobbs of the Brunswick News thought, “This is starting to stink.” A month later, Hobbs reported how unarmed Ahmaud Arbery was attacked by three men who suspected him of burglary. It is among high-profile stories that have caused newsrooms to reflect on reporters’ reliance on police accounts of violent incidents, the Washington Post reports. In several cases, cellphone video dramatically contradicted police accounts. “The police shoots somebody, and right away the mainstream press reports the police version,” said editor Mel Reeves of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, which serves African Americans. “What the police tell you initially is a rumor…and a lot of the times it’s not accurate.”

Minneapolis police didn’t initially mention that an officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. Louisville police listed Breonna Taylor’s injuries as “none” after shooting her eight times during a raid. After Floyd died, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Libor Jany learned of a video showing a very different account from the official one. After he described the video, police walked backed their description. When crime reporter David Ovalle got to the Miami Herald in 2002, reporters would comb through personnel files on officers who fired weapons. “We just don’t have the bodies to do that anymore,” Ovalle said. Some news organizations stopped publishing booking photos because “mug shot” galleries can inflame racial stereotypes and stigmatize innocent people when they turn up years later.  Some want to downplay police-blotter stories because they rely on police say-so. Forty organizations want the Philadelphia Inquirer to avoid stories using police as the sole source. The coalition favors an appeal process for people in crime stories to have them removed from the paper’s website.

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