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Covering 21st century policing in the social media age

By Andrew Kreighbaum

Washington Post reporter Kimberly Kindy said social media has had a profound role in shaping the paper’s coverage of police shootings in 2015. When someone is shot and killed by an officer, readers demand answers in real time from both authorities and the media. Quantifying the issue helps journalists answer those questions quicker, Kindy said.

She and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Brad Schrade spoke about the power of counting in reporting on police shootings.

“The questions that were swirling in social media helped us decide in many respects what we needed to tackle,” Kindy said.

She and fellow Post reporter Kimbriell Kelly found last year that among thousands of fatal shootings in 2015, only 54 officers faced charges. Kindy said they created a database for tracking those cases as they were reading the documents and news stories about the shootings.

Counting an issue like police shootings is the difference between being able to tell a heartbreaking story about one family’s loss and starting to answer questions.

Schrade’s reporting for the Journal-Constitution revealed that half of the Georgians shot and killed by police since 2010 were unarmed or shot in the back. Working with reporters from news station WSB-TV, the newspaper tracked a massive amount of shootings with an online app used internally. That reporting surprised even some Georgia police chiefs, who said they would incorporate the reporters’ findings into their training.

“I really believe they’ve been caught flat-footed by not analyzing this data and publicly reporting it in a credible way in an era of social media when these things can explode,” he said.

Ronal Serpas, a former police chief in New Orleans and Nashville, said that much of the reporting on police shootings hasn’t taken into account context, such as the state of mental health treatment. He urged journalists to reflect those realities.

“The defunding of mental health treatment in America has resulted in police officers confronting the very people who should be confronted by physicians and nurses, not police officers,” he said.

Serpas also said reporters should demand accountability not just from police departments, but mayors and lawmakers, who enact the rules that make it tougher to fire problem officers.


Andrew Kreighbaum is currently a graduate researcher at the Investigative Reporting Workshop and recently finished a master's degree in journalism at the University of Missouri. He has previously reported on education and local government for newspapers in Texas including The El Paso Times, The Monitor and the Laredo Morning Times.

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