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How journalists cover crime and policing in the wake of Ferguson

By Reade Levinson

Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri changed the way journalists cover law enforcement. At the 2016 IRE Conference in New Orleans, civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson joined reporters Oliver Laughland of the Guardian US, Errin Haines Whack of the Associated Press, and Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post to discuss what’s next for reporting on policing in America.

Before Ferguson, Lowery said, the American press was “pretty good” at addressing individual incidents of police violence, but ignored the larger system at play. “At the very beginning, so much of our coverage was about the micro level,” he added. “It was about this one shooting in this one place."

But Brown's case led to more scrutiny and investigation into systemic inequality.

Mckesson attributed the change in attitude in part to journalists reporting on protests in the streets of Ferguson. “We all have to be in this sort of traumatic experience together,” he said. “If we have to walk,” one activist had explained to a reporter, “you have to walk.”

Whack and Lowery spoke about their experiences reporting on the ground and how they began asking bigger questions after hearing story after story of police violence. “Every person would give you this anecdote,” Lowey said, “about why they don’t trust the police. It would be hyper-specific and every single time it would be the craziest thing you’d ever heard.”

The panel was asked the ways in which reporters’ own ethnicity and race affects coverage. Whack discussed feeling validated by finally having data to prove issues she already knew existed. The new flood of information also helped “dispel any 'biases' that black journalists might have in covering or wanting to cover these types of issues.”

For reporters looking to dig further, Mckesson recommended investigating:

  • The complaint process, especially the process involved in filing complaints against officers.

  • Civilian oversight boards. Often police chiefs are the final arbiter in internal disciplinary decisions, allowing them to circumvent the oversight boards.

  • Policies on “use of force.” For example, in many cities, it’s still legal for officers to use a chokehold.


Reade Levinson is a graduate student at Stanford University and a data intern at Thomson Reuters. As a radio reporter, she traveled to the Calais “Jungle” to report on an emerging program to teach refugees reporting skills so they can produce their own stories.

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