Pulitzer notes: A big win for the Globe; plus, ownership matters, and recognizing Darnella Frazier’s courage

Journalism is a field overrun with prizes. But the Pulitzers still matter — and the recognition shown The Boston Globe on Friday was impressive.

As you no doubt have heard, five current and former Globe journalists won in the Investigative Reporting category “for reporting that uncovered a systematic failure by state governments to share information about dangerous truck drivers that could have kept them off the road, prompting immediate reforms.” That’s the first time the Globe has been recognized for its investigative work since it won the Public Service Award in 2003 for its coverage of the pedophile-priest crisis in the Catholic Church.

The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing for its commentary on a zoning battle in Newton, and its sister publication Stat was a finalist in Breaking News for its coverage of COVID-19. One of the three Stat finalists was Sharon Begley, who died of lung cancer earlier this year.

In a video accompanying the Globe’s own coverage, editor Brian McGrory addressed a topic of vital importance — the role of a regional news organization in the powerful to account. Here’s part of what he said.

I was asked last night at a panel I was on about the lack of relevance, and how major metro newspapers are becoming decreasingly relevant in a really tough media age. And I thought about it for a minute, and I came to realize — not for the first time — I’ve been here 30-something years, and the Globe has never felt more relevant to the community than it does now. And all you have to do is look at the work we do day in and day out. The work that’s unfolding right now on the police department, on City Hall, on state government. Name a topic, and it’s every department firing on all cylinders.

Indeed, the Globe is driving the conversation on all of those stories, even amid fine work by other news organizations, including my friends at GBH News, WBUR, CommonWealth Magazine, The Bay State Banner, The Dorchester Reporter, DigBoston, local TV stations and others.

Ownership matters

Unfortunately, the Globe is unusual by the standards of 2021. Take a look at the list of Pulitzer winners. Overwhelmingly, the prizes went to news organizations with solid ownership. The Globe, of course, has been owned for the past seven-plus years by John Henry and Linda Pizzuti Henry, who have steered it to profitability and stability while maintaining the paper’s reporting capacity.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis is owned by another wealthy business person, Glen Taylor, who has revived a paper that was on the ropes not too many years ago. The Tampa Bay Times is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute — a situation that hasn’t been entirely happy, but that has resulted in more robust coverage than if it were owned by a for-profit chain.

The Marshall Project is a well-funded nonprofit. The New York Times, though a publicly traded company, has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. The Atlantic is largely owned by Laurene Powell Jobs, who inherited the late Steve Jobs’ fortune. BuzzFeed News is run as much for love as for profit.

I could go on, but you get the picture. All across the country, newsrooms at regional and local newspapers are being ravaged by corporate chains and hedge funds. The Pulitzers demonstrate, as I have said over and over, that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Speaking truth to power

There had been some buzz in recent weeks that a Pulitzer ought to be awarded to Darnella Frazier, the then-17-year-old who turned her smartphone camera toward George Floyd as he was being murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin.

The Pulitzer judges were thinking the same thing. Frazier was awarded a Special Citation “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”

Rarely has a Pulitzer been more deserved. But it will be for naught if that’s the end of it. Frazier’s work should inspire people everywhere to stand up for what is right. Without her bravery, Chauvin might still be on the beat, terrorizing the citizens of Minneapolis.

A teenager’s video of George Floyd’s murder changed the world. It should change journalism, too.

Photo (cc) 2020 by Chad Davis

Previously published at GBH News.

The video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of a police officer has changed the way many of us think about law enforcement, social justice and racial equity.

It should change the way we think about journalism, too.

For nine minutes and 29 seconds, Darnella Frazier pointed her smartphone at Derek Chauvin as he squeezed the life out of Floyd. It would have been an act of great courage for anyone to keep recording; that Frazier was only 17 made it all the more remarkable. As Roy Peter Clark wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab recently, Frazier should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

More than that, though, the video should force those of us in the news media to question the symbiotic relationship between reporters and the police — a relationship marked all too often by the police giving us good stories in return for our not asking too many questions.

Until this week I had spared myself the horror of watching the full video. The snippets that news organizations carried struck me as sufficient, and they are if all you’re looking for is a factual understanding of what happened. But to take in the whole scene is to be pulled into the moment — to become a frightened, angry spectator along with the crowd that gathered that day.

We see Chauvin grind his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd wails, “I can’t breathe!” and then “Mama, Mama.” We see Floyd fall silent and then go limp. We see Chauvin with a leer on his face while another officer, Tou Thao, impassively but menacingly keeps the bystanders back. We hear voices. “He’s not fucking moving!” “Check his pulse!” “You just really killed that man, bro.” We see an ambulance drive Floyd away.

Now consider what the official police report said. Here’s an excerpt: “Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

It is hard to imagine an account more false than this one. It is a foul lie. And here is where we need to think about how reporters go about doing their work and why that needs to change.

For generations, reporters at smaller news organizations — community newspapers for the most part — have covered police news by dropping by the police station, examining publicly available incident logs, interviewing the officer in charge about anything that seemed noteworthy, and then writing it up. Assaults, house break-ins, drunken driving arrests — it’s the ultimate in one-source reporting, and I did plenty of it when I was starting out in the 1980s.

That’s no longer good enough. In fact, it never was. Since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014, I think we’ve all come to understand that if police news is important enough to deserve coverage, then it is important enough to be reported thoroughly. That has only accelerated following the high-profile police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.

A tragedy such as the murder of George Floyd wouldn’t even make the paper in a large city like Minneapolis based on false police report that was filed. Without Frazier’s video, the truth probably never would have been known. But we now realize that the police are no more or less credible than any other people in authority whom we cover, and their words and actions need to be verified.

“The authoritative source was, and for many reporters still is, considered police officers, district attorneys, law enforcement in general,” my GBH News colleague Phillip Martin said recently on “The Scrum.” He added: “Now, many Black folk and brown folk have long been suspicious and skeptical of police and refused to accept their word for it. They had to prove it. But now we’re seeing that this is permeating in a broader sense, if you will…. Let’s just say liberal America has become more and more skeptical.”

Yet even if journalists understand that the old way of doing things has to change, there are some significant challenges to transforming that understanding into something better.

There are the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say — that is, the impossibility of knowing that what seems like a routine police report is anything but, as was the case with Floyd’s murder. We can’t check out everything, and if something seems non-newsworthy, it may just slip away.

There is the reality that newsrooms are becoming more and more strapped for reporting resources — a situation that became that much worse last Friday, when Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market newspapers fell into the hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, known for eviscerating its newsrooms.

There is the decline of the news media as a gatekeeper, with police departments themselves posting reports of arrests and other incidents on their websites and on social media with no independent verification.

Some news organizations, including the giant Gannett chain, have cut back or eliminated the publication of mugshots, especially for nonviolent crimes. A few papers, including The Boston Globe, are giving the subjects of old crime stories a chance to argue that those stories should be made invisible to search engines. Both of those steps help people who’ve been accused of crimes find employment and set their lives on a better path.

Perhaps most important, if a crime isn’t serious enough to warrant thorough reporting, then we shouldn’t report it at all.

Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, put it this way recently: “Media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge.”

Testifying at Chauvin’s trial, Darnella Frazier told the court: “It’s been nights I’ve stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

But there was nothing Frazier could have done except bear witness — which she did, thus changing the world. At its best, journalism is about bearing witness as well. Can we learn from a brave teenager with a smartphone? Can we resolve to do a better job of serving the communities we cover — by listening, and by seeking truth rather than taking dictation from those in authority?

The fate of journalism depends on getting the answers right — and on not letting this moment fade, unacted upon, into our collective memory.

Taking dictation from the police is no longer good enough. In fact, it never was.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Victoria Pickering

As you may have read elsewhere, the original police account of George Floyd’s death was mostly accurate yet completely false. It read in part:

Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of Derek Chauvin is likely to have long-lasting repercussions. One of those repercussions should be a rethinking of how journalists report routine police news. It has long been the custom for reporters at small community news organizations to visit the police station every morning, flip through the publicly available log, and report what’s there. If something seems interesting, the journalist might ask to see the incident report written up by an officer. And then this gets regurgitated, the ultimate in one-source reporting.

That’s how I did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s how we were all taught to do it. And in a large city like Minneapolis, a man who, according to police, died from medical issues while being arrested for forgery would probably not warrant a follow-up. You’d report it, and then you’d be on your way.

Interestingly enough, one of the papers I worked for in the early part of my career would not publish the names of people who’d been arrested and charged with a crime unless it was fairly big news. We younger reporters thought it was ridiculous, and we chafed at not being able to tell the whole story. But the editor, who was also one of the owners, explained that since our coverage of the court system was spotty at best, we’d likely never know if the person had been convicted or acquitted — and if it were the latter, we’d have smeared their reputation without cause. My editor was right, and ahead of his time. We were wrong.

Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on a case in Loveland, Colorado, where police last year arrested a 73-year-old woman who’d walked out of a Walmart with $13.88 worth of stuff without paying. It turns out that she had dementia and, as is clear from the police video, presented no threat to anyone. Yet she was thrown to the ground and handcuffed, with an officer twisting her arm in such a way that she suffered from a broken bone and a dislocated shoulder.

Can you imagine what the police log item might have looked like? No big deal, right?

The problems presented by taking the police at their word was the subject of an exchange the other day involving my GBH News colleague Saraya Wintersmith, South End News and Bay Windows publisher Sue O’Connell and me. (Note: Within the last few minutes I received a press release saying that O’Connell’s papers are up for sale. More to come.)

That, in turn, drew a comment from Julie Manganis, who covers the courts for The Salem News and its sister papers.

Manganis is right, but the News is unusual in its ongoing dedication to court reporting — and even then, most routine police news doesn’t rise to that level.

An additional complication is that many police departments now post their logs online. Under the state’s public records law, police departments must keep daily records of incidents and, in the case of arrests, the name, address and charge against the person who was detained. Members of the public, including journalists, are entitled to see this information. But now these items don’t even get the light vetting that might take place when a reporter asks an officer to explain something. It’s right out there for everyone to see.

Indeed, as I’m writing this, I’m looking at a report from one of the larger cities in the Boston area about a woman who was arrested and charged with trespassing. It’s a pretty thorough entry, and yes, it includes her name, age and address. It is probably accurate. I have no idea if it’s also true — that is, if it offers all the context we need to know to understand what happened.

Major crimes will always receive journalistic scrutiny. Official sources may have the upper hand early on, but as reporters keep digging, they’ll generally ferret out the truth. But we need a serious rethink of how we cover routine police news. And we need to do it at a time when local news resources are stretched to the limit.

One rule we might follow is that if an incident is so minor that it’s not worth devoting the resources to getting all sides, then it’s probably not worth reporting in the first place. But this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to practice ethical journalism at a time when the old ways of doing things are no longer good enough. And never were.

More: I’m pasting Paul Bass’ comment here because I think it adds some important information on how to do it the right way. Bass is the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit digital news organization.

We have always felt strongly at the Independent that media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge. I have personally gotten flak over the years from mainstream corporate journalists who felt outraged that we were being so “elitist.” The policy began after noticing that many Black people in new Haven were charged with crimes they didn’t commit. (See this Nieman Journalism Lab story.)

Spike Lee couldn’t anticipate Derek Chauvin’s depravity

Life imitates art imitates life. I was thinking of that on Tuesday as the three guilty verdicts were being announced in the case of Derek Chauvin, who killed — and we can now definitively say murdered — George Floyd.

Last summer, as part of a series of discussions our church was holding on racism, we watched “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s classic 1989 movie about race, police brutality and so much more. It is a great film. We saw it when it first came out, and it was a revelation to view it again more than 30 years later, with its rich depiction of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the uneasy truce between the white pizza shop owner and his Black customers.

But the climactic scene — the killing of Radio Raheem at the hands of a police officer — shows that Lee’s imagination did not anticipate the depravity of Derek Chauvin. Raheem is killed in a moment of panic as chaos erupts at the pizza shop. Chauvin deliberately jammed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes until his victim was good and dead.

Did Chauvin mean to kill Floyd? No one can know exactly what was in his tiny heart. But I’m guessing that the answer is yes. Maybe not before. And certainly not after, if only because he had to realize he’d just gotten himself into a world of trouble. But during, as he felt the power surge through him while Floyd gasped for air and called out for his mother? Yes. He had to know what he was doing. How could he not?

If you’ve never seen “Do the Right Thing,” well, do the right thing and watch it. And think about how little has changed over the past three decades. The Floyd family received some measure of justice, but it’s difficult to imagine what the outcome would have been if not for the video shot by Darnella Frazier. Or maybe it’s not difficult to imagine.

Pulsing throughout “Do the Right Thing” is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The fight isn’t over by any means.

Words are inadequate to describe the ongoing police assault on Black lives

The must-see video clip from Monday night’s protests in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, features CNN reporter Sara Sidner. Though she makes the interview about herself to an uncomfortable degree, there’s also some real power in hearing her unnamed interview subject describe what’s going on in plain and profane language.

Tom Jones of Poynter put it this way:

The language was R-rated, and yet credit CNN for staying with the interview. Most networks would have dumped out after someone started repeating expletives, but CNN wisely hung in there because it felt as if the man had something important to say. Sidner did a good job keeping the interview going and allowing the man to say what he wanted to say.

If you back up and try to look at the big picture, it’s so overwhelming that words are inadequate. The protests were in response to the police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man whose car had been pulled over, reportedly because the license tags had expired. There was a struggle after police discovered a warrant for Wright’s arrest and they tried to take him into custody. One officer, Kim Potter, fatally shot Wright because, we are told, she meant to use her Taser and pulled her gun by mistake — an excuse that clearly needs thorough investigation.

All of this was playing out as the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-police offer who killed George Floyd, was taking place nearby, and against a backdrop of Black men (and a few women) being killed or harassed by police officers. Among them: National Guard officer and war veteran Isiah Jones, who was assaulted by police in Virginia last year as he was politely asking why he had been pulled over. Video of that encounter recent went viral.

A moment of fury and grace from the late Gil-Scott Heron

This morning is a time when the racial injustice that continues to run rampant is hitting home particularly hard. The Derek Chauvin trial, which is proving to be every bit as heartbreaking and enraging as it was a year ago, when we watched him kill George Floyd. The ongoing struggle over Georgia’s new racist voter-suppression law.

And it turns out that it’s the late, great Gil Scott-Heron’s birthday, which Brendan was taking note of on WUMB. So here he is performing the incandescent “Johannesburg” in 1976.